the mercury theater in chicago

Neighborhood News: From Silent Film Nickelodeon to Live Theater Mecca-Mercury Theater Chicago in Lakeview

the mercury theater in chicago

In 1910, the burgeoning Chicago silent film industry gained a North Side location with the opening of The Blaine Theatre, a new  nickelodeon, named after the actor and former Senator and Secretary of StateJames G. Blaine. 

Why name it after Blaine? There’s no direct correlation noted, but perhaps it was because the Pennsylvania native, according to Wikipedia sources, began his political career as an early supporter of Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Union war effort in the American Civil War, and during Reconstruction, Blaine was a supporter of black suffrage. 

The Mercury Theater Chicago is in the “heart of the Southport Corridor” at 3745 North  Southport Avenue. Today, Mercury Theater Chicago is a live theater seating 280 people, as well as the adjoining Venus Cabaret Theater, which seats 80 and offers a unique, intimate theatrical experience complemented by specialty cocktails.

In the beginning…

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago History,  Chicago helped launch the movie industry in the United States in the early 1900s. The new Blaine Theater played silent movies with live musical accompaniment.  

However, after the advent of the talkies the theater was replaced with the larger, state of the art Music Box theater, just two doors south.  Subsequently the building was converted into commercial use, first as a sort of indoor mall and then later into a rug cleaning business. 

A 1990’s Resurgence 

The building served a variety of uses until 1994 when it was purchased by theater producer Michael Cullen and transformed into a live theatre, naming it the Mercury Theater after Orson Welles’ famous troupe of ‘War of the Worlds’ fame. Though little of the Blaine remains, decorative plaster pilaster busts still flank the house. The exposed brick walls and 292 seats were recovered and refurbished from a 1933-era Boston movie house.

A Covid-19 closure

In 2010, the building was sold again and reopened as Mercury Theater Chicago under the direction of Walter  Stearns, a veteran theater director and producer. As Theatre World reported, Mercury Theater Chicago produced 25 plays and musicals, including 4 world-premieres and 4 productions which were extended to over 100 shows. In its tenure, the Mercury employed 975 actors, musicians, designers, and arts administrators, and entertained nearly 400,000 audience members. The theater had also raised and donated $100,000 to Season of Concern, the charity that provides emergency care to Chicago artists, and has produced benefits for cancer, ALS, and AIDS charities, in addition to other theater companies. The theater hosted memorial services, weddings, and surprise engagements, and has given a home to community meetings, rehearsals, and photo shoots.

“Closing is painful but necessary”

As the Covid-19 pandemic closed hundreds of Chicago businesses in 2020-22, the Mercury Theater nearly gave up the ghost. As  Business  Manager Eugene Dizon, Stearns’ business/life partner, told Theatre World, “We cannot plan for an imaginary future. Closing is painful but necessary.”

‘Another Opening, Another Show’ 2021

But in 2021, as reported by the Chicago Reader, the Mercury Theater was reborn, in part, because of the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program through the Small Business Administration. Stearns told the Reader, “That really is helping us because if we’re able to get some of that revenue that we lost last year, that’s going to help us obviously ramp up as well. We also did some refinancing and other things to become much more stable financially than I think we thought we could be.” 

The theater added new life to the staging of  performances when Christopher Chase Cartercame on board as the new Artistic Director. 


The Mercury Theater, the little theater that could, re-opened for business for the 2021-22 season in November with the blockbuster hit ‘Sister Act.’ 

Currently, they’re staging the Tony Award-winning  jukebox bio-musical ‘Jersey Boys,’ the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, inspired by the lives of band members Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi, through July 28.  For tickets  click here.

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago