McVICKER’S THEATER

The Loop

McVicker’s Theater, on Madison Street between State and Dearborn Streets, was built by Chicago actor and producer James H. McVicker in 1857. It has a storied past, but its most unusual connection is to both Abraham Lincoln and the man who assassinated him. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

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While John Wilkes Booth is known for his role as Lincoln’s assassin, he is lesser known for his acting career. He received rave reviews for his Shakespearean performances at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago in 1862, three years before the assassination. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

When John Wilkes Booth entered Ford’s Theater in 1865 and assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he tragically made history.

He also has an interesting connection to a storied Chicago theater – one that, coincidentally, was frequented by Abraham Lincoln in his younger days.

Before John Wilkes Booth was a famous assassin, he was well known as an actor. He first performed at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago three years before he killed Lincoln.

Booth was part of a family of well-regarded actors. And while no evidence shows that Abraham Lincoln ever saw John Wilkes Booth perform, Lincoln may well have seen John Wilkes Booth’s father, the famous tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, or his brother, acclaimed Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, on stage at McVicker’s Theater when he was a young traveling lawyer visiting Chicago.

The McVicker’s Theater is also notable for having hosted the American stage debut of actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1881. The legendary French actress appeared in Camille in January of that year.

Five different buildings served in the role of the McVicker’s Theater, on the same site on Madison Street (between State Street and Dearborn Street), over a span of 128 years (1857-1985).

One building was burned in the Great Fire of 1871; another had a lavish interior by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler; and the final McVicker’s Theater building (they dropped the apostrophe for this last incarnation) was owned by the famed Balaban & Katz theater chain.

Junius Brutus Booth was a celebrated tragedian – and the father of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. He performed frequently at McVicker’s Theater, as did another of his sons, Edwin Booth. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

A young Abraham Lincoln visited the McVicker’s Theater when he was a traveling lawyer. While it is likely he saw Junius Booth perform, there is no evidence he witnessed John Wilkes Booth there. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The original building, shown with larger buildings to the left and right of it. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire. Five different McVicker’s buildings would serve as the theater, on the same site, over a span of 128 years beginning in 1857. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

In 1881, actress Sarah Bernhardt made her Chicago stage debut at McVicker’s Theater. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler designed a major renovation in the mid-1880s, and another redesign of that building after another major fire in 1890. Their spectacular theater interior included Sullivan’s trademark relief ornament and Adler’s brilliant acoustics. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

The last McVicker’s Theater building was owned by the Balaban & Katz theater chain. It was demolished in 1985. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum