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The breathtaking Chicago theater that’s been closed for 40 years

By Nathaniel Hamilton

Even though it’s sat dormant, waiting for its resurgence as Chicago’s leading music and entertainment venue, The Uptown Theater on the city’s North Side is one of the most incredible buildings in the city. 

The Uptown Theater opened in August 1925. Its first marquee read, “ONE OF THE GREAT ART BUILDINGS OF THE WORLD – AN ACRE OF SEATS” and the building lived up to its own hype. Originally a movie theater, the Uptown featured state-of-the-art technology like the world’s largest and most modern “freezing and air-washing” plant which pumped cool air into the auditorium and bragged to replace the air in the theater every two minutes. It’s rumored that doctors even prescribed patients with respiratory problems to sit in the Uptown and take advantage of the cool, clean air inside. 

If you were a movie buff in the 1920s and 30s, you needed to be at the Uptown. The theater would regularly pack its 4,400 seats with Chicagoans excited to watch the top silent movies of early Hollywood. If you wanted to see the latest films of America’s silent film stars like Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, or Charlie Chaplin, the Uptown Theater was the place to do it.

The Uptown was forced to evolve as Americans’ entertainment habits changed and people watching TV at home stopped flocking by the thousands to movie showings. So starting in the 70s, the Uptown became one of Chicago’s most sought-after music venues for major bands and artists coming to town. The Uptown hosted iconic performers like Boston, Hall & Oats, Peter Gabriel, Supertramp, Foreigner, the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, the Allman Brothers Band, Prince, Kansas, Elvis Costello, and Alice Cooper. 

They all rocked the Uptown. 

Unfortunately, in the early 1980s the theater began falling more and more into disrepair and eventually after burst pipes flooded parts of the theater, the Uptown’s owners closed the building for good in 1981. But as soon as the Uptown’s lights went dark, there began a steady drumbeat to bring it back to life. Today, JAM Productions owns the theater and has been working on plans to revitalize it and open it to the public again. While COVID didn’t do the theater’s revitalization any favors, the effort continues and hopefully soon, theater, music, and history lovers will be able to marvel at the incredible Uptown in all its glory.