Today the Lawndale Theatre is a bone-white hulk that dominates the 4000 block of Chicago's West Roosevelt Road like a whale on a beach. Fifty years after its last matinee, the gutted theatre is being adapted for the most mundane of uses; storage space for hotel furniture. But its nearly-forgotten past has held all the adventure of a Saturday afternoon serial, with a hint of "Scarface" or "Public Enemy" thrown in.

Like many a romantic film's hero, the Lawndale's paternity is uncertain. After years of rumors that a major theatre would be built in Lawndale, the February 14, 1926 Chicago Tribune announced that Maurice B. Rissman and Leo S. Hirschfeld, prolific designers of apartments, hotels, and office buildings, would be the architects for a 3,000 seat theatre near the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Crawford Avenue. The new theatre, with adjoining apartment block with twelve flats, four stores, and some bowling alleys, would have an orchestra pit and stage for vaudeville as well as a screen and pipe organ to accompany films.

Rissman and Hirschfield are still sometimes credited with designing the Lawndale. However, the Tribune subsequently reported that the architect for the new theatre would be William P. Whitney. Whitney's claim is further strengthened by preservation researcher Brian Wolf's discovery that he designed a twin to the Lawndale and its attached apartment block, the Symphony Theatre complex, which opened a few months earlier in the nearby Austin neighborhood. The Lawndale's cathedral-like exterior is another link, as Whitney's 1952 obituary reported that he was a noted designer of churches.

The Lawndale's imposing classically-embelished facade staked its claim to be the focal point of a thriving neighborhood. Lawndale was the epicenter of Jewish cultural life in the city. Home to an estimated 110,000 Jews, it encompassed sixty synagogues, all but two of which were Orthodox, such educational institutions as the Hebrew Theological College and Jewish People's Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital, institutions for the aged, blind, and orphans, and the headquarters of innumerable religious, cultural, social, and political organizations.

Lawndale was a middle and lower middle-class neighborhood whose residents were upwardly mobile immigrants and children of immigrants whose first homes in the city had been tenement neighborhoods like Maxwell Street. Indeed, the 1930 Census would enumerate the residents of the Lawndale Theatre flats as the proprietors of such small businesses as a delicatessan, machine shop, and real estate office, salesmen, a bookeeper and a streetcar motorman.

Perhaps because of the rotating cast of architects, the Lawndale opened October 19, 1927, almost a year later than the original Tribune article had projected. First nighters thrilled to "The Girl from Rio", a romantic adventure staring "firey" Carmel Myers and a young British actor named Walter Pidgeon. Added attractions included "Syncopation King" Rags Rubin and his band, the dancing duo of Coster and Rich, "Radio Melody Girls" May and June, and the "scintilating " Feliz Ballet.

Although the Lawndale was built with about 800 fewer seats than the announced 3,000, it was still large for a neighborhood theatre. Its interior was a baroque miscellany, heavily ornamented in disguised plaster in the manner of John Eberson's "atmospheric theatres", with lights resembling twinkling stars set in the auditorium ceiling. Despite all the decorative showmanship, the Tribune film critic's opening night review pronounced the new theatre merely "attractive", which somehow seems stingy.

In the beginning, the Lawndale presented stage and screen double-features. Through the winter of 1927, its headliners were "Sam Kaufman and his Music Masters", appearing in reviews like "Stars and Spangles" and "Fads and Fancies". Kaufman, a vaudeville song and dance veteran, has left only the faintest of footprints. However, George Givot, a dialect comedian and singer who appeared with the Kaufman troupe in December 1927, became known as "The Greek Ambassador of Goodwill" as a radio performer in the 1930s. His voice survives today through his performance as Tony, the kindly restauranteur in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp".

Just two weeks before the Lawndale's opening night, the premiere of Al Jolson's synchronous sound version of "The Jazz Singer" had galvanized Manhattan moviegoers, but the blow it dealt silent film took some time to become fatal. The Kaufman troupe's "Fads and Fancies" was accompanied by "Passion", a Pola Negri bodice-ripper originally released in 1919. However, the typical feature was both more contemporary and more obscure. During 1928, the Lawndale frequently promoted British silents whose unheralded leading men had names like Percy Marmot. Vaudeville performances were supplemented by boxing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and "Chorus Girl Contests" on Fridays.

As the Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, the Lawndale underwent a drastic change of identity.

In the 1880s, Chicago's earliest recorded Yiddish stage productions featured tragederian Jacob Adler and versatile performer Boris Thomashefsky, who for a time made city his homebase. In the 1920s, Chicago was a regular stop for barnstorming Yiddish stock companies, which ranged from their home stages in New York City across the continents, performing in places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Buenos Aries.

