Eighth Street Theater, 741 S. Wabash Avenue (c. 1900-1960)
The Eighth Street Theater on the north east corner of 8th Street and Wabash Avenue-- also known at times as Brooks Casino, The Garden Theater, and the American Music Hall-- was built sometime around the turn of the 20th Century. Designed by architects Richard E. Schmidt, Garden & Martin (designers of the old Michael Reese Hospital, Cook County Hospital, and the Wrigley Mansion in Lincoln Park), the auditorium featured a low, curved concrete ceiling—the line of which is observed on the flat arch above the second story front windows.
As Brooks Casino, it hosted events such as the 1907 Democratic City Convention, boxing matches, and “The Red Men’s Scalp Dance.” Theatrical manager William Morris transformed the theater into an independent vaudeville venue known as The American Music Hall in January 1909.
On April 19, 1924, WLS Radio broadcast a program of square dance, western, and fiddle music called “The WLS Barn Dance,” aimed at rural audiences from the Allegheny Mountains to the Great Plains. It was an instant success, and made Chicago a significant center for Country music. The original announcer of the show, George Hay, later recreated the success of the Barn Dance on WSM in Nashville as The Grand Ole Opry.
Beginning in March 1932, The WLS Barn Dance began a 25-year run at the corner of Wabash and 8th Street, by then known as The Eighth Street Theater. The live performances were an enormous hit, and the 1200 seats were sold out as far as eight weeks in advance. Among the regular performers that became nationally known on the show were Gene Autry, Pat Buttram, and George Goebel.
Gene Autry began his run on the show as the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy in 1930, and stayed with the broadcast even as his movie career took off during the mid-1930s. George Goebel became a regular in 1933 as a precocious 13-year old, and became a successful comedian as an adult. Pat Buttram began his stint on the show in 1933 after he was discovered in an audience participation broadcast from the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Buttram later became even more famous as “Mr. Haney” on the 1960s sitcom “Green Acres.”
The show was broadcast nationally from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on 63 NBC Radio Network stations. In 1944, Paramount Pictures made a film called “National Barn Dance” that fictionalized the creation of the show and featured many of its stars.
During World War II, the theater was also used as a Army Air Forces Technical Training Center. The adjacent Stevens Hotel (now the Chicago Hilton and Towers), the Chicago Coliseum, and the Congress Hotel were also used as military training facilities.
The live performances of the National Barn Dance ended their run at the Eighth Street Theater on August 31, 1957. The show continued for several years from radio studios at WLS and WGN. The Joffrey Ballet made its first performance in a major city at the Eighth Street Theater in 1957, and several decades later made Chicago their permanent home.
The Eighth Street Theater was demolished around 1960 and replaced with a 75,000-square foot addition to the Conrad Hilton convention facilities.
Sources: New York Times January 19, 1909, Architectural Record February 1908, pgs 111-122, Library of Congress, WLSHistory.com/NBD, Wikipedia, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Chicago Hilton and Towers, imdb.com
Photos: Library of Congress, Air Force Historical Research Agency, John C. Thomas