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 areas 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. The architectural firm of Betts & Holcomb of Chicago designed the theater and the builder was T.S. Willis of Janesville, Wisconsin. The theaters grand opening was held on Wright's birthday, May 28th, in 1927.
The main historical highlight of the Catlow Theater 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 their stained glass windows. During that time, he became friends with architect Barry Byrne and brothers, John & Lloyd Wright, the sons of Frank Lloyd Wright
Over the years, Iannelli collaborated with John, Wright and, more often, Barry Byrne on many home and church designs. They remained lifelong friends. Byrne described his collaboration with Iannelli as being "like dancing, with the lead shifting back and forth depending on the specific need.”
Frank Lloyd Wright invited Iannelli to come to Chicago from California and work with him on the Midway Gardens complex in 1914. During that collaboration, he designed several of the interior fountains, sculptures and murals as well as most of the famous Sprite sculptures. Iannelli later worked on many 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. Iannelli, together with his wife Margaret, an artist in her own right, set up Iannelli Studios in Park Ridge. Along with his poster work, he designed ads, magazine covers, packaging and he was deeply involved in industrial design including fountain pens, lamps and appliances, including the extremely popular Coffeemaster and matching toaster for Sunbeam Electric Co. in 1939. Other notable works by Iannelli include the twelve bronze constellation placques at the Adler Planetarium; the Rock Of Gibraltar relief for the Prudential Building; the Kenna House apartments and Imaculatta High school, all located in Chicago.
Many of Iannelli's sculptures and designs 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. Iannelli's work can be found in many states throughout the U.S. and his collaborations with Byrne extended into Europe.
Iannelli's Catlow design includes the stenciling on the Catlow's ceiling, walls and beams along with the sculpted gargoyle-like heads that border each ceiling truss and the "Fountain Idyll" sculpture 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 fine 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 a few other theaters in Illinois including the Des Plaines Theater in Des Plaines and the Deerpath Theater in Lake Forest. The Deerpath and the Catlow were somewhat similar in their architectural floorplans - the significant difference being the Catlow's lack of a balcony. The Deerpath's mediteranean-style interior design motif was quite different from the Catlow's design. Iannelli was not involved with the Deerpath's interior design in any way. The Deerpath closed its doors as a movie theater operation in the early 1980's. Its interior was initially tranformed into an office mall but has since been converted into a small shopping mall.
In May of 1927, the Catlow Theater opened for business with "Slide, Kelly, Slide" as its first feature film. In those early days, Wright Catlow was also running vaudeville acts on Sunday nights. He had worked out an arrangement with WLS, a Chicago country & western radio station that featured 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 completely abandoned vaudeville and became a full-fledged movie house. Catlow stayed in pace with the developing film industry over the years by adding the largest Cinemascope screen in the area in addition to stereo sound as they became available. The downside to installing such a large screen was that it overlapped the stage area rendering it unusable from then on. The upside was that Cinemascope and the other large screen formats filled seats in theaters across the nation.
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 he continued to operate it quite successfully. 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. O'Connor and Rapata also owned Boloney's Sandwich Shop which is located in the Catlow building. The adjoining lobby was used as seating for Boloney's during the day and was transformed back into the concession lobby each evening before showtime. The new owners' first task was to restore the theater to as much of its original condition as the budget would allow. Then, their business plan called for a new "mid-run" niche to play films between their first and second-run theatrical release. This is the formula that the Catlow has followed since 1988.
Next up, the equipment needed to be modernized. The platter system was replaced with a new setup and a Dolby Stereo Cinema Processor with SR Surround and Dolby digital capabilities was added to the sound system. New JBL stage speakers were installed for the left, center 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. However, the most important change was offering Catlow customers the best of both worlds by combining inexpensive movie entertainment with a top quality meal from Boloney's... all under the same roof. That established the Catlow as the nation's first dine-in type movie theaters as early as 1988.
On May 28th, 2020, the Catlow entered its 93rd year in business. The Catlow has been a popular "date theater" and meeting place for many years. Customers continually tell tales of how their first date was at the theater years ago, and now they are married with families. Some are even great-grandparents by now.
Here are a few more Catlow highlights:
➠ In 1989, the Catlow Theater Building was placed on the National Register Of Historic Places through the efforts of local architect Linda Grubb and her staff. ➠ The Catlow's first website went online in 1995 making it the first theater in Illinois to be listed on the internet and one of only a small handful of movie theaters nationwide at the time.
➠ The Catlow was named one of the ten best theaters in the United States by American Waymagazine.
➠ Thirty historic American movie theaters, including the Catlow, are highlighted in the book; CINEMA TREASURES: A NEW LOOK AT CLASSIC MOVIE THEATERS by Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs. ➠ The Catlow was featured, along with other significant suburban landmarks, in the 2004, WTTW television presentation of "Northwest of Chicago: From Farm Fields To Boom Towns" hosted by Geoffrey Baer. ➠ Dan Moran of The News Sun named the Catlow as a four star theater and put it at the top of his "best looking" category describing it as; "A single-screen movie house the way it oughta be." We at the Catlow hope you will share that sentiment every time you pass through our doors.