This venue, originally named the Lane Court Theater, opened on November 25, 1916, to much pomp and ceremony. Located on the easternmost part of what was then called Center Street (now Armitage Avenue) and with a seated capacity of nearly 1,000 people, the initial price for attendance was 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. Built to be part of the Asher Brothers’ burgeoning circuit of community theaters, alongside the Adelphi, the Colony, the Roosevelt and the Portage, it was conceived to host vaudeville performances and silent films. Equipped with a Kimball organ, the original layout also featured an orchestra pit, making it suitable for any type of musical production.

With an eye for building something distinctive, the Ascher Brothers hired renowned architect Fred V. Prather, whose previous project was the 22-story Transportation Building, which later became the headquarters of Elliot Ness and his team of Untouchables. Prather delivered a truly unique design. According to the Motography film journal, “In point of artistic decoration and novelty in construction there is possibly no other theater in Chicago resembling it.” The interior of the building was diamond shaped, and by placing the movie screen in one of the corners of the diamond it allowed for extensive sightlines and unnaturally attuned sound. Also from Motography: “In the center of the house there is an electrically lighted dome which will deflect a mellow light throughout the entire theater during performances.” That dome, and the unique layout of the building, greatly contributed to its appeal and would help sustain the theater throughout the years.



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 theaters 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 that 25 theatres on Milwaukee Avenue alone.



After a period where they outpaced even Balaban & Katz as Chicago’s most prolific operators of movie theaters, the Ascher Brothers eventually exited the business in 1929, selling most of their properties to Fox Chicago Theaters. This coincided with the end of the silent film era, the advent of talking pictures and the onset of the Great Depression, all of which provided theaters with major challenges to keep pace with new technologies and to address the severe financial strain on their customer base.

For the next two decades, the Lane Court Theater kept afloat by continuing to show the popular films of the day, whether it was “Animal Crackers” by The Marx Brothers in the 1930s or mainstream movies from the 1940s like “Lassie Come Home,” the Oscar-nominated drama “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Bela Lugosi’s “The Return of the Vampire” and Humphrey Bogart’s World War II drama, “Sahara.” With streetcars running along both Armitage Avenue (formerly Center Street) and nearby Clark Street, the theatre was accessible to moviegoers from across the city.

By 1950, in an effort to drum up more business, the manager of the theatre, Art Belasco, began running an unusual promotion. Each week, Tuesday evenings became “Dish Night,” a promotion that involved giving away individual dishes from the Leigh Potters Maroon Emperor collection, featuring 22-karat gold filigree. In order for a customer to obtain a full set of these dishes, they had to return to the theater multiple times and see more movies, making the promotion so successful that it was expanded to three times each week.

That decade would present a new and unexpected challenge to owners of the many small and mid-sized theaters in Chicago and around the country. “Somehow,” goes the story from The Chicago Reader, “the Lane Court Theater managed to hold on through the television blitz of the 1950s.” In those years, many traditional theaters struggled to survive as ownership of television sets grew, providing their customers with the opportunity to be entertained in the comfort of their own living room.



Things started to take a turn for the worse in the summer of 1958 when the Chicago Police raided the theatre after receiving an anonymous tip about an illegal gambling operation. Seven people, including the theatre manager, were hauled off to jail, resulting in the temporary closure of the building.

Within a couple of years, the theatre was sold to a new operator, and in 1961 the name was changed to the Town Theater. The intention of the new owner was to class things up by primarily showing foreign avant-garde films for a discriminating adult audience. The first film shown, “Love and the Frenchwoman,” had been a big hit in France, and it was followed by similar presentations including “Picnic in the Grass” and “The Lovers.” By 1963, more challenging movies began to fill the schedule, including the French-Italian experimental film “Eve” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” a graphic Japanese period piece based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”



This period of high-minded fare came to an end in the second half of the 1960s when the theater changed hands yet again in April of 1967. The new owners, who ran the nearby Plaza Art Theatre on North Avenue, rechristened the Town by changing the name to The Town Underground. There were still some reputable foreign films on the schedule, and they even attempted a weeklong showing of Orson Welles’ take on the Shakespearean character ”Falstaff,” but the programming took a notable shift to soft-core adult films and live exotic dancers.

