- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006


John Dillinger would have recognized the theater’s marquee, but the interior of the building would have been a mystery to him.

It was near the Biograph Theater where the notorious Depression-era bank robber was gunned down by FBI agents after seeing a movie. The theater has been renovated, and was to reopen Friday night as a home for live theater.

For approximately 90 years, it served as a movie house. Now it will house Victory Gardens Theater, a company devoted to new plays that won the 2001 regional theater Tony Award.

Built in 1914, the brick building is a Chicago landmark, but only the facade is protected. Much of the interior was gutted to create a 299-seat theater.

But the famous Biograph Theater marquee — prominent in almost all the photos from when Dillinger was killed — remains. It’s a replica, however, with building architect Daniel P. Coffey comparing the old one to a rusted out “layer cake” that had so many renovations and changes over the years he feared it would fall down.

Like the original, the new scroll-shaped marquee is made of sheet metal covered with a black and white enamel finish. It features 730 light bulbs; bright, red neon lights up the Biograph’s letters. One difference from the 1933 version? It now reads “Lights by ComEd, an Exelon company.”

That marquee was advertising a movie called “Manhattan Melodrama” on July 22, 1934, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell. In the audience was Dillinger, who had been declared Public Enemy No. 1 for a string of bank robberies across the Midwest.

Dillinger had become something of a Robin Hood figure for some Americans who lost their savings when banks failed during the Great Depression, and the feds had narrowly missed capturing him several times.

But on that night, Dillinger was betrayed by a woman who became known as the “Lady in Red” — the madam of a brothel who thought the tip about Dillinger’s trip to the movies with her and another woman would save her from deportation back to Romania. (It didn’t.)

Anna Sage told FBI agents she would wear a red dress to help them identify the group. When Dillinger left the Biograph and realized what was happening, according to the FBI, he grabbed a pistol from his trouser pocket, ran toward a nearby alley and was hit by three shots from federal agents.

In recent years, the ticket box under the marquee was crammed with Dillinger memorabilia and newspaper clips. On July 22, the theater owner would often show “Manhattan Melodrama” and let women wearing red dresses into the show for free, said Annelies Panagoulias, 52, who has lived across the street from the Biograph for 18 years.

Mrs. Panagoulias is from the Netherlands; her husband is from Greece. Whenever they have overseas visitors, they show them the spot where Dillinger was shot. And if the tourists aren’t familiar with the gangster?

“We tell them about him,” she said with a laugh.

Mrs. Panagoulias said the building had become rundown over the years. Its grandly arched windows were painted black, and some of the lights in the marquee were always burnt out.

“Now you can see, it’s a beautiful building. It’s fabulous,” she said.

The first production at the new Victory Gardens Theater, a play by Charles Smith called “Denmark,” was scheduled to begin previews Friday night, with grand opening ceremonies on Oct. 14 and 15.

Victory Gardens was formerly located less than three blocks away from the Biograph, which the company bought in 2004. The budget for the renovation was $11.3 million, said Marcelle McVay, the theater’s managing director.

She joked that theatergoers will be able to find her every night in the ticket box on the sidewalk under the marquee — wearing a red dress, of course. As for the original marquee, it’s been donated to the Chicago History Museum for its collection.

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