It is most famous as the location where bank robber John Dillinger was shot by the FBI, led by Melvin Purvis, on July 22, 1934. The Biograph Theater is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a Chicago Landmark on March 28, 2001.
Designed in 1914 by Samuel N. Crowen, an architect known for his classically detailed designs, the Biograph Theater possesses many of the distinguishing characteristics of the earliest movie houses, included a simple storefront-width lobby, recessed entrance, free-standing ticket booth, and canopy marquee.
The building is finished with red pressed brick and white-glazed terra cotta, and its construction typifies the first-generation movie houses whose architectural style gave legitimacy and respectability to the fledgling motion picture industry. Dillinger’s death, after being named “Public Enemy No. 1” by the FBI, guarantees the Biograph’s place in Chicago crime history.
In this July 21, 1934 file photo, people pose in front of the Biograph Theater at Lincoln and Fullerton Streets as one woman displays the newspaper headline “Dillinger Slain” in Chicago, IL. Outlaw John Dillinger was shot and killed by federal agents outside the movie theater after watching the feature “Manhattan Melodrama.” AP Photo/File
The Biograph Theater premiered D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and continued on as a grand movie theater through the Depression, two world wars, and the 50’s and 60’s.
On the evening of July 22, 1934 a dapper-looking man wearing a straw hat and a pin-striped suit stepped out of the Biograph Theater where he and two girlfriends had watched a film called Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. No sooner had they reached the sidewalk when a man appeared and identified himself as Melvin Purvis of the FBI. He ordered the man in the straw hat to surrender.
Several shots rang out and the fleeing man in the straw hat fell dead to the pavement. So ended the life of John Herbert Dillinger, the most prolific bank robber in modern American history and the general public’s favorite Public Enemy No. 1. Surrounding businesses have banked on the criminal’s name for many years. On the day after the fatal shots were fired, the bar next door placed a sign in the window that read “Dillinger had his last drink here”.
In the 1970’s, as was the custom in many parts of the United States, the 60 year old theater, in need of renovation, was converted into a four screen “multiplex,” so four movies could be shown at a time, increasing the profits. The original decor mostly lost, the historic Biograph continued to show movies until 2001. The theater reopened in 2002 under the Village Theatres chain, which operated it until September 2004, when it again closed.
In 2004, after 90 years as a movie theater, Victory Gardens purchased the Biograph. The theater was completely renovated by architect Daniel P. Coffey. The interior was entirely rebuilt, from a venue which could originally seat over 900 to a proscenium-thrust stage seating 299 people. A grand staircase, which was part of the original structure, was restored to lead up to the building’s second floor, to house a future studio theater and an adjacent rehearsal/multiple-use space. The facade was repaired and cleaned and the marquee was rebuilt to resemble its original appearance. The words “Victory Gardens” replaced the word “Essaness” over the neon-lit Biograph name, Essaness being the chain that operated the movie house during the 1930s. The $11.8 million project for the new theater, styled the Victory Gardens at the Biograph, was completed in 2006 and opened on September 28, 2006, with Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble Member Charles Smith’s drama, Denmark.