One film, Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” was booked into the theater that summer. The Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert dissected it in a review that called the film, “poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, and employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with.” The City of Chicago authorities were less generous in their analysis. Armed with a search warrant, they raided the theatre and seized the film on the grounds that it was obscene. No arrests were made but this didn’t bode well for the operation.



By 1968, when the Motion Picture Association revealed their new ratings system, most of the films showing at The Town Underground were of the X-rated variety. The live burlesque performances were still on regular rotation, which drew in an audience of out-of-town conventioneers anxious to spend their cash. As a cash business, the theatre also drew the attention of the city’s criminal element, and on one particular occasion, in the summer of ‘69, the manager of the theater was held up at gunpoint and relieved of approximately $5,000.

The venue seemed to be a magnet for misfortune, and one of the most notorious events took place that same year, in 1969. The maintenance man decided it might be fun to position himself in the projection booth after the theater had closed for the night and take target practice by firing bullets at a basket that he’d placed on the stage. He was in possession of an M1 rifle, two automatic pistols, a shotgun and 700 rounds of ammunition. With all that firepower, he was bound to hit something. Unfortunately, there were a couple of sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station on the premises. While one sailor was fiddling around with the spotlight and pointing it at the darkened stage, the other one began dancing on stage to the music being played on the stereo. A miscommunication between the maintenance man and the spotlight operator resulted in the accidental killing of the other sailor, who was temporarily obscured behind the curtain just in time for the firing of 28 shots from the rifle. It’s not known whether the maintenance man hit his intended target, the small basket he’d placed on the stage.



By the spring of 1970, The Town Underground was the only venue in Chicago still presenting live burlesque dancers, and its time had come to an end when the theater’s manager announced, to much fanfare, “The Death of Burlesque,” a widely publicized event that was attended by all of the city’s newspaper, television and radio news reporters, along with about 100 hardcore fans. According to Roger Ebert, “This was, you understand, an event of vast historical importance in Chicago. Little Egypt started it all here in 1893, and young ladies had been taking off their clothes in theaters more or less regularly ever since. And now an era was about to end.” Continued Ebert, “The funny thing was, two weeks later, The Town returned to its policy of strippers. Pressed for an explanation, the manager of the theater said very reasonably that “The Death of Burlesque had received so much publicity that it had generated a tremendous new demand for burlesque.”

As they say, “The show must go on.” With the exception of another notorious incident, when an explosion caused by a bomb heavily damaged the back wall of the building, the day-to-day business of The Town continued unabated for the next couple of years. Always in need of a gimmick to keep customers flowing through the doors, in late February of 1972 a new advertisement appeared in the local papers, trumpeting “Another First for The Town! MAGNASCOPE! A New Process That Enables You to See the Performers in LIFE-SIZE VIEW! A Distinct Innovation in the Art of Film Making!”



If that didn’t get the attention of movie-goers, the controversial film “Deep Throat” certainly did. In March of 1973, under direct orders from Mayor Daley, a criminal court judge declared that the movie was obscene and ordered its officers to confiscate the reels. The Town was showing the film that week, and upon the ruling they withdrew it from their schedule while making a statement through their lawyer that, “confiscation of the film would be a first step to tyranny!” The three owners of the venue were summarily indicted, and the police temporarily closed down the theater.     

By the summer of 1973, the Supreme Court handed down a new and more restrictive definition of pornography, and as the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “Some skin-flick houses would rather switch than fight.” In the case of The Town, which was under new ownership yet again, after years of controversy and law enforcement scrutiny they quietly switched gears and began showing a 75-cent double feature of a more commercial nature that emphasized violence over sex: action star Charles Bronson’s hit-man thriller “The Family” along with a martial arts flick. Later, when asked about the programming change, the new owner said, “We did good business and did extremely well with our concessions. If we can make money this way, we’d prefer to do so.”



