The Punch and Judy Theatre, 1930

Eugene Fuhrer, architect, Nicolas Remisoff, design consultant, Edgar Miller, artist

View this post on my architectural history blog ArchInform

The graceful functionalism of the Punch and Judy, drawing by Nicolas Remisoff in The Western Architect

The cinema unique

The Punch and Judy Theatre was a cinematic remodeling in the modern style of an older theater space. Originally the second-third floor Recital Hall of the 1896 Steinway Hall [see Steinway Hall article here], the new cinema space was a complete reimagining, on an intimate scale, of the experience of moviegoing. The Punch and Judy’s design was the work of Eugene Fuhrer, architect, Nicolas Remisoff, theatre designer and consultant, and Edgar Miller, designer of the lobby’s relief decorations.

Edgar Miller “Punch” relief, Punch and Judy lobby

The Punch and Judy of 1930 was “an extension of the ventures of Louis Machat,”[1]  who had built on the “little theatre” movement in America with his version of “little cinema,” first in the eastern U.S. and then in Chicago’s Tower town [the area off N. Michigan Ave. near the Water Tower].

The “little theatre” movement has courageously invaded the Loop and the result, architecturally, is a most interesting transformation of the one Chicago’s oldest “legitimate” theatres into a motion picture house not only modern but vigorously modernistic, and as such, it is probably one of the most successful examples of this manner that we have in America.[2]

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The Western Architect, November 1930, p. 182. 

The existing theater, by the time of the remodeling called the Central Theatre, was square-shaped, of late-Victorian design, and with “objectionable features throughout” including two balconies, view-obstructing columns, bad acoustics, improper ventilation, and badly-arranged seats. It was judged “utterly impossible for the present-day theatre, while the general design was of such poor taste that a complete remodelling had to be considered.”[3]

Interior views from “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, pp. 35-40:

The designers’ task was to turn an “antiquated playhouse,” by then “the product of another architectural period,” [4] into the cinema unique, with every modern design feature and convenience. Modern and modernistic, the designers described their work, in terms both of technology and of style. Eschewing the historical trappings of grand movie palaces, the new style was stripped down, almost devoid of ornament, and based on smooth, curving surfaces. Streamline moderne[5] or Depression Modern[6] would later define this style; in France, it would be called at the time Style paquebot, or “Ocean liner style,” referring to the classic ocean liner Normandie.[7] Indeed, one description noted “The columns rising like pylons or the stacks of a great ship” (which actually covered the four columns of the earlier theater), as well as “the plain surfaces and strong lines that mark the entire design.[8]

This is modernism in the mood commonly referred to when this style of design is mentioned. For those who like the severer note…it is probably one of the most honest creations in the motif that we have in this country… [one would] be reminded of several of the finest examples of the manner erected in Germany.[9]

Interior views from Remisoff, Nicolas, “The Punch and Judy Theatre,” The Western Architect, November 1930, pp. 182-191:

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The cinema’s broadly-curved walls and domical ceiling, as well as the color scheme – touches of red and blue in reference to Punch and Judy, “faun” or “honey-brown” walls, and bold accents of black – characterized its modern style. A hallmark of this new mode, in addition, was its use of lighting. In the Punch and Judy, illumination was almost all from reflected light. Its principal source was from a light cove set into an elongated proscenium arch, from which the indirect lighting would be reflected off the curtain, softly illuminating the whole room. The lighting allegedly had the same faun tint as the walls.[10]

The new theater was illustrated in The Western Architect of November 1930, one article penned by Nicolas Remisoff, design consultant. The theater had been transformed from a squarish space into one “circular in feeling.”  Its design, the specialized sound-absorbing seats made by the American Seating Company, the color scheme, the acoustics, and even the free demitasse coffee and cigarettes offered in the lobby, reflected the idea that “the whole theme of the theatre is comfort – comfort to all the senses.”[11] A sense intimacy was achieved by reducing the previous space’s 890 seats to just 354.[12]

Main floor and loge plans

The new Punch and Judy offered seating on the main floor and in a second-level loge; the loge featured metal trays where patrons could comfortably rest their demitasses or ashtrays. Its small lobby, with plaques of Punch and Judy by Edgar Miller, was reached by a stairway from the ground floor; the entry was through the space originally occupied by the Lyon & Potter Steinway showroom, to the right of the building’s central entrance.

