The New Regal Theater, once the Avalon Theater, towers over the intersection of 79th Street and Stony Island Avenue, its colorful minaret suggesting a mosque in a Middle Eastern city.
Stepping through the theater's doors, visitors are transported to an exotic and lavishly decorated far-off land. This sense of escape from the real world is exactly the point of “atmospheric theaters” like the New Regal. Such grand palaces of leisure offered respite and entertainment to the public, in the decades before television screens became ubiquitous.
Creating an atmosphere
In the boom years of the 1920s, countless buildings in America borrowed from historic architectural styles. Veterans returning from service in foreign lands during the first World War, and tourists armed with early cameras, brought images of exotic places home that inspired architects. Some of the most fanciful of these historicist buildings were the atmospheric theaters. These buildings borrowed from exotic and exciting places, and were constructed with such lavish attention to detail that the typical moviegoer might forget she was even in Chicago.
John Eberson was a prolific designer of atmospheric theaters. His plans for the Avalon Theater were said to have been inspired by a Persian incense burner he found at an antiques store. The lobby he designed is resplendent with colored tile under a flying-carpet ceiling. Set into the ceiling are gemstones that glistened as they moved, blown by the air from a then-recent innovation known as air conditioning.
Passing from the lobby to the enormous auditorium is like walking out of a palace and into an outdoor bazaar at night, with a tent over the stage and screen. More than 2,000 guests could gaze under a simulated night sky, complete with twinkling lights as stars. It’s easy to imagine someone completely forgetting their place in the world after a double feature in such a grand and unusual space.
What’s in a name?
The original Regal Theater at 47th Street and King Drive was a gem of historic Bronzeville, and played host to numerous famous African-American performers. As Bronzeville changed, it declined and was eventually demolished in 1973.
Around that same time, the former Avalon Theater went into use as a church. New owners purchased it in the late 1980s, renovated it, and rechristened it the New Regal Theater, in homage to that fallen landmark. Since then, the theater has had its ups and downs, though it remains an anchor on which rest the hopes of many for community revitalization in South Shore.