The receipts must not have added up sufficiently. By October of 1973, after switching back to programming primarily adult films, the news broke that “Another X-rated movie house bites the dust. The Town Theater on Armitage is being remodeled into a 500-seat dinner playhouse with a projected mid-December opening date.” The marquee that once listed the names of popular films now read CLOSED FOR REMODELING. WATCH FOR NEW POLICY. December came and went, and by January of 1974 the Chicago Tribune’s Tower Ticket columnist Aaron Gold reported that, “The Town Theater [currently undergoing remodeling] changes its name within the next two weeks when a new marquee goes up for The Lane Court Dinner Playhouse.” Construction delays, however, caused the new owners to push back the opening by two months.



Though a great deal of work had been done to the interior of the building, mostly in the form of demolition, the much-heralded dinner theatre concept never did coalesce. In a Chicago Reader profile of the property during this period, they described this scene: “the theater was falling apart. The roof was caving in. The weather outside was creeping inside. The beams were cracking. The paint was peeling. The floor was flooded. Small animals had taken up residence where the aisles and seats used to be. Darkness settled in and the theater took on an eerie cast.”

For a while, the marquee read FOR SALE OR RENT, but the sign was in such a state of disrepair that it eventually had to be torn down for fear that it would land on unsuspecting passersby. Meanwhile, the neighborhood was on the upswing. This was the mid-1970s, and with its prime location in Lincoln Park and its adjacency to the Old Town neighborhood, the building – which was now nearly 60 years old – may have held on just long enough to experience a life-saving effort to be revived rather than torn down. Most theaters of its age, if located in less desirable neighborhoods, met the wrecking ball. To pull this joint out of its current dilapidated state, it would take someone with vision, money and resources.



Enter Dale Niedermaier. Along with partners David Glassman and John May, plus a handful of like-minded investors and a first-rate design team, they took it upon themselves to transform the broken-down old theater into a state-of-the-art entertainment facility. More than just a nightclub or concert hall, they envisioned Disco nights, cabaret shows, closed-circuit boxing, conventions, fashion shows and corporate meetings – even a screening of the Indianapolis 500. As Dale told the Chicago Daily News, “It’s a total environment kind of place.” They had their hopes up high.



First, though, they had to rebuild the property. In one interview, the new owners confessed that one of the most difficult problems was tracing the owner of the building and making the actual purchase. As it turned out, that would be the easiest part of the process, based on this quote from a 1978 Chicago Reader story: “The first, most obvious task was cleaning up the building. The theater was such a mess by the fall of 1976 that it was almost as expensive to tear the interior down as it was to put it back together again. The estimated cost of renovation - $300,000 – fell far short of the actual cost. The investors had come up with about half a million dollars and the final price was over a million.”

They were committed to saving it, in part because, as Dale explained to The Daily News, “They don’t build buildings like this anymore.” Once the gutting of the interior was completed, they had to put in all new plumbing and electrical, plus a new floor and a new roof. They made some other adjustments to accommodate the type of sophisticated sound and lighting systems that were necessary for the transformation, and once that was accomplished they installed state-of-the-art video capabilities. Since they were essentially starting from scratch, every corner of the property became something new: men’s and women’s bathrooms, dressing rooms, offices, storage rooms, HVAC systems, etc. Like most projects of this scope, construction delays and cost overruns pushed back the targeted plans for opening night, but that did not deter the new owners. There was no turning back.

Much of the interior and portions of the outer facade were fitted with Alucobond, a brand-new aluminum composite material most notably used for the exterior of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth structure. As a design element, it provided the building with a sleek, modern veneer that would differentiate it from every other venue in town while making a strong visual statement that this not just a new version of the Town Theater. This was a completely new chapter in the history of 322 West Armitage Avenue.



On May 11, 1977, the building reopened with a new name, Park West. Hindsight, a Disco band that Dale scouted while in Los Angeles, were the first performers to take the stage of the new venue. They were soon followed by concerts featuring actor, songwriter and Grammy Award winner Anthony Newley, Disco singer Gloria Gaynor of “I Will Survive” fame, European dance band Silver Convention, R&B legend Tina Turner, Chicago-born vocalist Lou Rawls and the psychedelic soul group The Fifth Dimension. One of their biggest early successes was a two-week engagement with Bette Midler, whose career had been on the rise for several years before those memorable performances in Chicago.