“Thus by a harmony of forms, colors, sounds, service, that restful result which we have long sought in theatre design has at last been achieved.”[13]

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1934 handbill

The “Little Cinema” Movement:

The Little Cinema or art house movement sought an alternative to commercial films, the huge public that supported them, and the huge movie palaces in which they were displayed. Discernment, or the need for something different, was the key. It had similar aims to the Little Theatre movement, which had started in the late 19th century, whose goal was to create experimental centers for the dramatic arts.

Starting in 1925, a chain of small theaters was proposed, designed to provide an “intimate” alternative to the large commercial movie houses of the day, and dedicated to showing “art films that appeal to the intelligent and sophisticated.”[14]

Design features encouraged patrons, in the words of one early promotional brochure, to “Sip delightful Java and smoke cigarettes of your own choosing.” Created for comfort and quiet, interiors offered sumptuous lounges appointed with deep carpets, velvet, drapes and soft lighting to encourage rest, relaxation, and “intimate chat.”[15]

“Sure seaters” was a nickname given to these art house cinemas, since patrons were always assured of finding a seat, due to the films’ lack of broad appeal.

The sure-seater has a subtle snob appeal that helps at the box office. You go into a theater that has a few tasteful paintings in the lobby and a maid serves you a demitasse of coffee. You’ve just paid top admission prices, but the coffee creates a pleasant aura. Then you’re shown to a comfortable seat in a well mannered audience…. You see a picture that assumes you have average intelligence and it’s such a refreshing switch that you are flattered to be among such perceptive folks who are sharing the experience.[16]

Chicago’s first “art house,” the Playhouse, formerly a legitimate theater, opened on September 11, 1927. Managed by Michael Mindlin, the 602-seat theater had a top ticket price of $1.10, and successfully premiered with Battleship Potemkin.[17]

 The Cinema Art Theatre, 151 East Chicago Avenue, Armstrong, Furst and Tilton, architects, opened on December 26, 1929 with the film Shiraz.[18] This cinema, with 299 seats, was presumably one of “the ventures of Louis Machat” in Chicago’s “Tower town” referred to earlier. Like the Punch and Judy, the cinema was decorated in soft and contrasting color schemes that downplayed its small size, and both featured works of art in the lobby or lounge, “objects embodying distinctive cultural values,”[19]  sometimes exhibited on a rotating basis.

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Foyer and auditorium, Cinema Art Theatre, 151 E. Chicago Ave., from The Western Architect, April 1930.

The Punch and Judy opened September 18, 1930, with D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, with a policy of presenting American-made pictures “of the type regarded as appealing to the socalled ‘discriminating’ portion of the citizenry.” The opening-night ticket price was $11 a seat [about $170 at today’s prices]. The Griffith film was then shown three times a day at a top evening price 0f $2.[20]

Punch and Judy marquee, announcing D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, 1930. Photo: Cinema Treasures

An item in the December 20, 1930 Exhibitors World-Herald announced that “We understand that Max Ascher has taken over the defunct, as it were, Punch and Judy theatre on Van Buren street.”[21] Whether the cinema had fallen on hard times in its first three months or simply changed management is not known; the Playhouse had felt the effects of dwindling ticket sales soon after its opening, and perhaps this was also the case with the Punch and Judy. The stock market crash of 1929, as well as a scarcity of quality foreign silent films and the advent of talking pictures, played their role as well.[22]

 The Punch and Judy would change its name to the Sonotone in 1935; it would be known as the Studio 1940-1952, the Ziegfeld 1952-1958, and finally the Capri 1958-1968. The Capri would exhibit adult films until it closed in 1968;[23] the Steinway Hall building, which housed this succession of cinemas, was demolished in 1970.