It is unclear exactly when the Lawndale jettisoned vaudeville and movies, but on November 3, 1929 the Tribune advertised that Aaron Lebedeff was starring in the musical "Yankel In America" at "the most beautiful Jewish theatre in the world". In case the opulent surroundings and exuberant personality of Lebedeff, now recalled as " the Maurice Chevalier of the Yiddish stage", were not sufficient draw, the ad proclaimed "Every Jew should attend the New Yiddish Lawndale Theatre as a Jewish Civic Duty". Through the end of 1929, Lebedeff, who recorded prolifically for Emerson, Brunswick, and Vocalion, appeared in vehicles that conveyed his signature theme of nostalgia for the Old World while poking fun at the absurdities of the New.

At New Year's, Lebedeff gave way to a romantic operetta, succeeded by a drama called "A Father's Daughter" starring the venerable dramatic actor Leon Blank. In February, 1930, "celebrated romantic actor and singer" Samuel Goldenberg opened in "Stolen Love". In May 1930, nine members of the Adler family, including future film stars Luther and Stella, appeared in tribute performances of Jacob Adler's signature vehicle "The Wild Man".

The Lawndale, like many other theatres, was dark for the summer. Its fall 1930 program featured a series of operettas and musicals starring Julius Nathanson, who earlier that year had appeared with his wife Anna, "the personality girl of the Yiddish stage" at the competing Glickman's Theatre. Mischa and Lucy German, later an international screen success in the World War I love story LETTER TO THE MOTHER (A BRIWELE DER MAMEN), played at the Lawndale for all of January 1931. Then, beginning in the spring, the Lawndale hosted the reigning royalty of the Yiddish stage.

In March 1931, New York actress Celia Adler, half-sister of Luther and Stella, created a sensation in "Should a Woman Deceive?", which the Chicago Daily Forward called a "sex play " that "made such a big hit in the Lawndale... that it was held over for another week." As the Forward acidly commented;

No doubt Chicago Jewry was very eager to see a play like this for they never saw one like it. They have read much about sex plays performed in New York on the Jewish stage and even there such plays were stopped numerous times in order not to offend respectable citizens.

However, the Forward assured its readers that "this play is not so spicy as its name suggests". Its convoluted plot involved a wife, infertile as the result of secret abortions, who tells her husband she is pregnant and goes to Florida on vacation, where she adopts a baby. Her doctor blackmails her into an affair, but at the climax of the play she confesses all to her husband.

The Forward's reviewer suggested that "although advertised... as a family drama , it should be classified rather, as a melodrama with surprises and miracles" and concluded "it is a very wholesome drama, and there is nothing vulgar or burlesque in it"

In April, "the Olivier of the Yiddish theatre", producer, director, playwright, and actor Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theatre Company arrived from New York for several weeks' reperatory. Schwartz was famed for the psychological realism and naturalism of his portrayals, especially when compared with the Yiddish theatre's traditional operatic and grandiose acting style. His company, successful enough to build its own theatre in Lower Manhattan in the 1920s, was struggling under the weight of the depression. Schwartz's had missed the company's May 1930 engagement at the Lawndale because he was raising capital through a highly-paid vaudeville engagement playing scenes from Shakespeare.

At the Lawndale, the Yiddish Art Theatre performed Scholem Ash's "Uncle Moses", the story of a Lower East Side sweatshop owner in love with daughter of a discontented employee, which would be filmed with Schwartz in the title role in 1932. They were followed by comedianne Molly Picon, in turn suceeded by Boris Thomasefsky, returning to his adopted hometown in "The Hungarian Cantor". Michal Michalesko then appeared in "I Want a Child", a "sensational" play like "Should a Woman Deceive?", to which no one under sixteen was admitted.

In June, the Lawndale again closed for the summer, reopening on September 22, 1931 with a series of "romantic and emotional plays" starring Samuel Goldenberg. Goldenberg appeared in such musicals as "Between Two Flames" through year's end. A poster for his production of "Old Age" shows seats at $1.50, about ten times admission at many movie theatres. On the Sabbath, tickets were reduced to $1.00.

After Goldenberg's engagement, the deepening depression quickly lowered the curtain on star glamor at the Lawndale. In February 1932, a backstage fire caused tumult and about $20,000 damage, but injuries were negligable because the house was only half-full. The only spring Lawndale production advertised was "The Great Miracle" with Leon Blank and Aaron Lebedeff, which offered two stars for one admission.

The New Lawndale Yiddish Theatre opened its fall 1932 season with unknown actors, but in November the building's bondholders foreclosed. By 1933, the only Yiddish productions advertised were at other theatres.

Through the 1940s, the Lawndale operated as a neighborhood moviehouse occasionally rented out for civic and political functions. In the mid-1930s, it was purchased by a company said to be controlled by Capone henchmen Frank Nitti of "The Untouchables" fame, and Louis Greenberg, who would be mysteriously shot down on a southside street in 1955. Nitti is also said to have had a financial interest in the Whitney-designed Symphony Theatre.

