27 Sep 2017

Chicago’s Venues. This part of America remains VERY great!

Chicago is an architecturally significant city, with stunning examples built along its historical canals and lake shoreline. The architecture cruise on the canals is a highlight.

I checked in to the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel on a warm fall Monday night last month. The Chicago Tribune describes it better than I can:

“The building dates to 1893 and was designed by Henry Ives Cobb, a leading 19th century Chicago architect. Its facade has been likened to the Doges Palace in Venice. An annex on Madison street was built early in the 20th century. The building is part of the Historic Michigan Boulevard District, which was designated a Chicago landmark in 2002. The Athletic Association buildings are a throwback to an era when the affluent built clubs for themselves that resembled temples. One could exercise, enjoy a fine meal in a beautiful setting and then retire to a comfortable room for the evening, all under one roof. A person’s status could be measured in part by the club that admitted him.”


Quite. Anyway they admitted me, and the Shure microphone company picked up the tab – which seems to run at over 300 greenbacks a night. I chucked the bags on the bed, had a quick shower, and headed for a steakhouse to overwhelm the airline food vibe that I’d been locked with for 26 hours. A bottle of Napa Valley Chardonnay won the night with me!

Shure took us to Soldier Field,  where Luca Serra, the Director of Sponsorship and Media gave us a tour. This 63,500 seat arena was built in 2002, inside the façade of the historical stadium, opened in 1924. The façade retains original character, while the new stadium delivers for over 200 events a year.


It was named thus as a memorial to the fallen. Americans have a deep revere for their military- indeed, service personnel in uniform are invited to board airplanes first, as a mark of respect. It’s not uncommon to see strangers applaud a group of marines or navy as they walk.

The big deal at Soldier Field is NFL- National Football League, or Gridiron football as it is better known. This is a US$9 billion league with 32 teams and an average player wage of US$1.9 million!

We were there a week before the season opener, and ground staff were building concessions and washing seats around the Kentucky grass field, which is 330 feet long by 160 feet.

The grandstand towers around the field, with a row of 260 floodlights along the roof over each long side, and two huge LED score screens.

Luca spoke to me on the sidelines about security, his firm also manage the Manchester stadium where the outside bombing took young lives earlier in the year.

‘The NFL call the shots’, he said. ‘Now we have 72 airport (millimeter-wave) scanners and everyone gets scanned coming in. We allow no bags – they have to go to an offsite check facility if they turn up with a bag’.

Soldier Field is where the All Blacks slaughtered the USA Eagles, 74-6 in front of a sell out crowd. I would have enjoyed watching THAT! It is also where The Grateful Dead were exhumed for three gloomy hash hazed nights in 2015, grossing US$30 million. Personally I’d prefer other recent acts: Metallica (gross US$6m, one night), or Tay Tay (Swift), 2 nights (gross US$11,400,000).

We had some audio business to do with the Shure people, and Soldier Field was an excellent place to do it! Then it was on the bus for a short hop to The Pier.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater is on Navy Pier, which is a freaking enormous pier jutting one kilometer out into Lake Michigan. It occupies over 50 acres, and was built in 1916 and called ‘Municipal Pier’.. In 1927, the pier was renamed Navy Pier in honor of the naval veterans who served in WW1.

We sat in the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater, a 500-seat courtyard-style theater based on the design of theaters in early modern England, with a nod to the design of Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre. Three seating levels—Main Floor, Dress Circle and Gallery—wrap around the thrust stage.

Unlike anything in Australia, the theatre was purpose built in 1999 for its company, then known as the Chicago Shakespeare Workshop. As we did some secret Shure audio reviewing (subject to an ongoing embargo that we continue to honor) the hoarding was coming off the new Yard Theatre next door.

This is remarkable: A movable set of structural audience “towers” mean audience capacities vary 150 to 850. Say what? The picture below tells the story,

The design team includes UK-based consultancy firm Charcoalblue, and Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Having spent some time buried in audio, talking to the Shure engineers, the theatre crew and a visiting designer,  we retreated to a dinner which predictably ended merrily.


I wanted some counterbalance after the big city bling of downtown Chicago, so I hired a Hertz car and nervously challenged the peak hour streets to get out of downtown. Being beside that enormous inland sea (you can’t see the other side of the lake) navigation can be very easy.

I had to do two things. Stay on the RIGHT side of the road (left hand drive), and head North which meant keeping the lake on my right.

Having done my research I had a lay day since my destination, the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, 60 miles North, was dark until the next day. I’d booked a ticket to see Huey Lewis and the News, which suited me as I’d seen them last year at Unison Amphitheatre in Taupo (NZ) and enjoyed myself.

(I wrote about it in CX March 2016 )

The drive up through Evanston is postcard pretty – plus I stumbled on the Midwestern University Marching Band at practice in a park. If you haven’t seen these guys in action, go Google them! It was something else.

I thought I’d head to Geneva Lake. Flying over I had just a few drinks with a lady next to me on the plane, and she suggested this place. It was still an hour away when I saw the sign to Waukegan. I figured a slow drive past the theatre would be fun. The town itself was very sleepy, just a few little diners and a bar. The kind of place a tumbleweed may blow through.

‘Huey Lewis Tonight 7.30’ said the sign. The truck was outside unloading!

Screech go the brakes, I run inside. ‘The show is on tonight?’ I ask the lady at the box office.

‘Yes sir’.

‘Not tomorrow night?’

‘No sir’, looking at me like I’m a whack-job. Plus I speak with a very strange lingo.

I rummage through my iPhone to find the ticket which does indeed have today’s date on it. Somehow it had gone into my travel calendar for the next day!

Fortunately I had nothing else planned, so I went along. I was amongst the youngest there, a sell out crowd of 2,416. The theatre is STUNNING, built in 1923 by a local who declared cost was no hurdle.

This is how they describe it: ” No expense was spared in the creation of the Genesee Theatre. The outside façade was built from terra cotta and pressed brick in ornate design. The main entrance was located on Genesee Street and opened into a huge lobby with a large chandelier. The interior was designed in a Spanish Renaissance style using caen stone, which is a light yellow limestone, and antique plaster décor. The large center dome in the auditorium was fashioned from hammered silver. More than 1200 yards of tapestry fabric, several tons of marble from the Carrera quarries in Italy, and lighting throughout the Theatre combined to make it the most lavish building in Waukegan.”

It stopped showing movies, and fell into disrepair. The city bought it, and spent millions restoring it. Now it hosts concerts, and in another great American twist, is mainly volunteer staffed.

We have a lot to learn from America. My trip reinforced the vibrancy of its people, and the community spirit that is generous to its arts and venues. I left happier for the experience.

• Julius was a guest of Shure Inc while in the USA.


Published monthly since 1991, our famous AV industry magazine is free for download or pay for print. Subscribers also receive CX News, our free weekly email with the latest industry news and jobs.