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Movie ads for (top) the Ziegfeld 1950 and (bottom) the Capri March 15 1963. Source: Cinema Treasures

In retrospect, The Little Cinema Movement seems to have been destined to engage in a rearguard action against the incursion of what must have seemed the vulgar aesthetic tastes represented by the mass-appeal talkies. Early literature…alludes to the physical layout, atmosphere, and programs as exuding elegance, refinement, intelligence, and repose as an antidote to the helter-skelter pace of the Roaring Twenties.[24]

The Designers

Information about Eugene Fuhrer, architect, is scarce. From a 1956 American Architects Directory (American Institute of Architects) he was born February 2, 1902, in Wallendorf, Austria-Hungary. He earned a B.S. in Architecture in 1923 from the Armour Institute of Technology, where he earned a Huntchinson Medal and AIA Student Medal. He received a Traveling Scholarship from the Chicago School of Architecture in 1923, and traveled to Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Holland, German, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.

Fuhrer was employed as a draftsman and designer for A.S. Alschuler, Inc., Chicago, 1923-26; as a designer for Walter Ahlslager 1926-27, and by Rissman & Hirschfield in 1927. He and his brother Max (b. January 31, 1901, studied at Cane College and Armour Institute) organized the firm Eugene & Max Fuhrer in 1927. The firm received commissions in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Among these were the Women’s Dormitory and additions to a power plant at Northern Illinois State Teachers College, DeKalb, as well as large construction projects in the Chicago area. Eugene co-authored the book Chicago Building Costs in 1936. The firm’s address was 120 S. LaSalle St. [now the CIBC Building], No. 3, and Eugene’s home was at 5228 S. University Ave., Chicago.[25]

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Women’s Dormitory, Northern Illinois State Teachers’ College, DeKalb IL; postcard

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Helsing’s Restaurant and Bar, 166 N. State St., matchbook cover

More details are gleaned from a 1946 Architects’ Questionnaire to gain qualification for federal public works. To his prior practice, Eugene added H. Clyde Miller 1920-21, draftsman and tracer, and Root and Hollister 1922-23, draftsman and designer, as well as brother Max’s prior qualifications. A third brother, Martin (b. December 12, 1912) is listed, who commenced practice in 1933. The firm’s large commissions included the Teachers College dormitory referred to ($1,200,000) and Stickney Hospital, Stickney, Illinois ($1,000,000). Smaller commissions included Helsing’s Washington Street Restaurant, Chicago; the Goodman Company, Cleveland; and the McNeill Building, Chicago. Further representative works from 1936 to 1947 are also listed in the questionnaire.[26]

A couple of drawings by Eugene Fuhrer in the Ryerson and Burnham Archive, Art Institute of Chicago, represent his sketching and presentation drawing skills.

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Nicolai (or Nicolas) Remisoff (1887-1975) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia; in 1910 he began studying at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1918. He and his family fled Russia, and eventually arrived in Paris in 1921. In Paris, he became the artist director of the famed theatre company Chauve-Souris (the Bat), which traveled the world and brought Remisoff to the United States. In New York, Remisoff began designing covers and doing illustrations for Conde Nast publications; he was then asked by Elizabeth Arden to design her famed “Red Door” salon and spa. In 1924, Remisoff opened a Russian-themed night club in New York called Club Petrushka, but the club burned in 1925.

Remisoff headed to Chicago, where he taught stage design at the Art Institute 1925-1926. While in Chicago, where he stayed until 1935, he designed sets and costumes for the Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page ballet companies. He created murals for the Casino Club, the Chicago Club, the Graceland Cemetery Chapel, and the Lake Forest Public Library, among other buildings. He had one-man shows at The Arts Club of Chicago in 1925 and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. He also exhibited at the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933.

Remisoff left Chicago in 1938 for Hollywood, where he would serve as art or production designer for 31 movies.[27]

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Portrait of Nicolas Remisoff painted by Ilia Repine in 1917

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Nicolas Remisoff, Winter Scene Design for a Ballet; Art Institute of Chicago

Nicolas Remisoff, (left) Costume design, young man with swan; (right) Vanity Fair cover, 1923

Edgar Miller (1899-1993) was an American self-taught artist and master craftsman, “a creative virtuoso of the modern era—who applied his skills to a multitude of projects in art, design and architecture.”[28] He was a designer, painter, craftsman, master woodcarver, and stained-glass designer.

