The Vic Theatre
THE LAKEVIEW NEIGHBORHOOD
Over the past century and a half, the name Lake View has referred in turn to the first of Chicago's North Shore suburban developments, an independent township, a city in its own right, and a community area within Chicago. All of the Lake Views have occupied land between two and eight miles north of Chicago's center. As one official incarnation of Lake View gave way to the next, it gradually transformed from a loose agglomeration of large parcels of land occupied by farms and estates into distinct neighborhoods housing many single young adults, childless married couples, and gay men.
Lake View's early residents followed the lead of nearby Lincoln Square's first property owner, Conrad Sulzer. Farmers from Germany, Sweden, and Luxembourg made celery Lake View's most important local crop. In 1854, James Rees and Elisha Hundley built the Lakeview House hotel near Lake Shore Drive and Byron Street as a resort for potential investors in local land. (According to legend, Walter Newberry stood on the hotel's veranda and, admiring its view, suggested that it be called “Lake View House.”) Wealthy Chicagoans seeking summer retreats from the city's heat and disease bought up land in the eastern sector of the area. New railroad lines prompted development of more residential land and added suburban characteristics to Lake View's resort atmosphere.
With increasing settlement came legal identity. In 1857, the area presently bounded by Fullerton, Western, Devon, and Lake Michigan was organized into Lake View Township; in 1872 residents built a town hall at Halsted and Addison; and in 1887 Lake View was incorporated as a city. In 1889, however, despite a controversial vote and the recalcitrance of Lake View officials, the city was annexed to Chicago.
The urbanizing Lake View attracted not only new residents, but also visitors to its burgeoning commercial and recreational facilities. A baseball park at Clark and Addison later known as Wrigley Field (1914) attracted Chicagoans who lived outside Lake View. Wieboldt's Department Store (1917) anchored a new shopping district at the intersection of Lincoln, Belmont, and Ashland Avenues. Southwestern Lake View's working-class residential character merged with that of neighboring North Center, as factory workers sought homes near their jobs. They occupied such subdivisions as Gross Park, which was laid out by Samuel Eberly Gross. Developers also built apartment buildings to accommodate residents who could not afford homes such as those preferred by the old, suburban elite. In the mid-twentieth century, high-rise apartments and four-plus-ones (multiple-unit low-rises), both of which attracted single people and childless couples, were popular solutions to the growing housing problem.
The apparent changes in the family and architectural structures of Lake View alarmed some residents, who organized the Lake View Citizens Council in the 1950s to fight potential blight. LVCC quickly realized that Lake View was too well off for designation as a government conservation area, so it encouraged private redevelopment and rehabilitation instead. Residents and merchants used different strategies to preserve distinctive neighborhoods within Lake View. In the early 1970s, for example, East Lake View became known as New Town for its trendy shops and counterculture denizens. The elegant Alta Vista Terrace attained landmark status. A real-estate frenzy during the early 1980s drove neighborhoods such as Wrigleyville into public view.
The physical preservation of Lake View, however, did not reconfigure the area into a family-centered community. While some of the new residents, such as World War II Japanese American refugees from California and the increasing Latino population, did arrive in family units, most of Lake View's new population were single, childless young adults. As early as the 1950s, an identifiable gay male population resided in the Belmont Harbor area. According to the 1990 census, more than 22,000 residents of Lake View were between the ages of 25 and 44 and lived in “nonfamily” households.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society
EARLY HISTORY AND CONSTRUCTION
It took three years to build The Victoria Theatre at a cost of $300,000 (approximately $8,000,000 in today’s dollars). The luxurious, five-story vaudeville house held 1,550 polished mahogany seats, and the lobby floor and staircases were set in Italian marble. Handmade English quarry tile lined the walls. A lighted, covered tunnel led from the theater to the Belmont L station.
