Inside the Fine Arts Building, the 125-year-old Studebaker Theater is reborn
Brittle bits of duct tape stick to the marble walls, chipped and hollowed out by decades of comings and goings – and if it were darker in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue, a flashlight might come in handy .
On the west wall of the lobby, in small faded letters, it reads: “The Studebaker” above the upholstered doors – a reminder of the building’s former life, dating back to the late 1800s, when it housed baby carriages and Studebaker wagons.
But then there’s a faint smell of epoxy and the muffled rumble of a drill, and it’s clear that something is going on on the other side of those doors.
Inside, hidden almost in plain sight, is the newly renovated Studebaker Theater. With its shimmering mirrored walls and icy white lighting, the grand old theater once again exudes a kind of icy warmth.
“It’s unique. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I don’t know if I’ve found a real comparison [in Chicago] because there are few theaters this big but of this size,” said Jacob Harvey, artistic director of the theatre, leading a tour last week of the near-complete, multimillion-dollar, two-year renovation.
By “this size”, Harvey means the relatively small capacity. It now seats 600, but when the theater opened in 1898 it could seat around 1,300 people. This is when customers were crammed to the rafters. It opened only five years before the Iroquois Theater burst into flames during a performance, killing 602 of the 1,700 spectators.
“It was also the very first years of theatrical technology. There were still early experiments in terms of lighting and sound,” said Tanya Palmer, a Northwestern teacher and Chicago theater historian. “A lot of what people were going to see were music hall type experiences. … It was quite an event to go into that space.
The Studebaker, 410 S. Michigan Ave., hasn’t offered live theater on its stage since the early 1980s, when it was cut up and turned into an arthouse theater. It closed in 2000.
But in its heyday, some of the biggest names in Hollywood and American theater appeared on stage, including Yul Brynner, Henry Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Louis Gossett Jr. and a young Martin Sheen, among many others.
Other less illustrious artists also performed there, including “Dr. Harlan Tarbell”, an illusionist famous for his “vision without eyes”.
During a recent tour, Harvey made a point of emphasizing the advanced technology embedded, mostly unseen, in the theater. Where clacking metal levers once controlled stage lighting, this is now done primarily with computer touch screens.
“Basically everything is new except for the physical architecture itself,” Harvey said.
What hasn’t changed, Harvey said, is the expectation that the theater will return to its 125-year-old theatrical roots, offering locally produced performances and those from out of town.
In June, a new musical, “Skates”, opens, billed as “‘Grease’ meets ‘Hairspray’, with a hint of Xanadu!”
The Studebaker is also set to become the new home of the Chicago-based NPR quiz show, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”
Despite the pandemic and the theater’s history of sometimes struggling to find audiences, Harvey said now is as good a time as any to reopen.
“There’s something incredibly fleeting and unifying about being in the theater and having that shared community experience that people craved and continue to crave,” Harvey said.