Edgar Miller’s genius reached its apex in four fully realized artistic studios that he built on Chicago’s North Side in the 1920s and ‘30s. Miller marked almost every inch of the studios with daring and surprise. He took rustic brick, crude stone, salvaged tile, found glass and recycled steel and wood and “Edgarized” the homes, packing them with stained-glass windows, frescoes, murals, mosaics and woodcarvings.[29]

 These studios include the Carl Street Studio (1927) and the Rudolph Glasner Studio (1928), both in Chicago’s Old Town area.

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Edgar Miller painting a mural, 1957

Edgar Miller interior and stained glass, Architecture, August 1932, p. 66
Edgar Miller,Glasner Studio staircase. https://www.vamonde.com/posts/kogenmiller-studios/47

In his younger years Miller was called everything from “the blond boy Michelangelo” to “a new luminary.” In 1919 he had been was hired as an apprentice in the studio of Alfonso Ianelli, spending five years working on advertising, design, packaging, ink drawings, mural posters, stained glass, and cut stone. Through Ianelli, Miller met important studio clients like Marshall Field & Company and Holabird & Root, developing a network of future employers.[30]

 Of Miller’s plaques for the lobby of the Punch and Judy, Nicolas Remisoff wrote:

In some respects I consider these among the most clever things done by Miller. They are beautifully composed in diagonal compositions, perfectly done. Edgar Miller has, with his usual fine sense of fitness, captured something characteristically theatrical of the old time theatre. This is the one spot where tradition enters boldly, but up the stairway and toward the lounge one sees another plaque that expresses its fitness for its setting and carries out the circular form and motifs of this new theatre.[31]

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The Punch and Judy, which has “…introduced a new form for moving picture theatres, free from any kind of style and scenery,”[32] had offered an innovative and more intimate experience for the discerning movie patron of the 1930s. Its concept was realized by some of the most renowned designers and decorators of their day. Its forms evoked an age of speed, machines, and sleek new “modern” design that in retrospect would come to be called streamline moderne.

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The Punch and Judy would end its existence as the Capri Cinema, which closed in 1968. Photo: Cinema Treasures

Links to PDF documents of works cited:

Edgar Miller Designer-Craftsman, Architecture, August 1932

Finding Aid for the Nicolas Remisoff Papers

Fuhrer & Fuhrer Questionnaire for Federal Public Works

“The Cinema Unique,” The Western Architect Nov. 1930

Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World Oct. 25, 1939

Remisoff, Nicolas, “The Punch and Judy Theater,” The Western Architect Nov. 1930

Notes:

[1] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p. 35

Louis Machat started in 1910 with an early talking apparatus, such as it was…. Louis Machat was then connected with the old Sixth Avenue Playhouse in New York…. It failed and with the failure of the cylinder film followed the importation of foreign productions from Sweden, France and Italy. This importing business let him into the “Little Theatre” movement and resulted in the opening of the Wardman Park hotel theatre in Washington, D.C. in 1926. Similar theatres followed in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Rochester and Chicago, with still others projected.

Shortly after the Punch and Judy was opened, Machat said to me, “It is high time for the motion picture industry to take cognizance of the fact that the whole population of the United States does not care for gilded walls…. There is a lot of room in America for some native theatrical architecture….”

Ibid. p. 129

Louis Machat would later be listed as the Producer for the 1943 short film Wasted Lives. IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm7956280/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 

The article’s author, Nick John Matsoukas, was a theater manager, film press agent, and journalist. Limited information about him is available at:https://www.myheritage.com/names/nick_matsoukas#col_a_10220http://cinematreasures.org/photos/229126

 [2] Ibid.

 [3] “The Cinema Unique,” The Western Architect, vol. 29 no. 11, November 1930, p. 175.

[4] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p. 35.

 [5] “Streamline Moderne,” Archetypical.  https://www.archetypical.us/streamline-moderne/

 [6] Greif, Martin, Depression Modern, The Thirties Style in America. New York: Universe Books, 1975.

