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Catlow Theater

2006 Photo from the Scott Neff collection.
112-16 W Main St
Barrington IL 60010
(847) 381-0777

Visit Website National Register 1989
Record #6115  
 Opened: 1927
Capacity: 700 seats
Architect(s): Betts & Holcomb
Architectural Style(s): Tudor
National Register: 1989
Current Organ: none
 Also Known As:

Information for this tour was contributed by The Catlow Theater.

In the mid-1920's, the Catlow Theater was merely a dream for Wright Catlow. Catlow was a Barrington businessman. His father owned the building that served as the village community center. The Auditorium, as it was called, was used for dances, meetings and community events. It was also used as the showplace for the silent films of that era. The community center eventually became inadequate for the growing film audience. Catlow started building the new theater on West Main Street in 1926. The theater was primarily designed in the Tudor Revival style ornamented to portray a medieval English hall. It was completed in May of 1927.

The architectural firm of Betts & Holcomb of Chicago designed the theater and the builder was T.S. Willis of Janesville, Wisconsin. C.G. Everson & Co. of Chicago supplied the wrought iron light fixtures.

The main historical feature of the Catlow is the interior design by renowned sculptor & designer, Alfonso Iannelli. Iannelli's career started to gain momentum in Los Angeles where he designed posters for the Orpheum Vaudeville Theatre from 1910 to 1915. He also designed that theatre's stained glass windows. During that time, he became friends with famed Chicago architect Barry Byrne, John Lloyd Wright and Lloyd Wright, the sons of Frank Lloyd Wright. Iannelli and architect Barry Byrne collaborated on many home and church designs and remained lifelong friends. These friendships altered the course of his career.

Frank Lloyd Wright invited Iannelli to Chicago from Los Angeles to work on the Midway Gardens complex in 1914. For that project, he designed the interior fountains, sculptures and murals as well as most of the famous Sprite sculptures. Iannelli later worked on some of the exposition pavillions at the Century of Progress for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He designed the five sculptured reliefs for the Radio Entrance to the Social Sciences Building, the gigantic fair exhibit "Coaster Boy" for legendary Chicago wagon company, Radio Flyer and the Havoline thermometer exhibit, which was on record as the world's largest thermometer for many years. His design work was not limited to architectural collaboration. Along with his poster work, he designed ads, magazine covers, packaging and he was deeply involved in industrial design including the popular Coffeemaster and matching toaster for Sunbeam Electric Co. in 1939.

Iannelli's Catlow design includes the stenciling on the Catlow's ceiling, walls and beams along with the sculpted gargoyle heads that border each ceiling-truss and the sculptured fountain in the inner lobby. Other highlights include three coat-of-arms wall murals, iron wall sconces, the detailed woodwork on both of the organ lofts and the original hand painted stage curtain.

Another example of his craftsmanship can be seen at the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, Illinois (Iannelli's hometown from 1915 until his death in 1965.) The blueprints for the Catlow Theater had been the original Pickwick Theater plans. The Pickwick owner decided on a different style and Wright Catlow acquired those plans. Architects Betts & Holcomb also designed The Deerpath Theater in Lake Forest, Illinois. The Deerpath and the Catlow were somewhat similar in their architectural layout. One significant difference being the Catlow's lack of a balcony. The Deerpath closed its doors in the early 1980's. It has since been converted into a small shopping mall.

Other notable works by Iannelli include the twelve bronze constellation placques at the Adler Planetarium; the Rock Of Gibraltar sculpture at the Prudential Building; the Kenna House apartments and Imaculatta High school, all in Chicago. Many of his sculpture and design works have been on display at the Art Institute of Chicago where he served as an instructor and was Head of the Design Department for a time. His work was not limited to the Chicago area alone. He has left his mark in history from one coast to the other.

The Catlow Theater opened in 1927 with "Slide, Kelly, Slide" as its first feature film. Catlow was also running vaudeville acts on Sunday nights. He had worked out an arrangement with WLS radio in Chicago. They were a country & western station at the time featuring a program called "The Barn Dance." Since the Catlow was surrounded by rural areas, the theater was a natural showcase for the performers who played on "The Barn Dance" when they toured through the Midwest. Among those acts was Gene Autry who had yet to achieve "super-stardom." Catlow proved to be quite a promoter and his natural talent for filling seats made the Catlow Theater one of the main attractions for Chicago's expanding Northwest Suburban area. One of the last live acts to appear on the Catlow's stage in 1933 was world famous fan dancer, Sally Rand, fresh from her appearance at the Chicago World's Fair.

The movie business was advancing rapidly and by the early 1930's, Catlow had abandoned vaudeville completely and became a full-fledged movie house. Catlow stayed in pace with the developing film industry over the years by adding Cinemascope and stereo sound as they grew popular. In January of 1964, Wright decided to retire from the movie business and turned control of the theater over to Ed Skehan. Skehan had previously worked as an usher in Chicago, a booking agent for Columbia Pictures and as a film booker for Wright Catlow. In May of 1964, Skehan bought the theater from Catlow and it continued to be quite a successful operation. Skehan's biggest competition at the time was television; nevertheless, the Catlow survived by showing major film releases at reasonable prices.

In May of 1988, Skehan sold the theater to a group of investors led by Tim O'Connor and Roberta Rapata. They are also the owners of Boloney's Sandwich Shop which is located in the Catlow building. The adjoining lobby is used as seating for Boloney's during the day. One great advantage for the new ownership was that the projectionist, Ray Jahnke, had been with the theater since its beginning. He had worked backstage during the vaudeville days and later moved on to theater manager and projectionist. The new owners' first task was to restore the theater to its original condition. Jahnke was instrumental in providing information on the original decor of the lobbies. The theater was placed on The National Register of Historic Places. Jahnke retired in August, 1995. His fellow projectionist, Jim Hollister, is well on his way to catching up with Jahnke's "time on the job" record.

The second task was to fill the 700 seat theater with customers. A plan was put into effect to create a new niche between first-run and sub-run movie releases. The admission was set at $2.00 (and later $3.00) to present films that were only a few weeks old and had played out their contract at the first-run theaters. Next, the equipment needed to be updated. The platter system was replaced with a new setup and a Dolby CP65 Stereo Cinema Processor with SR Surround and Dolby digital capabilities was added to the sound system. New JBL 4675C speakers were installed for the center, left and right channels. In November of 1996, the theater interior and both lobbies were repainted, major structural repairs were completed and new JBL surround speakers were installed.

The final phase has been to allow the customers to bring their meals from Boloney's into the theater. This close relationship between the two businesses has created an Illinois first for "dinner-and-a-movie under one roof." The Catlow is one of the few remaining single-screen theaters and boasts one of the largest screens in the area. Many of the regular customers praise the theater for not dividing into a multiplex. The Catlow Theater will continue on as a reminder of the original golden era of film presentation. In July of 2000, the Catlow was named as one of the ten best theaters in the United States by American Way magazine.

 Photos remain the property of the Member and may not be reproduced without the written consent of the Member.

July 2006 photos from the Scott Neff collection.

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Photos from the Catlow Theater collection.

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Wright Catlow

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Projectionist Jim Ho...

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Last featured 4/21/2005. Last edited 10/2/2007.

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