The theater was designed by John E.O. Pridmore, an immigrant from England who came to the United States in 1880 and eventually settled in Chicago in 1883 at the age of 16. Pridmore designed a number of churches, temples and chapels along with apartment buildings throughout the city in neighborhoods including Woodlawn, Austin, Edgewater and Logan Square. He eventually turned his attentions to the design of theaters and was exceptionally prolific, designing and overseeing the construction of nearly 20 theaters throughout Chicago and the Midwest, including the National Theater, the College Theatre, the Oak Theater, the Columbia Theater, the Lexington Theater, the Empress Theater, the Adelphi Theater, the Sheridan Theater, the Nortown Theater and the Evanston Theater.
CHICAGO’S NORTH SIDE THEATRE BOOM
In the decade beginning in 1910, the north side of Chicago experienced an unprecedented boom in the construction of theaters. In an area occupying about 45 square miles, starting at Division Street on the south, nearly 120 theatres were built in that single 10-year period. Ranging from small 300-seat nickelodeons on up to lavish 3,000 capacity movie palaces, practically every neighborhood within walking distance of a main boulevard had access to at least one theatre, and at one time there were more than 25 theatres on Milwaukee Avenue alone.
SHIFTING CULTURAL LANDSCAPE AND CHANGING TIMES
Although the Victoria opened to rave reviews, vaudeville was soon in decline, and the most popular touring shows stayed in downtown houses. After an encouraging start, the theater foundered and many other venues across town fell on hard times. Between the introduction of sound in films, followed by The Great Depression and eventually the advent of television, many buildings fell victim to economic downturns and changing cultural tastes. Factor in structural decay, neglect, fire and flood – as well as the economics of changing neighborhoods and gentrification – and the odds of survival plummet. Of those built during the 1910s, half have either been demolished or stand vacant. Of the handful that still present movies or live entertainment, none has lasted longer, maintained its original purpose as a venue for popular entertainment, and retained as much of its original splendor as The Vic.
It’s unusually common in the lifetime of a theatre to change names, and The Vic was no exception. The eventual decline of touring vaudeville shows in the 1920s led to the sale of the building to new owners who, in an attempt to cater to a recent influx of German immigrants to the neighborhood, changed the name to The German Theater and began presenting German operettas. The end of the 1920s coincided with the onset of The Great Depression, and even low-priced tickets were a luxury few could afford, resulting in the shuttering of The German Theater in 1932.
For many such venues around town, this would have been the death knell, but good fortune arrived in the form of a local Plasterers Institute. As a long-term tenant who rented the building throughout the 1930s and 40s, they kept the space in operating condition during otherwise lean years. Eventually, another tenant took over the lease and utilized the stage as a warehouse for auto parts, using an old rear garage doorway to load supplies in and out of the building. The 1950s and 60s saw the property change hands a number of different times, presumably by entities who continued to have faith in the building’s potential to be a profitable venture.
LAKEVIEW’S MID-CENTURY MOVIE THEATER
By the early 1970s, movies were once again the main attraction at “The Old Vic.” Newspaper advertisements touted, “The Old Vic Is Back In Business! Visit One Of Chicago’s Oldest And Finest Theatres Restored To Its Natural Beauty. For You, The Public, The Finest Of People.” This brief period, and its primary focus on
X-Rated films, ran its course and eventually gave way to Spanish language movies and another new name: The Roberto Clemente Theater. Soon after, in yet another shift in emphasis, films from India were featured and for a short time the building was known as the Bharat Cinema.
TRANSITION BACK TO LIVE PERFORMANCES
It wasn’t long before the audience for Indian films dropped sharply, and in 1979 owner Sargit Sikan rented the building to community theater activist Richard Bosserman, who hoped to restore the theater and create a performing arts space. During this time the bookings shifted back to second-run mainstream movies, along with live theatre and musicals. Bosserman’s funding eventually ran out, and after sitting dormant for a period of time the venue was sold in 1983 to brothers Walt and Tom Klein and a group of investors.
SURVIVAL LEADS TO REVIVAL
In the early to mid-1980s, $500,000 was spent to restore and upgrade the theatre with the goal of providing a comfortable atmosphere to present live concert performances. The seats on the main floor were replaced with cabaret-style tables on four tiers. The marble flooring and staircases were restored and nearly all of the original ornate wall sculptures went untouched over the decades, allowing the room to retain much of its original splendor. After this period of extensive renovations, the venue eventually reestablished itself as a live entertainment performance space.
