"constellation stars" and multi-colored cove lights salvaged from chicago's atmospheric theaters

some of the most unique artifacts in the bldg. 51 collection (and for sale in the urban remains warehouse) are rescued from non-extant theaters hearkening to the early 20th century theater boom. aside from remarkable light fixtures, seating, decorative plaster and exterior elements from these long gone movie palaces, the technological gadgetry from atmospheric theaters count among the more easily overlooked but historically important pieces salvaged.

atmospheric theaters gained popularity in the 1920's, and are distinguished as an architectural style that used theater design to extend the cinematic experience, to imaginatively transport the audience with the decor. a plain dome gave space for projections of clouds, simulating the night sky with twinkling "star lights," and walls were decorated to appear as an exotic locale or an outdoor space. the "star light" shown below was removed from the ceiling of the nortown theater (1931) during demolition in 2007. the "pinhole" found at the bottom of the inverted conical-shaped light was exposed, but painted blue to conceal it, along with all the others arranged to make the constellation. the fixture itself was essentially a condulet box containing a socket used in conjunction with "blinker" incandescent light bulbs that had to be replaced weekly.

electronic and lighting effects were integral to creating these illusions. cove lighting would simulate the setting sun as the curtains opened, or constellations would flicker above to transform the room into a nocturnal space. projections on the ceiling using the brenograph magic lantern gave audiences the sensation of being in any number of settings at different times of day. the fantastical style is attributed to the austrian architect john eberson, who in 1923 created the houston majestic, the first so called "atmospheric theater" and a structure built at a fraction of the cost of a standard domed theater. one of eberson's most elaborate projects in chicago was the avalon theater (1927), which combined middle eastern decor to mimic a persian mosque.


the non-extant lawndale (opened as the new yiddish lawndale theater) at 4015 w. roosevelt, salvaged nearly 8 years ago, was an exemplary site for rescuing antiquated lighting equipment housed near the east side of the stage within the cavernous atmospheric theater (also built in 1927). the lawndale was a 2,200 seat venue renamed the rena theater in 1948. it served as a yiddish theater for a time, and finally closed in 1963, only to be converted into a church before its eventual demise. the massive and remarkably intact "major" lighting control panel was partially salvaged in an attempt to represent a well-preserved late 1920's technology that existed behind-the-scenes while completely transforming the ambiance of the room for theater-goers. the heavily integrated upright panel contained a grid-like configuration of multiple black enameled steel metal plates, complete with original bakelite switches corresponding to lighting in discrete parts of the building (i.e. the main ceiling, or the orchestra spots, dressing rooms, etc.). an operator controlled virtually all parts of the building from this single area, by frequently adjusting levers, cranks, switches, and so on. the panel was illuminated from above and each bay containing a collection of switches and dimmer levers would glow with multi-faceted, copper-encased indicator panel lights.

the lighting systems and equipment used to outfit many chicago theaters during the depression were manufactured by the major equipment company, whose headquarters and factory were located at 4603 fullerton avenue, chicago, ills.



as a general catalog for the company states, "modern lighting, in various buildings and theaters, paints with glorious effects the whole range of human emotions, and is accomplished only by engineering." the company supplied much of the lighting and electrical equipment to the city's movie palaces, and the breadth of their product line illustrates the extent to which theaters were outfitted to create bright, lush spaces for the audience. for instance the "major cloud machine," used in the projection techniques of atmospheric theaters, were advertised to be standard equipment around the world, and could be handled by remote control, running silently.

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records indicate that some equipment, including vitrohm dimmers were installed by the ward leonard electric company.