If you’ve ever seen a concert at the Riviera Theatre (4746 N. Racine Ave.) or the Chicago Theatre (175 N. State St.), you’ve gotten a taste of the grandeur of Chicago’s early 20th century architecture.
Rogers Park alone used to have at least three theaters like these. Of those three, the closest to Loyola was the iconic Granada Theatre, located where the Campus Safety office now stands on North Sheridan Road.
The Granada was designed by Edward E. Eichenbaum and built in 1926, according to a 1989 Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). It was one of the three largest “silver screen palaces” in Chicago, alongside the Chicago Theatre and the now-vacant Uptown Theatre (4816 N. Broadway Ave.). During its lifespan, the Granada hosted live theater, movies, midnight showings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and occasional rock concerts. It was a place Rogers Park high schoolers went on dates, middle schoolers snuck into and stars including Jerry Lewis, Jack Nicholson and The Three Stooges visited for movie premieres.
Abandoned in 1987 and damaged by weather and vandals from 1988-89, the Granada deteriorated into ruins and was demolished in early 1990. It was replaced just over a year later with the $24.5 million, 75,000 square foot Granada Center, which occupies the 6400 block of North Sheridan Road and now houses the university bookstore, Caffe ArrivaDolce, Felice’s and other businesses.
Nearly 27 years after the Granada Theatre’s demolition, some Loyola students are unaware of the landmark that once stood proudly on the northwestern edge of the Lake Shore Campus.
Current and former residents of Rogers Park remember the Granada fondly to this day. Some spoke to The PHOENIX about their memories of the theater.
“It was a palace,” Norm Levin, a former usher at the Granada, said. “It was just gorgeous. There were these little [sofas] you could sit on that were red velvet, and there were gold ropes hanging everywhere… It was like walking into a castle. You’d think you were in some fancy movie yourself.”
Levin, 65, grew up at the intersection of Albion Ave. and Lakewood Ave., blocks away from Bellarmine Hall on the north end of the Lake Shore Campus. He was an usher at the Granada from 1967-68, when he was 16 years old.
“It was kind of cool, because you could see free movies and there wasn’t much to do,” Levin said. “I had to go backstage to [lift] the curtain [before movies started] … and basically stood at the back of the theater, maybe with a flashlight, and helped people out.”
James Alessio, 72, is a Loyola Class of 1969 alumnus and now lives in Midlothian, Virginia. He grew up in Edgewater and worked as an usher at the Granada as a teenager in the early ‘60s, earning 75 cents an hour.
“You had to do a whole mess of things, but the primary thing was to walk up and down the aisles and make sure there wasn’t any trouble,” Alessio said. “You didn’t do [the job] for too long because eventually you went off to college and did something else, but it was interesting.”
Alessio said his duties as an usher included monitoring the 3,422-seat auditorium during films, checking for mice in large bags of pre-popped popcorn and making sure his shoes were always polished before his shift.
“[The ushers] had to wear these uniforms that were kind of stuffy,” he said. “It was a red jacket with black trousers, and stiff paper collars that were very uncomfortable at times … We had to go through an inspection that made sure we all looked really spiffy.”
Looking “spiffy” was important in a place like the Granada. According to Alessio, Levin and the HABS, the theater was a sight to behold in its heyday with its pink Tennessee marble floors, cast iron railings, grand staircases, silk curtains and crystal chandeliers. It was built with an advanced heating and cooling system and a dazzling 93-foot marquis, which was eventually downsized in 1940. While vandals managed to destroy or steal a lot of the theater’s ornamentation during its last years, some was saved — for instance, one of the Granada’s huge chandeliers now hangs in the Riviera Theatre.
Scott Greig, 43, was raised in Evanston and remembers admiring the terracotta facade of the empty Granada as a child.
“I remember this beautiful edifice that for some reason was always closed, and I couldn’t understand why,” he said. “I would actually ask my parents if we were [driving on North Sheridan] going to the Outer Drive, ‘Could we go by the Granada?’ It was just so beautiful to see.”
As a high school student, Greig witnessed the decay and the eventual demolition of the Granada firsthand. He tried to document the theater in its last years, photographing the deteriorating interior — complete with stripped marble floors and shattered mirrors — as best he could. Seeing the theater in such a state of disrepair was disheartening for him.
Greig was there on the snowy day the demolition began in December 1989. He said he would take the Red Line from school to Loyola and snap pictures as the crew from B&M Wrecking slowly tore down the landmark.
“There was a small crowd of onlookers, people from the neighborhood and fellow theater fans documenting things [on the first day of demolition],” Greig said. “I just had this real sense of sadness that this beautiful thing was being lost.”
Alessio said while he and his wife were already living in Virginia when the Granada came down, they were both saddened by its demolition since it’s where they began their romance.
“We saw each other on the bus [on the way to school] but never had any discussion or contact,” Alessio said. “I saw her one time at the theater while I was ushering, and we made eye contact … One thing led to another and we started to date. We were high school sweethearts, and the Granada was kind of our intersection. We had a connection there.”
Levin didn’t see the demolition first hand, either, but it still affected him.
“It amazes me that people let these things go,” he said. “Somebody met somebody’s price. Imagine if it was still there — Loyola could’ve used it.”
The fact that the Granada was a significant building wasn’t lost on the Loyola community. According to documents obtained from the Loyola University Archives, The PHOENIX ran a front-page story when the Granada was officially slated for demolition in its Oct. 11, 1989 issue. The issue included a two-page spread in its “Intermission” section (now Arts & Entertainment) documenting the dilapidated interior of the Granada.
The PHOENIX also covered the constant buying and selling of the property in the late ‘80s and offered occasional commentary on the situation. A staff editorial published in the Nov. 1, 1989 issue called the theater an “eyesore” and ensured readers that “modernization” was necessary.
“Although at one time that strip of Sheridan Road was, indeed, beautiful, perhaps the time has come to save not the Granada but to save the neighborhood,” the editorial read.
On Loyola’s website, the description of Fordham Hall briefly mentions that it stands on the site of the Granada, “a once-majestic movie palace.” Some think the theater deserves more recognition.
“I remember seeing [the Granada Center] being built and … feeling that reusing the name ‘Granada’ on this thing that had destroyed such a beautiful theater seemed like such an insult,” Greig said. “I’ve gone past it many times by car and whatnot and I just block it out of my mind. I would rather hang onto my memory of what had been there previously.”
While the days of movie palaces are over, there are some lasting reminders of the magnificent treasures that have been lost. Levin encourages young people to learn about their neighborhoods’ history and remember the past fondly, even if it might be painful at times.
“You can’t go back, as they say,” Levin said. “Forty years from now, are people going to feel about the Chipotles and the Starbucks the way we felt about the Granada? I’m not so sure.”
For those interested in seeing a theater like the Granada, there are a few survivors. The Riviera, the Chicago Theatre, the Portage Theater (4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and the Davis Theatre (4614 N. Lincoln Ave.) are all still in operation, some as movie theaters and others as concert halls.