This newest incarnation of The Vic – as it was now called – was originally programmed by Lou Valpano. Opening with the 25th Anniversary of Second City, which was recorded for broadcast by HBO, things got off to a strong start. Music industry vet Dave Frey joined the management team and created a booking partnership with the staff at Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville, Indiana.
To capitalize on the burgeoning dance music scene, the owners launched Clubland in 1984, which thrived until its closing in January of 1988. By 1987 Jam Productions began utilizing the venue for concerts. In November 1988, Michael Butler produced the musical “Hair” at The Vic Theater to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. The production ran until February 1989.
In early 1990, Tom Doody and Associates conceived and opened The Catwalk, a new nightclub in The Vic featuring “ultrahip designs and a thundering industrial dance mix,'' according to The Chicago Tribune. That was followed by other nightclub themes including The Red Zone and Extravaganza.
In the mid-1990s, on nights without a concert booking, Brew & View was added showing second-run and cult films which allowed customers to enjoy pizza and cocktails while watching films. This incarnation of The Vic lasted more than 20 years.
Throughout all of the facelifts and various programming concepts, live music remained a constant, and that was solidified in 2000 when Jam Productions purchased The Vic Theatre, pledging to host a wide variety of concerts from all genres, including rock, alt-rock, indie-rock, pop, electronic, hip hop, rap, spoken word, country, Americana, blues, comedy and a wide array of ethnic music. In subsequent years it became one of Chicago’s busiest and most popular music venues.
HISTORY OF CONCERT PERFORMANCES
Since its mid-1980s revival, over 2 million fans have attended nearly 2,000 events at The Vic, which has featured one of the widest ranging booking policies in the city. There’s been no shortage of musical icons in the room over the years, including Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, David Bowie, Paul Simon and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, along with some of the biggest names in modern rock including Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Black Keys, The Cure, Wilco, The National and Dave Matthews.
Comedy legends Jerry Seinfeld, Eric Idle, Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Lewis, Weird Al Yankovic, Martin Short and Steven Wright have taken the stage of The Vic along with a newer breed of comics like Jimmy Fallon, Amy Schumer, Lewis Black, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Hardwick and Iliza Shlesinger.
The overall breadth and scope of artists who’ve played the room is truly incredible: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bonnie Raitt, Laura Nyro, Dead Can Dance, Phish, Widespread Panic, Green Day, David Byrne, Oasis, Peter Frampton, Goo Goo Dolls, Wilco, Ben Folds Five, Matchbox Twenty, Backstreet Boys, Tom Jones, Billy Corgan, The Flaming Lips, Dispatch, Umphrey’s McGee, Styx, The B-52s, Snow Patrol, David Gray, LCD Soundsystem, Ray LaMontagne, Amy Winehouse, Feist, Tori Amos, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Moby, Train, Devo, Tame Impala, The Lumineers, Sam Smith, Childish Gambino, Leon Bridges, Portugal. The Man, and many more.
After all these years, The Vic has not only survived – it has thrived. The same goes for the bustling Lakeview neighborhood, which has experienced steady economic and commercial growth all along Sheffield and Belmont Avenues. With The Vic firmly entrenched in that nexus, music fans from all over the Chicago area come together to see their favorite performers, making it one of the most-frequented local venues to see live music, an ongoing testament to its reputation as an intimate, richly historic space.
