The Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Chicago’s Loop – since renamed the James M. Nederlander Theatre – first opened as the Oriental Theatre on May 8, 1926.
The Oriental Theatre, designed by the architectural firm of Cornelius Ward Rapp (1861-1926) and George Leslie Rapp (1878-1941) was one of the many ornate movie palaces built, as its name implied, in a style inspired by a Western fantasia of India and South Asian themes and motifs.
Rapp & Rapp, alumni of the University of Illinois School of Architecture, designed scores of theatres across the country in the first decades of the 20th century. In Chicago the architectural firm notably designed State Street’s Chicago Theatre (1921) as well as the Bismarck Hotel and Theatre (1926). They built the Paramount Theatres in New York City (1926) in Times Square and in Aurora, Illinois (1931). In the mid1990s, after the Oriental Theatre had been closed and shuttered for more than a decade, it underwent a multi-million-dollar restoration and expansion by Daniel P. Coffey & Associates. The Oriental Theatre reopened as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1998.
In the 1920s, the Oriental Theatre presented both movies and vaudeville acts. When talkies arrived, the Oriental Theatre became predominantly a movie house in the 1930s. Live stage, theatrical, and concert performances also continued for mid20th century Chicago audiences during an era when Randolph Street and its environs was a mecca for crowds seeking out their favorite star performers as well as up-and-coming talents throughout a host of live entertainment venues. The former Oriental Theatre, following its expansion in 1998, now seats over 2,000 people.
Duke Ellington and his orchestra made frequent appearances at the Oriental Theatre which welcomed patrons by way of an exotic ornate style. Some big names and legends in entertainment who were seen at the Oriental Theatre included Judy Garland, George Jessel, Fanny Brice, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cab Calloway, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Jean Harlow, Billie Holiday, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Sarah Vaughan, Henny Youngman, and many more.
The Oriental Theatre closed in 1981 and remained shuttered for over a decade. In 1997 it was renamed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts with its restoration and expansion completed the following year. In 2019 the theatre was renamed in honor of James M. Nederlander (1922-2016), Broadway theatre owner/producer and Broadway In Chicago founder.
Today’s James M. Nederlander Theatre hosts touring pre-Broadway and Broadway shows whose résumé included a long-running production of Billy Elliot: The Musical. From June 2005 through January 2009, the theater housed a full production of Wicked, making it the most popular stage production in Chicago history. In December 2017, when the feature photograph was taken, a traveling national tour of Wicked had started its Chicago run.
Alice Sinkevitch, AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 54.