A Tour of the Historic Chicago Theater with Drew Perfilio

I’m thinking, Sinatra stood here.

I’m also thinking, I can’t believe I used to work here.

Drew Perfilio walks me across the stage. Eleven years ago, we both worked out in the lobby, tending bar. It was a pickup gig for me at times, a full-time gig at others. At one point in this city, it was one of four jobs I was working while I tried to make ends meet. I left the theater after a while, and eventually Chicago. Drew stuck with both. Now, he’s in charge of every bartender, barback, and cocktail server in the joint, and responsible for every drop of liquor that they pour.

Which is why he can take me on the stage when the theater is dark.

“I love my job.” he tells me. And that’s important, because the hours in a gig like his are brutal. When the season is hopping, fourteen and fifteen hour days are normal. He’s letting me stay in his apartment, and I watch him drag himself home at two in the morning more than once during my visit. His wife and son are already in bed when he gets back, so we sit up and do what we’ve always done in the fifteen years we’ve known each other. We talk. We talk music. We talk philosophy. We talk poetry. We’re like Plato and Aristotle, only dumber.

Drew Perfilio, who is so punk rock he prefers his own earlier work.

A love of the music and the shows is one of the things that keeps Drew committed. But he also loves the theater itself, which has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s busy State Street since 1921, when it was constructed as a high end movie palace for the Balaban and Katz Theater Company. It quickly became one of the most popular venues in Chicago, not just for the novelty of motion pictures, but because it was one of the few buildings in the city where the public could experience air conditioning during the hot summer months.

The theater also featured live music and stage shows, and became well known for the opulence of its interior, which included murals across the ceilings, its gorgeous staircase, Tiffany glass, and two fountains near the edges of the stage which would actively pour water until theater owners noticed that everyone who sat near them had to constantly dart out to use the restrooms, at which point they were turned off.

This staircase was modeled on a staircase on the Titanic.

In the 70’s, the theater fell into disrepair. Attempts to keep it running as a movie house failed. Before it was shuttered for repairs in 1985, it was reduced to showing second-run films to an audience that included drunks sleeping in the aisles and prostitutes taking care of business with customers in the shadows.

It could have gone by the wayside, but a massive development project by a preservation group saved the old dame and converted it back to its 1930’s grandeur. On September 8, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington flipped the switch to turn the lights back on. Two days later, the theater officially re-opened with a performance by Frank Sinatra.

Today, the theater focuses on stage shows by performers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to Arcade Fire, as well as older musicals like A Chorus Line, Cabaret and, of course, Chicago.

The view from the stage. The suspended balcony provides a good view from any seat.

In 2013, the theater hosted a tribute to one of my favorite writers: the film critic Roger Ebert. For two and a half hours, friends came to offer tributes to the great storyteller who had lost his battle with cancer that April. Ebert and his one-time nemesis turned longtime friend Gene Siskel used to watch films slated for their famous show right here in the balcony. Today, a plaque dedicated to Ebert resides in front of the main entrance, while directly across the street sits the Gene Siskel Film Center, dedicated to the equally brilliant critic who passed away in 1998.

The history of the performers is written on the walls. Drew walks me down below the stage, past the various green rooms and communal dining areas for the performers. Murals of the shows are painted in blocks the walls, then criss-crossed with the signatures of the cast. At the top of one staircase, there is a door painted purple and dedicated to Prince, adorned with the symbol he used for a name during his “The Artist Formerly Known As…” phase.

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 The Prince Door. Carol Burnett’s animated likeness and signature are just to the right.

None of these are views I could have had eleven years ago. Until Drew gave me the tour, I’d never seen the lower levels of the theater, never even came close to the stage. I think I’d been inside the main auditorium just once.

Now, I could take in the suspended balcony, which so panicked the public that the theater owners placed thousands of pounds of sandbags in the seats and had newsmen photograph it so audiences would be assured they wouldn’t plunge to their deaths. Likewise, I could take in the murals on the high ceilings, the gold leaf and the ornate designs carved into the stone. I could stand on the stage where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had their reunion. I could sit in the box seats where the rich and powerful of Chicago have sat for 95 years.

Drew gets to see this every day, but the beauty of it isn’t lost on him. He talks through every arc of the building’s history, right down to what kind of wiring was installed when he poured his first drink on his first shift as an entry-level bartender. He can tell you the ways the different shows will be staged and which shows are going to do what kind of business. It’s his job to know this stuff, of course. But you can sense the thrill he gets from being part of it.

It’s been a decade since we worked here together, at the same level. I never would have considered moving upward, but that’s the difference between us. Drew is a Chicagoan, and there are few buildings more synonymous with the city than the theater that bears its name. For him to have a substantial role in making it run is a point of pride, and it should be. His story speaks to the work ethic embodied within the city’s DNA. By simply doing his job well, he’s become a part of this theater’s history—and by extension, of the city itself.

The Chicago Theater is located at 175 N. State Street in downtown Chicago. Their website can be found here, and has a list of upcoming shows.

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