Binny’s Beverage Depot at the intersection of Clark Street and Wellington Avenue in Lakeview is notable for its medieval exterior.
The design is not a creative technique to make the liquor store stand out from other retailers in the area, but a reminder of the building’s history, which dates back to the 1920s.
Geoffrey Baer joined “Chicago Tonight” for this week’s Ask Geoffrey About the Ivanhoe Theater.
What is the history of the Ivanhoe Theatre? —Shirley Soda, Chicago
When two brothers opened the Ivanhoe as a restaurant in the 1920s, it looked like a medieval European castle had been knocked down on the corner of Clark and Wellington.
Inside, patrons could dine and dance to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. The menu specializing in German and European dishes described as ‘cheap but nice’.
The name of the restaurant comes from a 17th century novel set in medieval England: Ivanhoe: A Romance by Sir Walter Scott, which one of the owners loved.
There was an underground kingdom with strange tunnels leading to a rustic bar with wooden tables. There were stalactites and bones embedded in the walls. According to many sources, the joint was a speakeasy during prohibition. And getting there was half the fun.
Customers rode in a narrow, open elevator. Guests watched the brick disappear above them as the shuddering car descended deep into the bowels of the earth – or so it seemed.
Really, the elevator would go down to the basement. The operator shook the car with his legs and the walls disappeared thanks to a rotating visual effect.
In 1966 a son of the original owners took over the business and turned it into a theatre.
The Ivanhoé was a theater in the round, or rather in a square. With audiences seated on all four sides of the stage, setting it apart from more formal downtown theaters with velvet curtains.
The Ivanhoe began by staging lighter comedies featuring well-known television and film actors, but not exactly stars. But things changed when the owner brought in producer/director – George Keathley who had worked on Broadway and regional theaters with, among others, playwright Tennessee Williams.
Keathley changed direction to more substantial pieces featuring prominent stage actors. Rita Moreno was one of the first stars to appear under Keathley in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.”
With Keathley at the helm, the Ivanhoe helped birth what would become Chicago’s nationally acclaimed off-loop and showcase theater scene. Known for being rough around the edges, and both entertaining and challenging.
The theater had the full range.
Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radizwill, made her acting debut at the Ivanhoe in “The Philadelphia Story” at Truman Capote’s request. Her performance was trashed by critics and by her co-star.
And that show was followed by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”
Among the most popular shows was a play called “Status Quo Vadis” – a comedy that tackled America’s social class structure. Although he was frazzled when he moved to New York.
However, the theater’s dinner-show model has had mixed results.
As most of the diners were also there to see theatre, the restaurant emptied when the show started.
This eventually led to the sale of the business to a new producer who has just leased the space to other theater companies and concert organizers who have brought in artists such as Dolly Parton, Graham Parker and David Steinberg .
In the 1980s the theater was split in two, converting it from an arena to an amphitheater and the former adjoining restaurant became Gold Standard Liquors and Chalet Cheese Shop, which later changed its name to Binny’s, in a nod to eye to owner and founder, Harold Binstein. .
When the theater finally closed for good in 2001, Binny’s expanded to take over the entire space. They kept the medieval castle-like exterior.
And restored the catacombs, using them — pre-COVID — as event space for things like wine tastings.
And by the way, the Ivanhoe isn’t Chicago’s only connection for novelist Sir Walter Scott. The suburb of Kenilworth is named after another of Scott’s books.
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