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A vanishing act

On the lower shelf of a back room at the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society lies a small box. Staring back from within, the face of a moment gazes outward – a sliver of history frozen in tan and white plaster.

This ornamental cherub face, the lone survivor of a once opulent chorus, adorned the now-demolished Roaring ’20s movie palace called the Granada Theater. Its mysterious smirk, halfway between a laugh and a sob, captures the poignant story of a lost landmark that hosted the likes of vaudeville hoffers, silent movie stars and rock bands. And now it’s Loyola’s office space.

Born into Jazz Age splendor, the Granada Theater on North Sheridan Road, where the current Granada Center and Fordham Hall stand, symbolized the pop-culture explosion that rolled into Rogers Park in the 1920s, an era when movies were a luxury and people still wore top hats and tails to see them.

Completed in 1926, it became the third-largest theater ever built in Chicago and was operated by the Marks Brothers – no, not those Marx Brothers – who found a hot streak building nickelodeon parlors and went on to build an empire of leading “movie palaces” in Chicago.

And a palace it was: Its terra cotta exterior and marble-covered opulence within “were then and still are unsurpassed in their outright architectural exuberance,” according to the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, which investigated the Granada in 1989.

“Virtually every surface is ornamented,” reads the survey, detailing the massive grand staircase of white marble and the plaster-encrusted walls molded into Moorish-style patterns. In its prime, excited moviegoers would walk across the lobby’s pink marble floor, while the sky-high gilded ceiling shone warmly with the golden light streaming from elaborate crystal chandeliers. The massive 3,422-seat, three-story auditorium was an architectural wonder in itself, being the first freespan balcony truss in Chicago.

Other features, though less showy, gave a glimpse of the true beating heart of the Granada.

“On the back door of the old usher supply room, near the elevator on the third floor, was a handwritten list of all the ushers who went into military service in WWII, including those who had been killed in action,” said former head usher John James in the book Neighborhoods within Neighborhoods: Twentieth Century Life on Chicago’s Far North Side. “I maintained this crude list on the closet door until I entered the Marine Corps in April 1945.”

The chandeliers still exist – the larger resides in the Riviera Theatre while a smaller one hangs at the Music Box Theatre. But by 1989, everything else from the rafters to that special list would exist only in memory.

The Granada’s fate shifted in 1934, when the largest movie theater operators in Chicago, Bablan and Katz, bought the Granada after a battle for control with the Marks Brothers. Granada became one of their many theaters to show Paramount Pictures productions. Live shows, accompanied by the house band, also took the stage.

But as the Jazz Age gave way to the grim realities of WWII and afterwards, the golden age of movie palaces dwindled, and by 1973, the Granada had fallen out of use. Prospective purchasers hoped to use it as a rock concert venue, but the plan never materialized, and in 1988, Senior Life Styles Corporation bought and demolished the site to build a $24 million planned apartment/commercial structure.

“On March 15, 1990 at 6:09 p.m., the facade of the Granada Theater was pulled backwards falling into a heap of rubble,” says a flyer from the North Lakeside Cultural Center from 1990 that reads more like a eulogy. “That marked the final peal emanating from one of Chicago’s last picture palaces.”

However, along with the Granada’s final gasps linger notes of controversy that persist to this day.

By the time the building was surveyed in 1989 it was found to be “in ruins. Its useful life is over.” Curiously, though, the theater had remained in pristine condition until 1988 “when it was left unattended and the weather and vandalism were allowed to proceed unchecked.”

But allowed by whom? Conspiracy theories abound, and Rogers Park bloggers don’t hesitate to light up the message boards with plenty of them. A message thread on cinematreasures.org offers a few theories, mostly by cinema architecture buffs or longtime Rogers Park residents who still fondly recall the Granada’s glory days.

Some claim that the theater suffered because it couldn’t stay financially viable and didn’t have the parking structure to attract customers; others feel that the land was too valuable for the developers not to eye up. Still others accuse Loyola and then-Congressman Dan Rostenkowski of encouraging its demolition in order to allow Loyola’s campus expansion, even though Loyola didn’t purchase the land until after Senior Life Styles Corporation had torn down the Granada and built the structure that is now the Granada Center and Fordham Hall.

According to a Chicago Sun-Times article from Jan. 9, 1990, developers that tore down the Granada said that “preservation wasn’t feasible.”

The article continues: “Ald. David D. Orr (49th) said that after years of unsuccessful proposals to save it – while at the same time coping with an adjacent rundown retail strip – there was no choice.” It also describes the development that replaced the Granada as a much-needed shot in the arm to the economic situation in the neighborhood.

Now only echoes of the past remain, and only for those who know where to look for them – a sculpture of the Granada facade in Campus Safety’s office, a lone framed photo hanging on an administrator’s wall – all whispering clues to a history long gone, but not forgotten.

Though the face of that lonely cherub still exists, its wings and cheeks chipped with time and wear that no one will ever know, one has to wonder – is it laughing or is it crying?

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