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The Davis Theater: A history and tour

By Mike Fourcher | Monday, March 1, 2010

Recently the Center Square Ledger took a tour of the Davis Theater with the theater?s current owner, Tom Fencl, along with local movie theater historian and comic artist, Gordon McAlpin. Besides a tour of the theater’s back rooms, Fencl shared historic photos and research he had commissioned when he purchased the building in 2005.

The Pershing Theater

The Pershing Theater soon after opening. (click image for larger version) Credit: Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Tom Fencl.

Ninety years ago, at the end of the First World War, Lincoln Square was home to five theaters: the Pershing, the Bertha, the Leland, the Rosewood and the Northcenter. The most opulent of them all was the Pershing, now known as the Davis Theater at 4614 N. Lincoln Ave.

The Bertha Theater

The Bertha Theater, now Degerberg Academy. (click image for larger version) Credit: Courtesy of the Theater Historical Society of America and Tom Fencl.

Completed in 1918, the Pershing Theater was named after the leader of American Forces in the First World War, General of the Armies John J. ?Black Jack? Pershing, then a national celebrity. The theater’s 30 year-old architect, Walter Ahlschlager, later become famous for designing the Roxy Theater in New York, The Uptown Broadway Building and the Medinah Athletic Club (now the Hotel Inter-Continental) among other buildings.

While the Davis has survived, the other area theaters have been demolished or converted to other uses. For instance, the Bertha Theater at 4717 N. Lincoln, is now the Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts & Fitness.

Originally, the Pershing was a 1,098 seat silent movie theater with a Barton organ. The opening movie was “The Forbidden City” starring Norma Talmadge as the “Mongolian Miss”. Working to keep offerings fresh, the Pershing quickly changed bills to “Pals First” starring Harold Lockwood, which attempted to answer the question, “can a man keep his pal after he marries?”

The Davis saw brief fame as the starting point of one of Chicago?s most infamous crimes: “The Case of the Ragged Stranger”. On June 21, 1920, 32-year old war hero named Carl Wanderer walked home with his 19-year old pregnant bride, Ruth, to their home at 4732 N. Campbell. A gunman accosted them in the building vestabule, shot Ruth, and then Wanderer shot the gunman with his own revolver.

At first the object of broad sympathy, Wanderer was investigated by the Chicago police. They determined the gunman had been hired by Wanderer to kill his wife. Wanderer had recently taken up with a new 16-year old girlfriend and he didn’t want to be a father. Following his conviction, Wanderer was hung on September 30, 1921 at the old Criminal Courts Building on Hubbard and Dearborn.

In 1930 the Pershing was converted with great fanfare to a ?talkie? theater at the cost of $100,000 (about $1 million in today’s dollars) and got the new ?Davis? name. Clara Bow and Jack Oakie sent telegrams of congratulations at the opening, which was attended by 2,500 people.

By the 1960?s the Davis had changed owners numerous times and was showing German language movies in an attempt to cater to neighborhood heritage. But a glut of theaters and decline of theater-going affected sales, and the owners by the 1970?s began looking for an audience, trying revivals, puppet shows and second-run movies.

In 1979 a new set of owners shifted its focus to revivals and ?modernized? the building to the look we know today. The revival plan, despite backing by Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, was not profitable. The theater went back to being a second-run theater within months.

Thoughout the 1980?s and 1990?s the theater limped along. It was the sole local theater to show the softcore ?Caligula? in 1980. In 1986 the theater was triplexed, and renamed the ?Davis Theater 1-2-3?. Occasional film festivals were hosted at the Davis, and by 1999 a fourth theater had been added.

Then everything went nuts.

In late 1999 the theater was set to be sold to developer Jim Jeager, who, rumor had it, planned to demolish the property and build condos. Within weeks a ?Save The Davis Theater? campaign started. Over 500 people attended a community meeting at Sulzer Library opposing development of the theater. 47th Ward Alderman Eugene Schulter told the Sultzer Library meeting he would support the campaign.

Jeager, who needed zoning approval from Ald. Schulter to develop the property, walked away from the deal before 1999 was over, and the Davis was back on the block.

Soon the non-profit Davis Theater Preservation Corporation, led by community members Sharon Woodhouse and Mary Edsey, sprang up to purchase the building. The building was ultimately sold to Special Real Estate Services in January 2000. The Davis began to show first-run movies again.

The theater changed hands again in late 2005, when it finally came to the current owner, Tom Fencl, who professes a love of old theaters and has, ?no plans to change anything.”

The theater is operated by Value Theater Corporation, said Fencl, a company that specializes in distribution to small theaters across the company.

?It?s all about volume in the movie distribution business,? said Fencl. Because Value manages small theaters across the country, ?they?re able to leverage that,? to get good films and lower prices.

Hopefully the Davis will see more stability in the years to come.

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  • John O’Grady

    I really enjoyed seeing that photo of the Bertha Theater. If you look up at the top of the building, you’ll see a part that rises up more. My dad lived up there, and he died in a fall down the steps just outside his front door on New Years Eve of 1975. It was one of the nicest things he ever did for us.

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  • Billy Vass

    My grandfather owned a candy shop that was next door to the Davis in the 1950s. Was wondering if anyone would know if there was old pictures or information of Christies candies . Appearently old theaters had candy shop next to them.

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