PERFORMANCE HIGHLIGHTS THROUGHOUT THE YEARS
Jerry Seinfeld, Kenny G, John Prine, Pat Metheny, 10,000 Maniacs, Laura Nyro, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winter, Basia, Louie Anderson, Lyle Lovett, Richard Lewis, Randy Newman, David Crosby, Joan Baez, Billy Squier, Meat Loaf, Todd Rundgren, They Might Be Giants, Joan Armatrading, Dead Can Dance, Sonic Youth, Nils Lofgren, The Fixx, Procol Harum, Foreigner, Soundgarden, Kenny Loggins, Crowded House, Glenn Frey, Ron Wood, Phish, BoDeans, Shawn Colvin, Dream Theater, Buddy Guy, Widespread Panic, The Cranberries, Uncle Tupelo, Vince Neil, Jackson Browne, Poi Dog Pondering, Rickie Lee Jones, Andreas Vollenweider, The Pogues, Tori Amos, Green Day, David Byrne, Carrot Top, PJ Harvey, Skid Row, Tesla, Adam Ant, Peter Frampton, Marianne Faithfull, Goo Goo Dolls, Tears For Fears, Bruce Hornsby, Everything But The Girl, Ray Davies, Wilco, Social Distortion, Bob Mould, David Bowie, Backstreet Boys, Gov’t Mule, Steven Wright, George Clinton, Dropkick Murphys, Matchbox Twenty, Dido, The Flaming Lips, Leftover Salmon, Moe, Henry Rollins, Warren Zevon, Lucinda Williams, Sigur Ros, Ben Folds Five, Iggy Pop, Sum 41, Dispatch, Umphrey’s McGhee, Go-Go’s, Lewis Black, Ryan Adams, Flogging Molly, Gomez, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Disco Biscuits, Joe Satriani, Dark Star Orchestra, Jeff Tweedy, Neil Finn, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dennis Miller, Joe Jackson, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Wallflowers, The Jayhawks, Ratdog, Ween, Bryan Adams, Bright Eyes, The B-52s, Paul Oakenfold, Styx, Ministry, Rufus Wainwright, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Ani DiFranco, Rob Thomas, Snow Patrol, Thievery Corporation, Spoon, Billy Corgan, David Gray, Jim Gaffigan, My Morning Jacket, Liz Phair, Son Volt, Front 242, Rise Against, Sinead O’Connor, Neko Case, John Butler Trio, Atmosphere, Drive-By Truckers, KT Tunstall, Trey Anastasio, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Indigo Girls, Russell Peters, The Black Keys, Ray Lamontagne, Lisa Lampanelli, Damien Rice, Papa Roach, G. Love & Special Sauce, Amy Winehouse, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Lily Allen, Feist, Pearl Jam, The National, Michael Franti & Spearhead, The Decemberists, Tori Amos, Iron & Wine, Andrew Dice Clay, Tracy Morgan, Crowded House, Conor Oberst & The Mystic Band, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Bon Iver, Cut Copy, Lotus, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Daughtry, The Pretenders, Mike Birbiglia, Moby, Ian Anderson, Dinosaur Jr., Joe Bonamassa, Train, Devo, Dan Auerbach, Pretty Lights, Rob Schneider, Robin Thicke, Sia, Jewel, Concrete Blonde, Soundgarden, Aziz Ansari, Ingrid Michaelson, Dr. Dog, Los Lobos, Cage The Elephant, Chris Cornell, Paul Simon, Echo & The Bunnymen, Tommy Emmanuel, Seth Meyers, Whitney Cummings, Matt And Kim, The Head and the Heart, Portugal. The Man, St. Vincent, John Oliver, Keane, Glen Hansard, Childish Gambino, Stone Temple Pilots, Ben Howard, Trampled By Turtles, Tame Impala, Amy Schumer, Lindsey Sterling, The Black Crowes, Jim James, Katey Sagal, John Ritter, Patti Smith, The Lumineers, Panic At The Disco, Franz Ferdinand, Father John Misty, Janelle Monae, Anthony Jeselnik, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Gary Clark Jr., Hannibal Burress, Sam Smith, Ziggy Marley, Chvrches, Shovels & Rope, Chris D’Elia, Bleachers, Jenny Lewis, Walk The Moon, Leon Bridges, Halsey, Adam Lambert, Iliza Shlesinger, Elle King, Bastille, Demetri Martin, Tom Segura, Foster The People, Rodriguez, Mavis Staples, Weird Al Yankovic, Greta Van Fleet, Dua Lipa, Animal Collective, Disturbed, Elvis Costello, Norm McDonald, Little Feat, Tom Morello, O.A.R. and Pete Davidson.