TL;DR: Historic, doomed vaudeville-turned-movie house thrown away by city government.
History: Situated in the heart of its later-namesake Illinois town, the originally-named Alcyon Theater began entertaining the suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore as a single-stage vaudeville house in 1925. It was designed by William D. Mann in a Tudor-revival style, and opened as part of a small chain of theaters owned by Louis Laemmle. Louis’ brother, Carl, is the founder of Universal Pictures.
By 1965, vaudeville finally gave way to motion pictures when the auditorium and stage were carved into three cinema screens (with a fourth built from scratch) seating a total of 965 moviegoers – down from 1,100 in its vaudeville incarnation. The theater also changed names and installed a rather unique marquee with the letterboard only facing west, and a lighted, colorful tile pattern underneath. It enjoyed another 40+ years of success – in later years, as an indie and foreign house – even after a modern five-screen cinema was opened just a couple blocks away in 2000.
Initially appearing to see its community value, in 2009 the city of Highland Park purchased the theater for $2.1m and took over interim operations. This would come to be two-faced, as just three years later it was shuttered on May 6, 2012, after failing a fire safety inspection when a grocery list of the city’s own code violations were discovered. A grassroots organization: the Alcyon Foundation, formed in an effort to save the theater and revert it back to its performing arts roots, however it failed to generate public interest. After years of further decay, Highland Park finally sold the theater to a development firm at a million-dollar loss in late-2016, and several months later: unanimously approved plans to demolish it for a new retail/restaurant and office building.
Explore: Shortly before its death warrant was signed, an online auction company was brought in to spiff the place up and sell whatever was left inside… seats, screens, projection and audio equipment, light fixtures… everything. Unfortunately it seems this never happened, as nearly everything but the snack bar equipment was left behind, and the power was (mostly, seemed like it was down a phase) still on by the time we got to it – months after this auction was to take place. It was the strangest thing getting in here one night, and finding all of the ceiling fans still spinning away for nobody, in the dead-middle of a typical frigid Chicago winter.
The English theme may not match the grandeur of other local theaters of this era, such as the Genesee, but hints of Tudor charm are still found throughout its lobby and concession area.
The original Alcyon auditorium was split down the middle into two screens, with a large booth overhead housing the projection booth for the second theater, and subwoofer boxes directly behind the screen for the main theater. The finer details could be found in these two theaters – but moreso in theater one, the largest auditorium.
Decorative plaster – at this point, beginning to deteriorate – lines the balcony walls. Ornate wood fittings still adorn the balcony edges and above the emergency exits. Iron wall sconces could, at one point, be found on both levels but seem to have been already yanked from the seating area. The ones on the balcony still worked.
Less care was put into preserving what became theater two, however the aforementioned plaster continues even through the projection room, and some wood fittings near the stage were retained. The screen area is said to have inspired the set design for Sneak Previews – the televised movie review show hosted by famed Chicago movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The rest of the auditorium reeks of the mid-sixties tastes found in the remaining two theaters. The wall to the left of the stage is staggered a bit to accommodate a narrow emergency exit hallway for theater four.
The third, and smallest, theater appears to have been crammed into the full width of the original stage from its vaudeville days. The main lights were dead in here, with only the runway lights and ceiling fans working – so I had to light paint this one.
Beneath this theater screen, hidden behind a stage panel, are stairs leading to the cobweb-infested basement, which still hid a couple of dressing rooms and mirrors from the vaudeville-era, complete with faded graffiti from a Yugoslavian & Spanish troupe dated October 30, 1927. The Alcyon Theater and Highland Park are faintly noted. There is more but I couldn’t make the words out.
A stairway in the lobby led to the last theater: crammed onto the second floor, just left of the original auditorium. These lights also didn’t work, but there was a little more room for creative freedom, here.
The projection booths all still feature 60s-vintage, RCA Photophone projectors; likely a deciding factor in the city not bringing the building up to code, as projection would have needed to go digital. I tried, but was unable to get any projectors to power on. Several movie trailers, circa-2012 or so, and random bits of projection equipment (lenses, cabinets, power rewinders, etc.) that were supposed to be auctioned off could also still be found scattered about.
An employee door just beyond the entrance to the theater four leads to the balcony – which oddly was not a remnant of its vaudeville days. There was no seating up here – it served only as access to the projection booths and retail/office areas above the lobby. All of which had long been cleaned out, already.
I kept checking various breaker boxes throughout the theater to see if I could kick-on the non-working lights. Unfortunately none worked, however as I was preparing to bounce I came across a particular set in the box office… the marquee. I cracked open an outside door to see what kind of activity was in the area, and feeling the risk for alarm was minimal, gave it a whirl.
It worked, and it would be the last time it was ever turned on…
Now late into the night: I killed the lights, locked the place up and slipped back into darkness. No alarms, no nosy locals, no trouble at all with this one. About a month later I learned the power was finally cut, and the city was inching closer toward bringing its demise.
Sadly there was no effort since the failure of the Alcyon Foundation to save the Highland Park Theater, and the city finally moved to begin demolition in June 2018. They were not gentle… unfortunately the city’s idea of “preserving the marquee” involved heavy use of a sawzall.