The Mystery of the Chicago Theater

The Chicago Theater at State and Randolph is a legitimate city landmark — or at least it has been since a multimillion-dollar restoration project in 1986. Before then it was something of an eyesore, having gone into a steep decline along with the rest of the downtown area in the 1970s.

Since its grand reopening (with Frank Sinatra headlining! how cool is that?), it's been a fantastic place to catch a show. I mean, when they built the place in 1921 they spent $4 million dollars on it — that's 1921 dollars, of course — to make it the flagship of the Balaban and Katz theater chain. The white terracotta exterior features a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, the lobby is modeled after the chapel at Versailles, and the grand staircase mimics the one at the Paris Opera House. It's all marble and stained glass and gilded fixtures. It's spectacular.

My gal and I caught the Arcade Fire there recently. The band put on a hella good show, by the way. Who knew that a band with a hurdy-gurdy player could rock so very hard? Anyway, we were sitting in the balcony, and between the opening act and the Fire's first set, the house lights were up. This interlude gave us time to take a good long look at the many murals adorning the walls. I have a long-standing interest in Greek and Roman mythology, and the scenes were obviously depictions of ancient Roman gods and goddesses. But there was something strange going on.

For one thing, while some of the gods chosen were fairly obvious — Apollo, Bacchus, Mars — others were so obscure as to defy identification. Some of the details also seemed oddly out of place. The symbols of classical mythology create a kind of language, and it was clear that the artist was “speaking” with a very peculiar accent.

After the show my gal and I looked for some answers on the Internet. When that failed to satisfy, we sent an e-mail to the management at the Chicago Theater. We received an email in return from Javier Ayala, the theater's business manager. It turns out he was as curious as we were to find out more about the murals, and together we set out to find some answers to our mutual questions.

It seems that the original murals from 1921 depicted traditional French country scenes to go with the French Baroque style of the building. The Roman gods and goddesses were painted over them in 1932-33. In the many years and many changes of ownership since then, however, the theater's historical records were lost, and Javier has been unable to discover who the original artist or artists were.

He was kind enough to let us come in for a tour on an off-show night to view the murals in greater detail. And the more details we found, the stranger things became. I can't tell if it was one person who did all the painting or a whole group of artists. Assuming it was one person, I can't decide if he or she was a genius or a hack. I can't tell if there's some grand unifying theme — a message behind it all — or if they were just trying to get the job done as quickly as they could. The Great Depression was on, after all. Maybe the artist was only looking for a paycheck, not trying to make a statement.

Since my training is mainly in literature, I'm hoping there's an art historian out there who can save the day. I turn this mystery over to our loyal readership in the hopes that they can help me find an answer — if there is one — and give a name to the artist or artists who seem for all the world to be winking at several decades of theatergoers.

To the left is the balcony of the Chicago Theater. Imagine yourself sitting up there, looking out at the stage. From left to right, here are the murals and what little I've been able to figure out about them.

We begin with Mars, god of war. We can assume this is the Roman version of the god — as I'm going to assume all the murals are – due to his horsehair plume and breastplate. Sounds fine so far. The weird thing? He has laid down his traditional symbol, the sword, and has taken up the hammer and chisel of a craftsman. He seems to be working on the detail of that column. At his feet are the scales, laurel wreath, and book that are the traditional symbols of Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice (still commonly seen in or outside court buildings the world over as Lady Justice — she's also sometimes depicted with a sword, and often blindfolded). Is war making way for justice?

This is such an obvious shout-out to Botticelli that it just has to be Venus, goddess of love. It makes sense that she would be next to Mars — they were lovers in the myths, although she was married to Vulcan, god of fire and blacksmithing. Venus is, however, not usually depicted with a lyre. It is instead Erato, an obscure mythological figure who was the muse of love poetry, who was often depicted with a lyre and a crown of roses.

Next is Bacchus, god of wine. He is an iteration of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose honor the world's first theater festival was created, the Dionysia of ancient Athens (although to be fair, it was as much a religious festival as a theater festival). It makes sense that he would be found on the wall of a theater, and to emphasize the point, the artist has given him the mask of comedy to hold. Behind him is a grapevine, his sacred plant.

The first of our mystery women is seated, nude, with her back turned, observing a small figurine. At the base of whatever it is she's sitting on is a hammer and a laurel wreath — the same, perhaps, as the ones in the mural of Mars? The way she is turned and seated, and the fact that the small figurine she's looking at has wings, makes me think this may be Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and home. She was often depicted with a small statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. (And wouldn't a theater be a home, after a fashion, to the people who worked there?) Vesta was very important to the Romans; every household had a small shrine to her, and the public priestesses of the Roman state, the Vestal Virgins, were dedicated to her service. Apparently, Vesta's great tragedy was that she could not fall in love. But we don’t know many other details about this mysterious goddess herself, as she appears in strikingly few myths or depictions.

Commanding your attention above the stage and over the proscenium is Apollo, driving his chariot of the sun across the sky. He was the god of the sun, light, truth, medicine, dreams, and, in his more terrible aspect, a bringer of plague. He was also the god of prophecy, believed to speak to mortals through the oracle at Delphi. Note that in this mural his lyre seems identical to the one that Venus carries.

Starting on the right-hand wall is our second mystery woman. At first I thought this was Juno, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Hera, wife of Jupiter and queen of the gods, both because of her regal bearing and because I thought the object at her feet was a peacock feather — the peacock being one of her sacred animals. Turns out it's a palm frond, so that's out the window. She is depicted painting on a canvas, and at her feet is an anachronistic (deliberately so?) color palette, as well as a roll of parchment. Could this be Minerva, goddess of wisdom, arts, and crafts? Minerva is also a warrior goddess, and would typically be depicted with a weapon of some kind. And no, I couldn't make out exactly what it is she's painting.

This may be, to me, the most interesting of all the murals. The lifted torch, the veil, the bloody dagger, and the column in the background all indicate that this is Hecate, a goddess of the underworld, of childbirth, and of magic. (And check out that bloody dagger — how did they manage to slip that in? It's a family theater after all.) That the artist could create such an accurate depiction of such a relatively obscure goddess proves that he or she really knew their classical iconography. This I think must mean that, in those murals where it is difficult to determine the identity of the goddess, the artist is being deliberately vague. Otherwise, why not include a peacock feather, a bow, or a trident to clear things up? Why play with the viewer? Also, all the other gods and goddesses are depicted as artists of some sort; they all have either a musical instrument (lyre, cymbal) or an artistic implement (chisel, tablet, paintbrush, mask). Unless the artist is implying that the dagger is Hecate's instrument, and death her art?

I got nothing. Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, is often depicted with a writing tablet, but can this really be her? A muse would be a bit out of place among the gods.

Yet another mystery goddess. Could this be a young Proserpine, goddess of spring, before she was dragged down to the underworld by Pluto? Or could this be the more obscure Maia Maiestas, the goddess of May? She has a ribbon that could be for skipping around the maypole, after all. Maybe it’s Terpsichore, the muse of dance? I just don't know.

If anyone has any ideas or information about any of these murals, or sees some overall theme that the artist or artists was trying to depict, please send your e-mails to Ditto if you have any idea who the artist might have been.

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