Think You Know The Best of The Cultural Mile? | Magical Moments and Budding Stars on Stage at Merle Reskin Theatre

11 December 2017

With its Historic Michigan Boulevard District location, 1000M affords residents ample opportunities to find beauty from the past and to watch history in the making. Few places nearby illustrate that duality more than DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theatre on Balbo Drive.

Chicago Cultural Mile: Merle Reskin Theatre
The Merle Reskin Theatre

What other neighboring building can boast — if its walls could talk — that it has hosted performances by iconic actors Lillian Gish, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Maggie Smith and Joe Mantegna, but also newbie stars such as Joe Keery, who plays Steve Harrington in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things?

“He constantly comes up in my world,” said Leslie Shook, theatre manager for The Theatre School at DePaul University since 1982. “The kids always ask, ‘Did you know Joe Keery?’ Yeah, he was an actor here.”

Keery, who graduated from the program in 2014, starred as Hansel in the school’s production of Hansel & Gretel in 2013 at the Merle Reskin, which now serves as the home for the school’s Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences. The oldest continually producing children’s theatre in the Midwest, Chicago Playworks has a long history of its own. It was founded as the Goodman Children’s Theatre in 1925.

Joe Kerry; Chicago Playworks production of Hansel and Gretel
The 2013 – 2014 Chicago Playworks production of Hansel and Gretel that featured Joe Keery, Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Keery is just one in a long list of artists — actors, directors, musicians and technical craftspeople — who have helped create the magic and beauty of live theater on the historic stage since it first opened on New Year’s Eve 1910 as the Blackstone Theatre.

The Early Years of Merle Reskin Theatre

Designed by architects Benjamin Marshall and Charles Fox in a French Renaissance style to mimic European opera houses, the Blackstone Theatre opened on New Year’s Eve 1910. The duo also designed the nearby Blackstone Hotel that still stands at 636 S. Michigan Ave.

 interior of the Merle Reskin Theatre
The interior of the Merle Reskin Theatre

The Blackstone Theatre was home to top talent and productions in its early years, hosting the first American tour in 1913 of what would become the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the Theatre Guild’s touring productions in 1929-30.

After the stock market crash, the Federal Theatre Project, established by the Works Progress Administration in 1935, leased the Blackstone and staged more than 20 productions there.

Over the next several decades, Chicago audiences saw many iconic performances, some that remain Shook’s fondest memories of the place. Still in graduate school at UIC, Shook sometimes worked at the theater before DePaul owned it.

Chicago Playworks spring 2017 production of Cinderella
The Chicago Playworks spring 2017 production of Cinderella: The Remix, Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

“It was always a place which was so dynamic and so beautiful,” she said, adding that in 1984 she was invited to watch a Lena Horne press conference during the run of her The Lady and Her Music show.

“It was outside my current Reskin office,” she said. “She took questions from countless reporters for hours, literally, and that was just wonderful to listen to firsthand. That was really special.”

In 1978, she saw legendary actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in The Gin Game and in 1980 she watched, several times, David Bowie star as The Elephant Man.

“That was pretty cool,” she said of Bowie.

Famous Grads of The Merle Reskin Theatre

DePaul purchased the theater in the late 1980s and in 1992 renamed it the Merle Reskin Theatre. It became the main stage for The Theatre School until 2013 when a new facility was built on the school’s Lincoln Park campus. During that period, several now famous grads appeared in productions, including David Dastmalchian (Blade Runner 2049), Larry Bates (Big Little Lies), Aaron Abrams (Hannibal), Alexander Koch (Under the Dome) and Chicago theater actress Taylor Blim.

Lighting designer Heather Gilbert and stage manager Brent Beavers are among the behind-the-curtain talent who got their start with Reskin productions.

The Merle Reskin Theatre still is making history — and futures stars — with three children’s theater productions a season and one production of the DePaul Opera Theatre each season.

Joe Kerry; Chicago Playworks production of Hansel and Gretel
The 2013 – 2014 Chicago Playworks production of Hansel and Gretel that featured Joe Keery, Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

And if you think that just because these productions are for children they aren’t gorgeously staged and well-acted—think again. Shook said everyone brings their A-game.

“We fully produce and create these shows on a very large scale. We’re doing this play called Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook, and we’re doing the Cat in the Hat this year,” she said. “They are fabulously beautiful.”

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The Merle Reskin Theatre // 60 E. Balbo Drive. // The Cultural Mile

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