Olympic Theater and Ballroom
Olympic Theater and Ballroom
6134 W. Cermak Road
Open to the public
The Sokol gymnastics movement was founded in 1862 by Dr. Miroslav Tyrs and Jindrich Fugner, from the Czech and Slovak areas, as the first physical education organization in the Austro Hungarian Empire. The credo of the movement was “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body”. Sokol is the Czech word for falcon, which is a symbol of strength, beauty, harmony and freedom. Sokols were and remain popular throughout central and eastern Europe. The first Sokol in the U.S. was formed in 1865 in St. Louis by Czech and Slovak immigrants, and quickly spread to other cities including Chicago and its’ suburbs.
Many Czechs and Slovaks moved from their ethnic communities in Chicago to the suburbs of Berwyn and Cicero in the 1920s, bringing their Sokol movements with them. The Sokol Slavsky organization in Chicago hired Czech architects Joseph J. Novy and Joseph Bednarik to construct a building in Cicero, Illinois, just west of Chicago, for their gymnastics and other activities. The building, which stretches an entire block, was completed in 1926. The building and land was reported to cost $645,000 (Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1924), although one source reported the cost in excess of one million dollars (Back Tracks). The building included a large gymnasium, an Olympic size swimming pool in the basement, the Olympic auditorium and ballroom, dormitories for single men on the third floor, a lodge hall, restaurant and banquet hall, radio station with Czech language programming, offices, and retail spaces. Up to 450 gymnasts attended classes daily, and the peak adult membership included 985 men and 470 women (Berwyn Gazette, 2003). At the time, this was the largest and most modern Sokol building in the world.
John Mallin, who was one of the original stockholders of the building, decorated the Olympic ballroom and lobby, including a large mural on canvas in the ballroom. The description in Mallin’s brochure states, “The ceiling and walls are done in light ivories, pinks and greys. The walls are finished in a Texstone effect. The picture above the proscenium arch is painted on canvas and represents music, art and literature.” The texstone effect can be seen in parts of the wall decorations in the original black and white photos. An article in Variety Magazine in September 1926 states that the Olympic, new Ballroom in Cicero, opened on August 28, 1926. The space was originally referred to as a ballroom or auditorium, and only later was referred to as the Olympic Theater.
Mallin’s architectural photos show the theater and lobby shortly after the decorations were completed. The lobby decorations include marble on both the lower walls and ticket booth, as well as scrolled gilt on panels on columns and walls inside the ballroom and lobby. The wrought iron railing on the staircase also include the letters S and S for Sokol Slavsky.
The Olympic was originally used for a variety of purposes, including Czech opera, jazz band dances, high school fund raising concerts, plays, and school music festivals that included bands, singing and ballet dancing. There were 27 plays presented in the auditorium in 1928-1929 (Berwyn Gazette, 2003).
The building was very successful until the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed. Since the Sokol was an all volunteer non- profit organization, it could not support the building financially. The building was held in receivership and was owned by the Olympic Building Corporation and 500 stockholders. The Sokol Slavsky continued to rent the gymnasium for its classes.
The Olympic auditorium continued to be used for a variety of purposes, as evidenced by advertising and articles in the local newspapers. In 1934, for example, the auditorium was filled to capacity with women who came to hear presentations for the “Life Cooking School.” Plays, Czech operas, jazz bands, and singing groups continued to be presented at the ballroom.
In 1937 the Olympic Ballroom was converted to a cinema and vaudeville theater. Various estimates of the number of seats in the theater have been reported, which may have varied over time. In a 1934 article from the Cicero Life, it was stated that the 2,000 seat theater was filled to capacity for a cooking school demonstration. A 1992 article in Cicero Life, mentions a 1,800 seat theater.
In 1946, the building was purchased by the Czechoslovak Society of America (CSA), a fraternal organization who had rented space in the building since 1932. In 1974, the CSA built new headquarters in Berwyn, and sold the Sokol Slavsky building to Olympic Savings and Loan. Some remodeling was done, including replacement of windows and converting the immigrant dormitories to bachelor’s quarters. In 1983 the building was sold to Ralph Pontarelli, who used the theater for showing second run movies.
By 1993 the theater had fallen into disrepair and closed in December of 1993. In 1994 a theater company rented the building for a play with a plan to lease the theater for 10 years. The owners, Christopher Eck and Dante Orfei of Futura Productions, also restored the theater. They reupholstered the seats, installed new lighting systems, and converted the lobby from bright pink with gold dots to beige and mauve, and repainted the scrolled gilt on wall panels. The Mallin mural was also cleaned and restored. “Under the grime above the stage appeared a bucolic Roman scene with figures playing lyre and horn and reading poetry” (Chicago Sun Times, 1994). However, 8 months after opening the theater closed due to difficulties in negotiating the lease.
In 2003 the theater reopened as Concordia theater, a dinner live show and banquet hall. The theater mainly catered to the Latino community. The theater closed in 2005 and sat vacant for two years. In 2007 Mr. Pontarelli sold the building to his sons Ralph and Jim. They restored the interiors, repairing the plaster walls and painted the original colors. In 2008 the theater reopened under new management and returned to the Olympic theater name. They reopened the theater in 2008 for live performances. Currently the theater shows live performances as well as movies. A variety of retail establishments rent spaces in the rest of the building. In 2012, the Olympic Theater was declared a historic site by the town of Cicero. The Mallin mural and ceiling decorations in the theater still exist, as to most of the lobby decorations, including the lighting and ornamental wrought iron. The original painted texstone effects on the walls have been painted over however.
Special thanks to Tina and Eddie from the Olympic Theater for providing access to the building, and to Noah Vaughn for his wonderful photography.
Anonymous. Olympic Theater building has historic roots. Berwyn Gazette, July 3, 2003.
Anonymous. New Ballroom Opened Aug 28 1926. Variety Magazine September 1926.
Anonymous. Back Tracks revives Olympic memories. Cicero Life Newspaper, October 2, 1992.
Anonymous The Life newspaper. (Cicero) “Olympic Theater Reborn”, p.12. December 7, 1994.
Anonymous. Olympic Theater Reborn. The Life Newspaper, December 7, 1994, Cicero Illinois.
Anonymous. Life Cooking School Photo of Olympic Theater. Cicero Life Newspaper. April 9, 1934.
Anonymous. What is Sokol? Sokol Spirit. http://www.sokolspirit.org/about-spirit/
Anonymous. The history of Sokol since 1862. http://www.czechgallery.com/sokol/
Bommer, Lawrence. Cicero Theater Finds a Voice. Vintage Movie Palace Reopens with musical ‘Metropolis.’ Chicago Tribune. October 23, 1994.
Christiansen, Richard. Olympic hopes to stage comeback as a theater. Chicago Tribune, August29, 1994.
Gran, Cathryn. “Olympic lease ‘too expensive. Arts Center fate depends on aggressive funding.’ The Life newspaper, August 18, 1995, Cicero.
Magallon Frank S. The Historic Sokol Slavsky Building—Cicero Illinois. The Czechoslovak Heritage Museum, Library and Archives Newsletter, Vol 5, Issue 2, Spring 2013.
Malinski, Robert. History of Cicero, The Olympic Building. Back Tracks, Vol 7 No 3. The Historical Society of Cicero.
Ruzich, Joseph. It’s showtime once again. In Cicero, the refurbished Olympic Theater reopens, ushering a new era of live entertainment. Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2008.
Syse, Glenna. ‘Restored Olympic Turns Cicero into Metropolis.’ Chicago Sun Times, October 12, 1994.