Awesome & Awkward: The Evolution of The Vic Theatre

Let’s take a time machine back to when the city of Chicago underwent major developments. Buildings were being sketched and built, streets were getting paved, and the economy was booming. Now, don’t worry this isn’t going to be a breakdown of Chicago’s history. Rather, it’s about the history of the Vic Theatre in Chicago that will make you say “wait, what?”

Located at 3145 N. Sheffield near the Belmont subway stop, The Vic Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday and held an anniversary celebration this past November. The theatre was designed by architect, John E.O. Pridmore, and opened its doors in 1912. The five-story building took three years to build, and went by the name of The Victoria Theatre.

Most of us can agree that the name seems well fitting for the once luxurious vaudeville building. Yes, vaudeville is a fancy French term that describes a genre of theatre that provided a variety of entertainment from the early 1880’s until the 1930’s. It was once referred to as the heart of American show business. Some of the acts involved were musicians, jugglers, dancers, magicians, and comedians. In fact, according to the Chicago Sun-Times article directly refers to its colorful past, “The Vic Theatre-home to vaudeville, porn, and now rock ‘n’ roll- turns 100”! One of the earliest bookings was the comedy team, Mutt and Jeff. Now, of course the usage of the theatre changed over time, which comes as no surprise there considering it was built a century ago!

Hop back into the time-machine for a second, and let’s jump ahead to 1932 when the Vic shut its ticket booth windows due to the harsh effects of The Great Depression. Once the 1940’s rolled around the theatre was used by the Plasterers Institute and yes, I know what you’re thinking: what the heck did they need the Vic for? Well, the Chicago Sun-Times article reports that the institute installed two kilns on the stage in order to test fire brick durability. Sounds cool doesn’t it? Well, maybe not as cool as the fact that in the 1960’s the theatre (primarily the stage) was used as an automobile repair shop. Imagine having to take your Plymouth Barracuda to the Vic to get your tires repaired! Zooming ahead ten years, we hit the 1970’s which, well to put it bluntly, proved to be an interesting decade at the Vic. Does this saying ring any bells: “The Old Vic is Back in Business …For You. The Public. The Finest of People”? This somewhat questionable greeting was used for the X-rated movie theatre that found its home at the, then, Old Vic theatre for a short period of time. After it showcased porn, the theatre was renamed as the Roberto Clemente Theater which featured Spanish-speaking movies. Since sales for movie tickets were beginning to decline, the theater was sold to the late Walter Klein Jr. in 1983.

This takes us straight to the beginning of what we know as the Vic Theatre today. Once the theatre was converted and renovations were complete, the Vic reopened its doors again in 1984. Under the new ownership the first “performance” was the private taping for Second City’s 25th Anniversary Special for HBO. In that same year, Juice Newton (the country pop superstar from the ‘80s) was the first musical performance to play at the new Vic. In the years to follow, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band, No Doubt, David Bowie, Green Day, Pearl Jam, The Beastie Boys, Bob Dylan, and Rage Against The Machine, just to name a few, all shared the same stage at the Vic.

Two decades later, in 2000 the Klein brothers sold the Vic to Jam Productions. When Jam took hold of the reigns, the theatre underwent some developments such as a new roof, a new marquee and wait for it, wait for it… new bathrooms! Under the ownership of Jam in 2005, the Chicago-based rock band WIlco recorded a live album at the Vic. Kicking Television: Live in Chicago consists of four live shows, which features material from the resulting two albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. The memorable album received positive reviews and sold over 114,000 copies. Q Magazine named the album, “one of the top 20 live albums of all time”. Imagine being in the audience, listening and watching as Wilco rocked out in the comfort of their hometown. Other performers who recorded live albums at the Vic include, Papa Roach and Jim Gaffigan.

Today, the Vic continues to serve as one of Chicago’s top musical venues. Then, Monday thru Thursday the Vic transforms into its alter-ego, Brew & View. The popular movie theatre includes three bars which are open while the films are playing. Sounds like a good time, doesn’t it? The movies are usually second-and third-run, as well as underground films. For just five bucks a ticket, and a buck fifty for a beer, you’re set for the night. Aside from its alter-ego, check out some upcoming shows including The Black Crows from April 16th-19th and Jim James April 20th.

You can’t deny Chicago’s Vic Theatre is one that experienced drastic changes. These changes helped it to transform into the theatre we use and see today. The theatre has been home to a variety of acts that continue to resonate within the walls. It is amazing to think of how much history one building, one theatre has. I think I’ll step out of this time machine for now and enjoy the Vic of present, join me if you want! For a full list of shows and ticket information visit the Vic Theatre here.

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