The Riviera Theater was one of the Uptown neighborhood's more popular movie houses during the Jazz Age. The theater's opening boosted the financial prospects of the emerging Uptown entertainment district and significantly advanced the theater management careers of Barney Balaban and Sam Katz.

In August 1916, Tom Chamales announced his intention to invest $650,000 in the construction of a ten-story hotel and large theater on the southwest corner of Broadway and Lawrence Avenues. Chamales, owner of the nearby Green Mill Gardens restaurant and cabaret, hoped the Riviera would attract additional theater-goers to the neighborhood, some of whom might visit his resort after the show.

Designed by the famous movie palace architects C.W. Rapp and George Rapp, the Riviera and other theaters built during the late 1910s stood apart in size and capital investment from those built only a few years before. The Riviera project included not just a 2,500-seat theater, but also adjacent space for eight retail storefronts and thirty-six "bachelor apartments." The final price tag for the project, though not as high as it had been when plans called for a ten-story hotel, nonetheless surpassed a half million dollars. During the summer and fall of 1918, the project budget was nearly busted by the rising costs of building materials during the First World War. This caused several construction delays and eventually pushed back the opening of the theater to October 2, 1918.

When the project was first announced, it was anticipated that the theater would be managed as part of the seasoned Jones, Linick & Schaefer vaudeville and movie theater circuit. But at some point in the months leading up to the theater's opening, Chamales agreed instead to have the up-and­ coming theater management duo of Barney Balaban and Sam Katz to manage the Riviera. By 1918, Balaban and Katz had begun to make a name for themselves in Chicago movie theater circles for their stunning successes with theaters on the city's west side. In 1917, they built what most historians now consider the city's first movie palace, the Central Park at 3535 West Roosevelt Road. As managers of the Riviera, Balaban and Katz refined many of the theater management techniques that would become trademark features of their theaters during the 1920s.

Advertisements for the new theater expressed the desire of Balaban and Katz to attract only white, middle-class couples and families to the Riviera. "Choose Your Theatre With Discretion," appeared in one early ad in an less than subtle attempt to distinguish the Riviera and its patrons from the smaller, nickel theaters that dotted the city's working-class neighborhoods.

Balaban and Katz imposed strict work rules on employees who regularly dealt with paying customers- ushers and ticket sellers. Inspired by wartime displays of military discipline, the Riviera's managers dressed all its ushers in full military regalia and required them to salute patrons when showing them to their seats. They even hired a former army lieutenant to drill the ushers in the rudiments of precision marching and the taking of orders.

Balaban and Katz attempted to make the Riviera an attractive and inviting place for wealthier, middle-class Chicagoans-- especially women-- who harbored reservations about the safety, reputability, and healthfulness of the typical movie theater. Among the amenities offered for this purpose were a toy-filled playroom where mothers could leave their children while viewing a movie and a nursing station to treat minor medical emergencies. To enhance the public's sense of safety and respectability while at the Riviera, the theater's interior was colorfully decorated and evenly lit with amber lights.

Architecturally, it is gracious rather than gorgeous, expensive beyond imagination and beyond garishness, French throughout. Silk panels cover the walls, ribbed with snow woodwork; frescoes, restrained in color, dot the ceilings; curved lines guide the eye to the stage. Everything is in the manner of Louis XIV, rich, quiet, aristocratic. An artful balcony arrangement frees the 1,500 first-floor spectators from the huddled feeling of being topped by a gallery. Sweeping domes tower above all the downstairs seats, and yet the second-floor gallery contains 1,000 chairs.

Eight thousand electric lamps are strewn throughout the interior of the house, and yet not one is visible to the eye. Color effects spring from the roof and walls in shaded subtle effects. French windows from passageways give a view of the entire house. From every seat the view of the ninety-foot stage is the same. From every seat the thirty-foot swimming pool, which curves into the stage at its foot and in which mermaids will sport as a prologue when sea scenes are to be shown in films, is visible. No chair so high or so low as to be out of range. In the rear of its huge stage stood the screen 18 x 24 feet in size.

To keep patrons entertained, Balaban and Katz supplemented the theater's feature films with live music acts, a policy that would become standard at Chicago movie palaces during the 1920s. Theater managers had long integrated films and vaudeville acts. Far fewer, however, had combined orchestra performances with movies. But the new mix had proven popular at two well-known theaters in New York (the Strand and the Rivoli) and, given the increasing popularity of jazz music in Chicago during the late 1910s, Balaban and Katz were willing to experiment. Charged with the responsibility of booking "high grade musical acts" was Morris S. Silver. The Riviera opened with performances by the orchestra of S. Leopold Kohl, with "A Woman of Impulse," starring Lina Cavalieri, as the first feature film.

With funds generated by the approximately 2,500 seat Riviera, Balaban & Katz were soon able to build the Chicago Theatre, their first motion picture palace in Chicago’s Loop. Rapp & Rapp’s work on the Central Park and Riviera led to an almost exclusive contract to design over a hundred other Balaban & Katz theatres in Chicago and the Midwest. The Riviera was part of the Balaban & Katz chain for decades, except for a period in the 1920s when it was leased to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. The Riviera, the eighth Chicago theatre added to the Orpheum Circuit, came under Orpheum Circuit management and operation September 6, 1925, being the second big Orpheum Circuit theatre opened on Chicago's North Side in one season – the Diversey beginning two months earlier. The former grandeur of the Riviera as the leading motion picture palace of the uptown district was greatly enhanced by a thorough reconstruction and elaborate redecoration, when it was taken over by the Orpheum Circuit. The stage was rebuilt, a modern lighting system installed, and in every way the Riviera became one of the most beautiful vaudeville theatres in the city. The Riviera presented both vaudeville and feature photoplays, continuously from 1 to 11p.m., with a change of program weekly.

The Riviera remained a popular movie theater for residents of the Uptown neighborhood and much of the city's north side throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Even the opening of the enormous Uptown Theater, one-half block to the north, in 1925 did not significantly affect the theater's business. In 1975 the Riviera began its transformation to a well-known national concert venue when Jam Productions, Ltd. began promoting pop and rock concerts at the Riviera while the theatre’s owner, Brotman & Sherman, continued to show movies regularly between rock shows. When motion pictures were last shown at the theatre in 1983, the Riviera featured Hispanic films.

Since 1975, JAM Productions has promoted over 750 pop and rock concerts at the Riviera. This venue has become a ‘must play’ in the concert business and legendary in Chicago due to the many incredible acts who have graced its stage.