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The Vic Theatre — home to vaudeville, porn and now rock ’n’ roll — turns 100

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:14AM



Every stage calls for a character.

And the personality abounds at the historic Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield.

The popular music venue and former porno and Spanish-language cinema turns 100 years old this year.

The grand old lady opened in 1912 as the Victoria vaudeville house. One of its earliest bookings was the comedy team of Mutt and Jeff. The Rolling Stones opened (just kidding, vaudeville style).

The Victoria closed in 1932 and was kept alive in the 1940s by the Plasterers Institute, which installed two kilns on the stage to test fire brick durability. The stage was used as an automobile repair shop in the 1960s. By the early 1970s the Vic was a steamy X-rated movie theater with the greeting, “The Old Vic is Back in Business ... For You. The Public. The Finest of People.” After porn, the Vic turned into the Roberto Clemente Theater, a Spanish-language house.

But the last quarter century has been the most active period in its lifetime. More than 1 million fans have attended more than 1,000 events at the Vic, according to current owner Jam Productions.

Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Jerry Seinfeld are among those who have headlined the 1,400-capacity room. On Dec. 13, the Punch Brothers play the Vic, and Leftover Salmon headlines on New Year’s Eve. It was 20 years ago this year Warren Zevon that headlined the Vic on New Year’s Eve.

As is often the case, the backstage stories are as compelling as showtime.

The late Walter Klein Jr. converted the Vic in 1983 after it had a short run featuring Indian movies. The Vic reopened in 1984 with a private taping for Second City’s 25th anniversary special for HBO, where Bill Murray showed the staff how to make a “proper martini.” The Second City logo still hangs in the rafters backstage. In October 1984, country pop singer Juice Newton was the first music act to play the Vic.

The Vic’s nascent years informed Chicago rock ’n’ roll history.

Klein’s 1984 Vic crew included talent buyer Dave Frey, who would go on to manage Cheap Trick, and Vic soundman Lee Popa, who went on to do sound for Living Colour.

Tom Klein was operations manager at the Vic. In 1980 Klein had opened the West End, 1170 W. Armitage, with his brother Walter, a motorcycle-riding rockin’ raconteur who died of liver cancer in 2010. Sue Miller booked the West End as the precursor to Lounge Ax in Lincoln Park.

“We were under the radar,” Frey said from his home in Charlottesville, Va. “In 1985 I booked Trouble Funk with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who happened to be going different ways across the country. The Beastie Boys had just gotten kicked off the Madonna tour. We added the Beastie Boys. We sold 210 tickets. Disaster.”

And the guts of the Vic are a mash-up of Chicago theater history.

Walnut railings in the top south opera box were rescued from the now-razed Granada Theater in Rogers Park. Heating parts were imported from the old Uptown Theater. Bathroom ventilation motors came from the now-demolished Southtown Theater, 610 W. 63rd St. Even the plush wingback chairs in the opera boxes came from the Pump Room lobby.

Jimmy Wiggins is facilities manager at the Vic. “There wasn’t a lot of money to replace old equipment,” Wiggins said during a Vic tour. “So I went around to all the old moviehouses that were closed in the 1980s, scavenging every part I could find. “

Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson added, “Walt resurrected the Vic. That’s why we started doing shows here in ’87. We always liked working in neighborhoods. In 1973 we started at the Aragon in Uptown, and in 1975 we started at the Riviera Theater as well as the Uptown Theater.”

The Vic, however, was down and out.

“There was three feet of water in the basement area where the dressing rooms are,” Tom Klein recalled. “All the heating and air conditioning runs under there. It smelled. We had to remove all the asbestos. Why did we want to go in there in the first place? Good question. Walt was involved with the people at Tuts [a rock club around the corner on Belmont]]. I was a musician [guitarist for Spies Who Surf, later Liquid Soul]. Joe Shanahan and Joe Prino were putting together the Metro at the same time. We knew we would be going up against them, but we were a totally different animal.”

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In 1983 Dave Frey was working at Tuts, which took over the space of the historic Quiet Knight. Walter Klein had just purchased the Vic.

“The city red-tagged [for building violations] the front door of Tuts,” Frey recalled. “We didn’t want to break the tag because it was against the law. So Walt and I went out through the trap door of the [Tuts] ceiling, put planks across to the fire escape at the Vic and went in the Vic. We took all things out of Tuts. The back bar at Tuts had a square piece that was rumored to have this time capsule in it. Before we left we broke it open and there was a time capsule in it. There was the picture of a guy and his dog, a joint, a piece of his hair and the opening flyer for the Quiet Knight, which was the Siegel Schwall Band in ‘64 or ‘65. Walt told us we could have whatever we carried, so I carried that.”