Along the way, Dale and his partners made a series of adjustments to their operations with calibrations to the sound system and other improvements meant to enhance the experience of their customers. Dale had access to a vast storeroom of props, artwork, statues, and furniture, much of which was rotated in and out of the building based on the type of event coming into the room from week to week. Park West quickly gained a reputation, with The Daily News calling it “a pleasure palace for those who like to be entertained cabaret or Disco style without trekking to the suburban clubs.”



They weren’t without competition, however, and Dale soon realized that they were vying for concert bookings in a marketplace that was already supporting other, more established venues. Since the time of Park West’s conception, the highly capable staff at Jam Productions – who’d been in business since 1972 – had been steadily booking shows at the similar-sized Ivanhoe Theater, just a mile or so up Clark Street, and the northwest suburban venue B’Ginnings, a beacon for some of the biggest up-and-coming acts of the time, so by November of 1977, with an eye toward expanding their business and filling up the calendar, the owners of Park West formed a new alliance with Jam, whose hard-won experience as talent buyers and marketers brought a flood of new concerts into the room.  



With Jam on board to handle bookings, ticketing, production and marketing, Dale and his partners focused on operations, staffing and the bar. This partnership immediately proved to be fruitful, with a string of bookings in the first year that included The Temptations, Count Basie, Chuck Mangione, Phoebe Snow, Isaac Hayes, David Brenner, Don McLean, Patti LaBelle, Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Patti Smith, Martin Mull, Cheech & Chong, Todd Rundgren, Andy Kaufman, John Prine, B.B. King, Tom Waits, Hall & Oates, Grace Jones and a host of others.  

The collaboration between Dale, John May, David Glassman and Jam Productions would continue for another 10 years, and their partnership established Park West as one of the country’s top venues of its size. Thanks to the foresight of the original architect, the building’s design and the domed ceiling and its unique shape made the room feel both intimate and grand, and it became a favorite stop for touring artists across the spectrum, from rock and pop acts to country, comedy, soul and jazz artists. It was regarded by fans as one of the best-sounding small venues in town, making for a great customer experience. Over that 10-year span, some of the most popular and influential musicians of the era performed at Park West, including Talking Heads, Toto, Devo, Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, Robin Williams, Rickie Lee Jones, The Police, Blondie, The B-52’s, Van Morrison, Iggy Pop, Dionne Warwick, Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, The Pretenders, Rodney Dangerfield, James Brown, The Psychedelic Furs, Ry Cooder, Prince, Roberta Flack, U2, Sonny Rollins, The Go-Go’s, Duran Duran, Genesis, Luther Vandross, Frank Zappa, Judy Collins, George Carlin, Huey Lewis & The News, Sly Stone, Kris Kristofferson, Cheap Trick, Barry Manilow, Miles Davis, Laurie Anderson, INXS, R.E.M., Eurythmics, Pee-wee Herman, Jay Leno, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Crystal, Whitney Houston, Sam Kinison, Richard Lewis and Waylon Jennings.

Years later, Prince would reminisce about his own experience at the storied venue. “I remember those Park West shows that I played when I was just starting out,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I’ll dream about the Park West sometime. I can see it so clearly in my dreams, that wide-open look from the stage, the people right up on you. Those were life-changing shows.”

In the first half of the 1980s, the built-in capabilities for video production and the state-of-the-art sound system provided the producers at Chicago’s public television station WTTW with an ideal venue for their legendary Soundstage series. Among the artists whose performances were captured on the stage of Park West and later rebroadcast across PBS outlets nationwide are Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. Over time, numerous other television production companies and networks utilized the room for all manner of filming projects, including the Phil Donahue Show, Candid Camera, C-SPAN, HBO, ESPN, BRAVO and The Montel Williams Show. One of the most notorious video productions took place in 1985, when the Chicago Bears football team performed “The Super Bowl Shuffle” at Park West. They were the first sports team to have their own music video, and the recording of the song sold over 500,000 copies and even earned a Grammy nomination.

