The Regal Theater

by futurespastchicago

The Regal Theater, 1955. (Image Credit: Charles A. Sengstock Jr.)

“On February 4, 1927 the Regal Theater opened at 47th and South Park Way in the South Center Building next door to the Savoy Ballroom. Soon 47th and South Park had replaced 35th and State as the main drag. It became the downtown of the Black Community, the area that became known as Bronzeville. …In 1942 I went to see Jay McShann and his orchestra at the Regal Theater. The emcee (I can’t remember if it was Jay McShann) said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Walter Borwn will song one of the band’s latest recordings.’ The band began playing the intro. The next thing I heard was an alto saxophone at the microphone. He played 12 bars of blues like nothing I had ever heard before. It ran chills all through my body. I didn’t learn until later that it was Charlie Parker.” Charles Walton, Charles Walton Papers – 1996/05

A mandatory stop for musical greats.

When it officially opened along side the Savoy Ballroom at the southeast corner of 47th Street and South Parkway in 1928, The Regal Theater saw long lines of people waiting excitedly in the cold rain. The Regal was a visual treasure inside and out. It instantly became a significant social center for the community within the Black Metropolis. It was a welcoming motion-picture theater for Black patrons, employees and filmmakers at a time when the city wasn’t very welcoming to them. The Regal provided a stage for musicians such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Fess Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne who were among the famous performers to grace the stage. The theater also served as a venue for community organizations such as the Bud Billiken Club and Good Fellows Club to hold events and meetings.

About the Building.

Planning for the Regal Theater began in 1926. Completed in 1928, the theater was designed by architects Alexander L. Levy and William J. Klein. Pulling details from Spanish, Moorish, and Eastern architecture, Levy and Klein created the Regal Theater to stand apart from any venue of its kind at the time.  About the opening of the theater the Chicago Defender wrote, “The interior of the Regal, presents one of the most beautiful and amazing spectacles ever exhibited in a public institution; a triumph of imaginative designing that carries the theatergoers into an Oriental garden on a moonlight night. Overhead is stretched a mammoth polychrome canopy supported by huge poles of gold and fringed with a horizon-like vista of blue sky. Over the giant stage is the outline of an entrance to an Oriental pagoda, completing an effect that is almost enchanting in its romantic charm.”

After being demolished in 1973, the space on 47th Street remained vacant for over twenty years. As way to bring new life to the location’s former glory, construction of the Lou Rawls Theater Cultural Center began. Completed in 2004 and standing where the Regal Theater stood over thirty years before, the officially named Harold Washington Cultural Center occupies the theater’s historic land.

Ray Charles at the Regal Theater, poster from the Chicago Blues Museum. (Image courtesy of Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, photo by Tempestt Hazel.)

Page detail from Dizzy Gillespie The Bebop Years 1937 to 1952 By Ken Vail, Scarecrow Press 2003.