The early Vic crew explored the old theater like something from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The staff discovered a lounge with a trap door, above the opera boxes, stage right. “You would access the room through a ladder that dropped down from the box,” Frey said. “So after the show you could go up to this little room and get a drink. You could maybe get 20 people in there. Walt never redid that. There were catacombs that go out and [off property] where they kept their stashes.”

Wiggins pointed to one of the tiny catacombs by the boiler room. “This goes under the Sheffield sidewalk,” he said. “All the sidewalks were vaulted when they built these theaters. The mobsters used them as escape routes.”

Similar tunnels exist between the Aragon Ballroom and the Green Mill jazz club in Uptown.

The Klein brothers removed the theater seats and installed the nightclubby chairs and tables on tiers now used for intimate concerts and the Vic’s popular “Brew and View” movie series.

The Kleins and Jam kept the original Christopher Columbus mural in the balcony hallway, although no one knows why the original Victoria had a Columbus mural in the first place. Wiggins said the mural hasn’t been touched up in 100 years. The original gold and red plaster relief along the front the balcony has been restored. The original projection booth from the late 1920s is still used above the balcony.

“Everything you see ornamentation-wise remains as it was the day it opened, which is amazing considering how many different things happened in here,” said Wiggins, who has been with Jam since 1993 and was chief engineer at the Chicago Theater before Jam purchased the Vic in 2000. “They built these theaters pretty acoustically perfect, so there wasn’t much we had to do. This was a vaudeville house, so it had to have good acoustics before it was before amplified sound came into use. Not many artists play in a venue 100 years old.”

Jam has since added a new roof, a new marquee and most recently new, clean bathrooms — an unusual perk for most of the city’s aged rock palaces. All 10 exit signs are lit, even when the theater is empty. “We’re inspected every year and spur of the moment by the fire department,” Wiggins said.

The Vic’s only incongruency is a huge mirrorball that hangs from the ceiling. It is a remnant of the theater’s life as Clubland, a mid-1980s dance club with video and go-go girls in cages. In 1988, producer Michael Butler debuted a 20th anniversary prodcution of his “Hair” at the Vic. The show was a success and ran for a year.

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Rick Fosbrink is executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, based above the historic York Theater in Elmhurst.

He cannot think of any American city that has transformed as many old theaters into rock ’n’ roll venues as Chicago. “It’s a challenge,” said Fobrink, who recently consulted with “60 Minutes” on a piece regarding the rock ’n’ roll restoration of the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. “Even if a building is 50 years old you have mechanical systems that are out of date. Technology moves along so fast that having an energy efficent building is a challenge ... Bathrooms are the biggest thing. We expect to have nice bathrooms. That’s not the way those places were built.”

Long before rock ’n’ roll entered old movie palaces, rhythm and blues took center stage at the Apollo in Harlem and the now-razed Regal Theater, built in 1928 at 4710 S. King Dr.

The 3,000-seat Regal was framed by an enchanting Spanish-Far Eastern motif. On Christmas Day 1959, a holiday spectacle featured the Miles Davis Sextet, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, Sonny Stitt and vocalist Betty Carter. Bill Graham brought rock ’n’ roll onto center stage in 1968 when he opened Fillmore West in a former ballroom at Market Street and South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

The Vic architect was John E.O. Pridmore, who also designed the now-closed Clark and Nortown theaters in Chicago and the State Theatre in Minneapolis. For the Vic, Pridmore used handmade English quarry title in the walls and Italian marble on the lobby floor and staircases.

“In 1930 Balaban and Katz opened the Belmont [movie theater, now razed] right down the street” at 1635 W. Belmont, Wiggins said. “There was no longer a need for this as an operating theater. In the 1920s and ’30s there was the Merry Dancing Garden across the street. It was a smaller version of the Aragon. These theaters were built in entertainment districts. Every time you see an old theater, there were restaurants and bars, close to the L.” All of the Jam historic theaters are within a block of the L.

Frey researched the Vic during his time in Chicago. He learned that the Vic had been connected to the Belmont L stop through a lighted lobby. “There was a shop open 24 hours where you could get newspapers and stuff,” Frey said. “There is so much interesting history in that place. You can’t buy an education like that.”

Or see it in the movies.



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