Following Dale Niedermaier’s self-imposed retirement from the music business in 1988, Jam’s booking operation continued to bring the finest and widest array of entertainment to Park West. The room proved to be a multi-faceted space that was capable of presenting nearly any genre of music, including touring rock bands, contemporary pop singers, soul and R&B legends, Cajun bands, veteran and up-and-coming standup comics, live professional boxing matches, straight-ahead jazz performances, folk singers, singer songwriters, country music, New Wave hitmakers, oldies acts, New Orleans brass bands, prog rockers, Western Swing, Chicago blues, guitar heroes, avant-garde ensembles, reggae bands, boundary-breaking string quartets, purveyors of ambient music, Alternative Rock bands, trailblazing Zydeco musicians, bluegrass bands, Big Band jazz,  jazz-rock fusion artists, Americana pioneers, jam bands, old school rappers, rockabilly revivalists, art-rock mainstays, heavy metal bands, smooth jazz players, honky-tonk singers, Western Swing big bands, easy listening singers, space rock groups, electronic dance music, experimental rock performances, proto-punk bands, garage rockers, hip-hop groups, a cappella vocal groups, swing bands, glam metal bands, British blues combos, power trios, legends of rock history, top-tier tribute bands, Power Pop groups, funk bands, Neo Soul singers, piano jazz singers, Hammond Organ trios, scat singers, Mambo bands, children’s music entertainers, pop-punk bands, Emo musicians, legends of Bossa Nova, Southern Rock bands, Broadway musical vocalists, operatic vocalists and singing groups, fingerpicking guitarists, progressive metal bands, belly dancers, and a vast array of uncategorizable musicians from all corners of the globe. None other than Ringo Starr once said it was the best venue in the world, second only to Royal Albert Hall.

The venue has also been a favorite for organizations hosting multi-media presentations, live in-person podcast productions, interview sessions, book release events, charity auctions, political fundraisers, record release parties, Lucha Libre wrestling matches, bat mitzvahs, mixed martial arts competitions, fashion shows, hair product demonstrations, the Final Kombat gaming competition, the Midwest Emmy Award ceremony, a dance competition, drag shows, a celebrity spelling bee and a sunrise yoga event. As Dale Niedermaier said back in 1977, “It’s a total environment kind of place.”



Adele, Tony Bennett, Hannibal Buress, Joe Cocker, Cold War Kids, Ramsey Lewis, Kurt Elling, Brandon Flowers, Jeff Goldblum, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Ray Lamontagne, Cyndi Lauper, Ludacris, Of Monsters & Men, Nathaniel Rateliff, Lou Reed, Trombone Shorty, Stevie Wonder, Warren Zevon, Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Robert Fripp, David Cassidy, John Prine, Peter Frampton, Joe Jackson, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Joan Baez, Bjork, Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Carly Simon, Wayne Shorter, Steve Winwood, RUN-D.M.C., Glenn Frey, Miles Davis, Sir George Martin, Julian Lennon, Elvis Costello, John Paul Jones, Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Umphrey’s McGee, King Crimson, The Doobie Brothers, Keanu Reeves, D’Angelo, David Byrne, Chic, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Fallon, Wynton Marsalis, Counting Crows, Dwight Yoakam, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Buble’, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Brian Wilson, Amos Lee, Donovan, Brandi Carlile, Charlie Watts, Regina Spektor, Lindsey Buckingham, Sean Lennon, Mandy Moore, Ryan Bingham, The Wallflowers, David Gray, The Black Crowes, Ingrid Michaelson, Robyn, Jeff Beck, Todd Rundgren, Jenny Lewis, Phoenix, Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman, Straight No Chaser, Jeff Garlin, Little Feat, Mavis Staples, Bo Burnham, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Jim Jefferies, Nick Lowe, Joe Henry, Bruce Hornsby, Herb Alpert, Grace Potter, Sergio Mendes, Art Garfunkel, Goo Goo Dolls, The 1975, Mike + The Mechanics, Ben Folds, Tom Segura, Squeeze, David Cross, Melissa Etheridge, Ziggy Marley, Patti Smith, Aimee Mann, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Tegan & Sara, and Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.