The Riviera Theatre (Music Venue, Uptown)
Having lived within walking distance of Uptown for almost two years, I’ve passed by the Riviera Theatre and its shabby-yet-glitzy red exterior every day. Only recently did I finally purchase tickets to a concert and enter this unique building and piece of Chicago history.
Owned by Jam Productions, which also owns and operates the Chicago venues Park West and The Vic, the Riviera Theatre, colloquially referred to as “The Riv,” is the center of Uptown’s theatre district, which is also home to the Aragon Ballroom, the now-closed Uptown Theatre, and the Green Mill Lounge.
Originally built as a movie theatre for the Balaban & Katz chain, the Riviera theatre was completed in 1917 by architects George and C.W. Rapp of Rapp & Rapp. The theatre opened in October of the following year after some building constraints imposed by WWI. After opening, the owners of the Riviera Theatre put an emphasis on entertainment, pairing movies with live musical acts. Balaban & Katz began showing movies with full in-house orchestral performances, and with the coming of the 1920s and Chicago jazz, they jumped on the jazz bandwagon and introduced moviegoers to a new music and film experience. The Uptown Theatre joined the neighborhood in 1925, joining the Riviera as one of Chicago’s elite nightlife venues for several years to come. However, as the years went by, the Riv lost some of its glam, and fell into disrepair.
In 1986, the Riviera was transformed from rundown movie theatre into a private nightclub. In 2000, the building was designated as a historical building in the Uptown Square National Historic District. Hosting world-class and often sold-out concerts, the Riviera Theatre is now one of Chicago’s most popular concert and private events venues and is a staple in the historic Uptown neighborhood.
My first concert at the Riv brought in several devoted fans on a frigid February night to wait in line for a first pick on the floor or balcony sections. My cab pulled up in front of the venue, and I was immediately dazzled by the glowing marquee boasting a “Sold Out” sign as well as listings for upcoming concerts. The theatre’s name “Riviera” is scrawled across the top of the marquee in sophisticated lettering, promising a unique venue inside. All transactions in the venue are CASH ONLY. This includes alcoholic beverages, coat check, and (sometimes) merchandise.
After making it through security, I headed straight for the coat-check in the basement, which is only $3 and very welcome on a cold Chicago night. After shedding my outer layers, I was able to explore the almost hundred-year old interior, which is still reminiscent of its beginnings in the 1920s. The walls are multi-colored, with several coats of paint in various colors chipping off in various degrees of wear. The floor is hard and smooth from decades of visitors dancing out its imperfections.
As a slightly shorter music lover, I skipped the general admission ground floor and several hours of standing on my tip-toes for the more comfortable balcony. Although the venue is enormous, the acoustics satisfy any music lover’s delicate ears. It’s easy to hear from any area in the main theatre. Be aware that in such a vast space, the farther up you go, the less likely it is for the sound mixing to be album-quality. The music and lead-singer warbling are more discernable the higher you go in the balcony.
On your next visit to the Riv, try exploring the interior of the historic building rather than heading to your favorite spot. If you’re a front-row-center type, try walking up the winding staircases to the balcony and relax with a beer with your back against a chair and a better view of the decorated walls and VIP boxes. I’d also recommend hanging out at one of the bars staged on the various levels. Grab a light beer for $5 (their cheapest brew), or spring for a mixed drink. Be on the look out for Chicago’s 93 XRT radio crew, who record several of the Riv’s concerts. You might just hear yourself shouting out your favorite band member’s name on their next broadcast of the concert.
Before going to your next concert at the Riv, it’s important to remember two things. The first: get there early to grab a seat in the balcony, to avoid lines at the merch table, or to position yourself in the perfect spot on the floor. The second: when you leave, be aware there is no re-entry. That goes for smokers, too.
Location: 4746 N. Racine Avenue, Uptown
For more information on the Riviera Theatre’s jazz-age beginnings, check out this website.
The Riviera Theatre is easily accessible by car, public transit, and bike.
For drivers: a list of parking garages can be found here
For bus riders: #36 Broadway Bus and the #81 Lawrence Bus drop you close to the theatre.
For train riders: the Red Line’s Lawrence stop lets you off a short walk from the theatre
After leaving the Riv, there are plenty of bar options in Uptown. Upon exiting the theatre, walk north on Broadway to Uptown’s several bars and clubs. Dance the night away at the Green Mill Lounge, a local jazz club, or head to the Fat Cat (4840 N. Broadway) for a more relaxed atmosphere with pool tables, a full bar, and tasty, moderately priced food.
Other local bars:
The Kinetic Playground (1113 W. Lawrence Ave)
Crew Bar and Grill (4804 N. Broadway)
The Uptown Lounge (1136 W. Lawrence Ave)
You can find other information on tickets, theatre accessibility, and seating on the venue’s frequently asked questions page.