Chicago International Amphitheater: Where Giants Made History and Culture Popped
What do Ike and Nixon, the Beatles, Elvis and the Batmobile have in common? During this summer’s concert season, we rekindle memories of Abraham Epstein’s colossal amphitheater, a high-tech modern design and the king of venues that put Chicago center stage as the convention capital of the world.
Chicago was hog heaven, literally, when Abraham Epstein was commissioned to build the International Amphitheater in 1934 after a devastating fire, the worst since the great conflagration of 1871, obliterated eight city blocks and the original 1885 Dexter Pavilion site near the old Union Stock Yard. With a price tag of $1.5 million — $25.7 million in 2013 dollars — the South Side arena was erected for the International Livestock Exhibition. Epstein is not usually included in the same weighty breath of Chicago architecture gods such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan. His designs were practical, workman-like, but on this project he created a model replicated across the country: a venue adapted for technical extravaganzas, for events broadcast live and media production on the fly.
“Most Diversified Structure of its Kind in the Nation,” boasts a 1950s billboard. You couldn’t argue the point and win. It was air conditioned. Photographers had darkroom facilities. Radio and television stations had studio space on-site and patched in live feeds, the way a mobile unit works today. This was a chapter in tech when television was pooh-poohed as an alien, expensive, yet fascinating, consumer fad. In 1948 a 20-inch big-screen TV from DuMont ran $2,495 and programming was paltry with only three networks. But in 1952 the Republican National Convention set precedent as the first televised nationally from the Amphitheater. (Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon beat the democratic ticket with former Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson and John J. Sparkman.) The venue would host five political party conventions, several contentious, including the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Memorable performances and unveilings in American culture happened at the 440,000-square-foot arena. The swooped fin-tailed Lincoln 1955 Futura Car — later immortalized as the Batmobile in the campy 1960s TV series — made its sexy debut. Elvis Presley added the signature gold-leaf suit to his repertoire of gyrations here in 1957. (During the show, firemen carted off more than a dozen wailing girls.) In September 1964 Chicago was intoxicated with Beatlemania as the Fab Four, on their first U.S. tour, performed an 11-song set to a throng numbering 15,000 of the screaming, the fainting and the love-struck; and, just in case, a cop pool of 320 of Chicago's finest were on standby. Two years later the Amphitheater was the first show on the Beatles' last tour.
Even with its awful acoustics (they were awful), bands still played sold-out dates. Pink Floyd, the Jackson Five, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Earth, Wind & Fire: They all had Amphitheater gigs. At one time, the Chicago Bulls and the Packers called it home.
But by the 1970s it was set fire by poor economics. It was a dying heap with an exorbitant upkeep and leaky revenue. In 1983 an investor bought the shambling structure for peanuts — $250,000. Later, the City of Chicago took over but couldn't make it work. New, state-of-the-art arenas lured away audiences and the lucrative trade-show business. After an iffy decade and prospects of resuscitation slim, it was unceremoniously demolished in 1999. The remaining Union Stockyard Gate, a beautiful limestone entrance, is now a National Historic Landmark.