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Inside out | Low-Brow, High-Brow: Celebrating Chicago’s Theatrical Heritage | Parks recreation

Chicago’s legacy as a small theater town began in the 1830s with informal variety shows that were held in saloons. Targeted at a rowdy borderline male audience, these shows lasted for hours, rarely distinguishing between high- and low-brow entertainment.

In the 1860s and 70s, the Rialto, Rice, and McVickers theaters began serving various ethnic and social communities in the city.

In the 1890s, the interests of the Chicago audience gave way significantly between popular variety shows and high-art productions. Theaters like the Garrick (1891-1961), Illinois (1900-1936), Powers’ (1872-1924), and Cort (1909-1934) took advantage of these differences by putting on theatrical and musical performances that catered to the tastes of a particular audience aimed.

Chicago’s diverse entertainment tastes also influenced the planning of the city’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Theodore Thomas (1835-1905), the first director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, served as the exposition’s music director. He insisted on programming only high art music in the Fair’s White City District and charged high admission fees to “keep out indiscriminate audiences”.

Sol Bloom (1870-1949), a Chicago impresario and music publisher, responded with cheap theatrical performances of world and popular music in the fair’s midway district.

Like Thomas, Florence Edward Ziegfeld (1841-1923) saw the fair as an opportunity to present the city’s high art culture. As one of Chicago’s leading supporters of cosmopolitan music and founder of the Chicago Musical College, Ziegfeld suggested “staging Italian, English and black operas with Negro singers and instrumentalists at the fair”.

The music committee of the fair rejected his proposal, but Ziegfeld remained undeterred. In response, he built the Trocadero International Temple of Music in the block immediately north of the newly built Art Institute to distract show-goers from Thomas’ music programs in the White City of the Exposition.

Ziegfeld marketed the Trocadero as a first-class musical theater and commissioned a large number of European and popular musical acts there.

It soon became apparent, however, that the trade fair visitors were disinterested in both Thomas’ and Ziegfeld’s top-class performances. As the Trocadero’s financial losses increased, Ziegfeld’s son, Florence “Flo” E. Ziegfeld Jr. (1867-1932), was assigned the programming. He immediately signed the popular Sousa Civilian Military Band, which had become very popular through their performances at the Exposition a few months earlier.

In addition, Ziegfeld Jr. hired variety acrobats, comedians, singers and beautiful dancers to improve the theater’s program.

As word got around about the colorful burlesque performances of the Trocadero, a new audience began to fill the theater for each show. However, the new burlesque reputation of the theater presented the musicians with uncomfortable challenges, originally introduced by Ziegfeld Sr.

Some artists refused to perform there, and although Sousa’s appearances at the Trocadero were a financial success, Sousa found the burlesque theater ill-suited for his band’s “fancy” concerts.

In 1906, Ziegfeld Jr. began using his Trocadero experiences to produce the popular New York City Ziegfeld Follies, a touring Broadway show featuring comic acts, musical sketches, and women performing elaborate dances in revealing costumes to the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George performed Gershwin. In the late 1990s and early 1920s, these tours were frequently staged in Chicago’s Colonial and Illinois theaters, further exacerbating tension between the city’s high-profile and minor art establishments.

The Ziegfeld Follies influenced Broadway for decades, and many of the programs contained in the Yolande Oglesby collection from Sousa Archives exemplify Ziegfield’s influence on theater offerings in New York and Chicago.

The colorful and intricate covers of the programs document the different tastes of Chicago theaters and audiences for live entertainment in the early decades of the 20th century.

The collection also includes rare programs of Ziegfeld’s traveling appearances at the Colonial Theater in Chicago (1904-1925).

For more information on this unusual collection, please call 217-333-4577 or email [email protected] Special thanks go to Kelda Habing and Nolan Vallier for their editorial and research assistance.

Scott Schwartz is the director of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois.

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