August 25, 2009
At the university’s Fifty-Third Street Blog, Kadesha has an update (sort of) about the fate of Harper Theater. The University of Chicago purchased the property in 2002, and when I was an undergraduate, the talk on the quads was always that the Harper would be soon renovated into a real movie theater again (it still hasn’t happened). Of course, what I didn’t know then was that before it was a movie house, Harper Theater was a play house. It was opened in 1964 by Bruce Sagan, then-publisher of the Hyde Park Herald. Here’s Sagan speaking to Richard Christiansen in A Theater of Our Own:
“We [Sagan and his then-wife Judy] knew a little bit about the off-Broadway movement in New York… We had even invested in a show there, and we thought it might be possible to create a kind of off-Broadway theater here, especially after Bob Sickinger had started things at Hull House. The Harper had a proscenium stage, a fire curtain, and exit signs, so I knew we would be all right with the building codes, and we went ahead.
The Harper didn’t last long, though it did house a brief repertory of Second City shows, including Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard directed by the late Paul Sills and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park directed by Sheldon Patinkin. After the Sagans’ ventures with off-Broadway productions, they began producing a dance festival there that attracted many well-known international dance companies and choreographers. In Hyde Park today, there’s little to no indication of the history of the place. Hyde Park Progress rightfully asks, is Harper Theater really historically significant? However, you can always count on the Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center to have something, and indeed they do: this playbill from the very first Harper Theater production, Pirandello’s Enrico IV.
The playbill gives a brief but utterly bizarre history of the theater:
The Harper Theater was built in 1914 as a vaudeville house. The architects were H.R. Wilson and Company. The theater originally had 1200 seats. The balcony has been closed off and the coffee house built in the rear of the main floor.
The lobby and entrance were remodeled in the 1930’s, changing the entrance from 53rd Street to Harper Avenue. The Harper closed as a movie house in 1956 [!]. The rear half of the main floor, (under the balcony), was walled off in 1964 to create a coffee house.
The lights over the lobby counter were the original store lights for Finnegan’s drug store.
Fixtures in the coffee house are from Finnegan’s drug store, formerly located at 55th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. The fixtures were built in Boston in 1911 and then shipped to Chicago and installed in the drug store where they remained until being moved to the Harper last year.
The grill work in the lobby and coffee shop is from the fire escapes of the Hyde Park Hotel, 51st and Lake Park Avenue. The French marble of the counters came from a Fred Harvey restaurant at Canal and Madison Streets. The lobby’s stained glass windows are from a Dorchester Avenue home in Hyde Park demolished by Urban Renewal.
The chandeliers in the theater are believed to be original and were electrically rebuilt and rehung. (p. 134)
Apparently there was some marketable nostalgia for Finnegan’s Drug Store and its sublime light fixtures. One can imagine a newly renovated Court Theatre of the future that sports bricks from the Medici, a tech booth made from the old pipe organ in St. Stephens Church on Dorchester, and the 55th Street Walgreens’ LED screen.
Naturally, the best part about the Harper Playbill is not the play notes but this *money* advertisement for the Shoreland Hotel (which was subsequently a university dorm until last year; now it’s a MAC property):