After World War II, Lawndale went through a very rapid demographic shift and quickly became an improverished, virtually entirely African-American neighborhood.

The Lawndale appears to have changed ownership several times before reopening as the Rena Theatre in late 1949. The Rena showed second run triple features during the week, but on weekends it recaptured its nearly-forgotten glamor.

In 1955, the Rena hosted Saturday midnight music reviews that attracted citywide attention. On June 20th, 1957, 1390 WGES disc jockey Sam Evans' "Jam With Sam" touched virtually every popular music genre. Future Hall of Fame bluesmen on the bill included singer-harmonicist Sonny Boy Williamson, slide guitar wizard Elmore James, and singer-guitarist Magic Sam. Classic Chicago Do-Wop was provided by The Dells, and rock 'n roll by keyboardist Billy "The Kid" Emerson. whose recording of "Red Hot" had been a big hit in 1955. Jazz crooner Johnny Hartman and his band contributed a romantic touch.

Most of the Rena's performers had strictly local reputations, but at least one headliner was a national celebrity. On May 31, 1958, Dinah Washington appeared in a benefit performance, backed by a band led by her husband, tenor saxophonist and ex-Lionel Hampton sideman Eddie Chamblee.

The Rena also presented talent shows and other stage productions. Larry Steele's revue "Smart Affairs of 1957", which the Chicago Defender reported to feature "a leg-kicking, shimmying bevy of beauties...which runs the full spectrum of the rainbow", played the Rena for a week. Reminiscent of the theatre's vaudeville days, the Las Vegas-style chorus line was augmented by jazz singer Dakota Staton and a comedian.

Stage shows continued intermittently until the Rena closed in 1961, after, according to a frequently repeated story, a gang leader was shot dead on its main staircase. In 1964, it reopened as a church, a role it continued to play for more than forty years.

Today the vacant theatre and apartment block are being converted into storage space and condominiums. From nooks and crannies and the space above a dropped ceiling an architectural salvage firm has recovered plaster rosettes, column capitals, and other architectural ornaments that recall Whitney's opulent original vision. Impressively, monogramed rows of thousands of the Lawndale's original seats were salvaged and deployed to new uses.


But the greatest recovered treasure of all is the facade's original stained glass center medallion, complete with apparent bullet holes, which is being restored for exhibition at a museum.


Architectural artifact images are courtesy of Urban Remains of Chicago. To view their impressive gallery of Lawndale Theatre artifacts, some of which are for sale, visit their website.

Several photographers have posted interior and exterior shots of the Lawndale in their online albums.

On Flickr, Katherine of Chicago mixes Lawndale images with hundreds of shots of other imperiled Chicago buildings in such sets as 1001 Buildings To See Before They Die.

On Photobucket, dkrefrain has posted a slideshow of nearly 50 Lawndale Theatre images, many of which show the interior and some of its remaining detail in early 2008, immediately before its final gutting. A favorite image shows the stained glass medallion in place looking outward from the mezzanine lobby.

The connection between Frank Nitti, Louis Greenberg, and the Lawndale is described on page 265 of Mars Eghigian's After Capone (2006). According to Eghigian, Nitti and Greenberg, sometimes called "Capone's Treasurer", were involved in Lawndale Enterprises, incorporated in February 1929, thus implying that they may have been early owners of the theatre. However, Chicago Tribune articles report that the original owner was the Lawndale Theater Company, and that Lawndale Enterprise bought the bulding from Chicago Title and Trust about four years after the 1932 foreclosure. By the time the Lawndale transitioned to The Rena, Lawndale Enterprise was no longer identified as owner.

While information about the Lawndale Theatre itself is scarce, much data about its performers, as well as the Lawndale community, is scattered about the internet.

Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Setter (2009) is a very well-reviewed exploration of the role that "block-busting" and "redlining", some of which was government-sanctioned, played in the economic decline of Lawndale in the 1950s.

Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939), Aaron Lebedeff(1873-1960), Molly Picon (1898-1992), and Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960) are profiled on numerous Yiddish theatre websites. Lebedeff sings on a number of YouTube clips. Many stills from Schwartz's 1939 film "Tevye and His Daughters", which has been inducted into the National Film Registry, can be viewed online. One hopes that lesser but still significant performers like Celia Adler (1889-1979) and Samuel Goldenberg (1881-1945) will one day receive recognition as well.

The controversy about "Should A Woman Deceive?" is presented in a WPA-produced "Foreign Language Press Digest" of Daily Forward articles online at

Image of Maurice Schwartz is courtesy of the New York Public Library website.

Sam Evans (1922-1971) was one of Chicago's earliest African-American disk jockeys. Although he is mentioned in many histories of African-American radio and Chicago rhythm and blues, his career awaits a full study.

The Lawndale Theatre was photographed on January 27, 2009.

To return to the "Victorian Secrets" homepage, click here.