A side view of the Des Plaines theatre marquee sign
The survival of the Des Plaines Theatre for almost 100 years makes it a testament to the vaudeville and Hollywood eras that begat it. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

What’s that building? The Des Plaines Theatre

Hearkening back to the splendor of the vaudeville era, an old theater gets new life as “a place that swings like the ’50s but was built in the ’20s.”

The survival of the Des Plaines Theatre for almost 100 years makes it a testament to the vaudeville and Hollywood eras that begat it. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ
A side view of the Des Plaines theatre marquee sign
The survival of the Des Plaines Theatre for almost 100 years makes it a testament to the vaudeville and Hollywood eras that begat it. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

What’s that building? The Des Plaines Theatre

Hearkening back to the splendor of the vaudeville era, an old theater gets new life as “a place that swings like the ’50s but was built in the ’20s.”

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When the Des Plaines Theatre recently held a grand opening, it was the fifth such night in its 96-year life.

The theater, on Miner Street in the historical downtown section of Des Plaines, had sat empty for seven years. But after a nearly $9 million renovation project, it reopened on Oct. 31 with a performance by movie star Kevin Costner’s band Modern West.

Ron Onesti, whose entertainment firm is operating the Des Plaines Theatre, envisions its new life as “the 1920s in Las Vegas, if there’d been Las Vegas in the ’20s.” (Casinos first came to that desert outpost in the 1930s, which boomed into a nightlife mecca in subsequent decades.)

By that, Onesti means people will come for a night of dinner, drinks and music in a place that swings like the ’50s but was built in the ’20s.

The Art Deco marquee sign, top, came after the Des Plaines Theatre was built in 1925. Inside, there’s a pizza restaurant on one side of the lobby, left, and a bar on the other. Vashon Jordan Jr./WBEZ

The survival of the Des Plaines Theatre — connected through its past architects and owners to so many other now-demolished Chicago-area theaters — makes it a testament to the vaudeville and Hollywood eras that begat them all.

Onesti outfitted the front of the Des Plaines Theatre with a pizza restaurant on one side of the lobby. On the other, there’s a bar with stairs that lead up to a large social room fitted out with Victorian furniture, art and flocked wallpaper to look like a Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Details in the theater’s social room is reminiscient of a speakeasy from the Prohibition era. Vashon Jordan Jr./WBEZ

All of this leads into the auditorium, where much of the colorful Spanish Renaissance trim is still intact, complemented by new classical statues set into the arched nooks above the doorways.

Onesti Entertainment firm has operated a similar venue since 2005 in the old Arcada Theatre, 35 miles west in St. Charles. Professionally, Onesti is an impresario of live music events. His firm also operates three Italian street festivals in the summer, on Taylor and Oakley streets, and in Addison, Ill.

The auditorium is decorated with statues and ornate trim. Vashon Jordan Jr./WBEZ

Onesti, 59, is also a lifelong fan of old-time movie theaters, and said he spent a lot of his childhood in Elmwood Park’s Mercury Theatre, which was next door to his father’s tailor shop. It’s since been demolished.

“To babysit us, my dad would send us in there,” Onesti said. “We’d get popcorn, candy, watch the movie, but after a while I’d be looking around admiring the architecture. It had an effect on me.” He also remembers going to the Will Rogers, Montclare, Gateway and Tiffin theaters, all on the West and Northwest sides of the city.

In their heyday during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, the old theaters “meant a lot to their communities,” he said. “They weren’t just going for entertainment. The theaters were central meeting places. Outside of churches, it was where you saw everybody.”

A large ornate auditorium with chandaliers and red seats
In their heyday during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, theaters were central meeting places for many communities. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

The Des Plaines Theatre was a part of that, built in 1925 in the heart of a fast-growing, semi-rural town 20 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. During the 1920s, Des Plaines quickly became a suburb, growing in population from about 3,450 to almost 8,800 in just a decade.

Brothers Paul, Otto and Martin Polka, of Maywood, built the Des Plaines. It was one of nine theaters they built in the suburbs. They also operated the Pickwick Theatre, an Art Deco treasure still open in Park Ridge.

In 1925, Polka Bros advertised that the Des Plaines featured “always a pleasing entertainment for refined people.” Sundays were big, with the show including comedians, music, skits, gymnasts and a movie.

Ignore the snazzy Art Deco marquee, which came later, and you can see what 1925 theater-goers saw: two stories of red brick, with arched window openings. A handsome “crown” of terra cotta begins as star-spangled panels between the windows and finishes above as a row of frills.

A wide shot of the Des Plaines theatre
Unlike many historic movie houses, the Des Plaines has remained a theater throughout its life. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

William Betts, of the architecture firm Betts & Holcomb, designed the Des Plaines Theatre. It was the first of at least six he would design in Chicago and the suburbs. His suburban theaters in Villa Park, Barrington, Glen Ellyn and Lake Forest are still standing, but most aren’t in use as theaters anymore.

A decade later, in 1935, the Des Plaines got an upgrade, when it was bought by Balaban and Katz, the premier movie house owners in Chicago. B&K had another architecture firm, Pereira & Pereira, update the building, a task that included adding a lighted marquee that projects over the sidewalk.

It’s not entirely clear which ornamental details are by Betts and which are by Pereira. But what’s significant is that, unlike many historic movie houses, the Des Plaines has remained a theater throughout its life.

That hasn’t always been easy. A fire in March 1982 caused half a million dollars’ damage (about $1.46 million today). Before reopening, the theater was divided into two smaller theaters. The theater closed again in 2003, and has reopened and closed several times in the years since.

The backstage of the Des Plaines Theatre, left, and an old movie reel. Vashon Jordan Jr./WBEZ

During those decades, downtown Des Plaines has gone through a facelift, with new mid-rise condos and senior living, a four-story public library and the revitalized Sugar Bowl, a restaurant that dates to 1921.

The city of Des Plaines bought the old theater in 2018 for $1.8 million and lined up Onesti to oversee the renovations to suit his eventual move-in as the operator of the auditorium and associated food and drink outlets.

“This place used to be about a minute from being torn down,” Onesti said. “I’m glad it’s back the way it should be.”

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

VashonJordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.