 [7] “Streamline Moderne,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streamline_Moderne

 [8] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, pp. 37 and 39.

 [9] “Notes on Writers and Subjects in this Issue,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p. 19.

 [10] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p. 38.

 [11] “The Cinema Unique,” The Western Architect, vol. 39 n. 11 Nov. 1930, pp. 175-76.

 [12] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p.36.

 [13] “The Cinema Unique,” The Western Architect, vol. 39 n. 11 Nov. 1930, p. 177

[14] “The Little Cinema Movement,” The Little; https://thelittle.org/history

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wilinsky, Barbara, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, p. 1. Accessed at https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=uJp_B8lN0iIC&oi=fnd&pg=PP11&dq=little+cinema+movement&ots=a5AX92LnoG&sig=kzefPGtf9xbHDWuhPlMhja8CCyg#v=onepage&q=little%20cinema%20movement&f=false

 [17] Guzman, Tony, “The Little Theatre Movement: The Institutionalization of the European Art Film in America,” Film History. Vol. 17, No. 2/3, 2005, p. 274.

 [18] “Cinema Theater, 151 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611,” Cinema Treasures. http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/980

Once a popular art house located off N. Michigan Avenue on E. Chicago Avenue on Chicago’s Near North Side, the Cinema Theater opened on December 26, 1929 with “Shiraz”.

The Cinema Theater closed September 13, 1981, and was demolished and replaced a few years later by the Olympia Centre tower. A Neiman Marcus store is also situated on the former theater site.

The theater was illustrated in The Western Architect, April 1930, p. 60 ff.

[19] “The Cinema Unique,” The Western Architect, vol. 39 n. 11 Nov. 1930, p. 177.

[20] Matsoukas, Nick John, “The unconventional PUNCH and JUDY,” Exhibitors Herald-World, October 25, 1930, p. 35

[21] Little, Jim, “Chicago Personalities,” Exhibitors World-Herald, December 20, 1930, p. 62.

See also: Schiecke, Konrad, Downtown Chicago’s Historic Movie Theatres. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011, p. 178; “Ascher Brothers, Wikitia. https://wikitia.com/wiki/Ascher_Brothers

[22] “History of the Reel World,” https://thelittle.org/history

[23] Schiecke, Konrad, Downtown Chicago’s Historic Movie Theatres. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011, pp. 75-76.

 “On July 3, 1940, the theatre emerged as the Studio, with new management dedicated to public service and single, first-run features, newsreels and comedy shorts. French without Tears started off Studio’s program. In 1952 the theatre was renamed the Ziegfeld, operated with Tom Down as manager until 1958 when M. Down became owner.

    The newly redecorated “art” theatre, now renamed the Capri, opened on July 3, 1958, with a controversial adult French film, Nana, based on an Emile Zola novel…Adult films were shown until the theatre closed in 1968.”

[24] “History of the Reel World,” https://thelittle.org/history

[25] American Institute of Architects, 1956 American Architects Directory. Accessed at https://aiahistoricaldirectory.atlassian.net/wiki/spaces/AHDAA/pages/20644319/1956+American+Architects+Directory

[26] “Questionnaire for Architects’ Roster and / or Register of Architects Qualified for Federal Public Works,” May 10,1946. Eugene and Max Fuhrer, 160 N. LaSalle St.

[27] Richard Norton Gallery, Nicolas Remisoff biography, no date. http://richardnortongallery.com/artists/nicolai-remisoff

Remisoff’s decor for the New York home of Elizabeth Arden is illustrated here: https://thepeakofchic.blogspot.com/2016/04/an-early-thirties-set-piece.html

[28] “Edgar Miller, the Artist,” https://www.edgarmiller.org/terra-3

[29] “Edgar Miller Legacy,” https://www.edgarmiller.org/history/

[30] Cahan, Richard and Williams, Michael, Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Chicago: City Files Pres, 2009, pp. 18–93.

[31] Remisoff, Nicolas, “The Punch and Judy Theatre,” The Western Architect, November 1930, p. 183.

[32] Schiecke, Konrad, Downtown Chicago’s Historic Movie Theatres. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011, p. 75.