Loop Back: Where The Burlesque Dancers Stayed
Runyons has been a popular spot to get drinks and chicken wings since 1983 at 107 North Washington. But more than a century ago, the same space was being used to provide drinks and lodging for a clientele that was considered quite risqué at the time.
On what’s now the Runyons parking lot, the Gayety Theater stood for more than 60 years. It was best known for burlesque and vaudeville acts but also featured boxing and wrestling.
The performers quite often booked rooms next door at the Gayety Annex. Classifieds from 1910 boast of hot and cold running water in every room for 50 cents a night, and a special 35-cent dinner downstairs in the saloon cafe.
While the Gayety opened in 1909 as a traditional theater with seating for 1,200, it quickly transitioned to vaudeville and burlesque performers, which increasingly drew outrage from church and women’s groups.
The city council shut the Gayety down in 1927 after a few aldermen agreed to attend a show to see what the fuss was about. Alderman John Swanson was aghast. “I have never seen a woman so nearly nude as were the 20 girls on the Gayety stage,” he said, while also noting that his son would never be allowed back home if he attended a show there.
Alderman Victor Johnson called it “raw, rotten, obscene, indecent and lewd.”
The theater remained closed for nearly two years until the owner agreed to tame things down and bring in more musical and comedy acts.
While the Annex continued as a saloon, the theater closed for good in the mid-40s. In a 1967 photo, the lower level was being used a snack shop, plumbing and heating business, and a barber shop. The building was leveled in the 70s.
Today, if you look down, you can still see the tile entrance for the Gayety Annex as you enter Runyons.
We have several more pages of neighborhood history in our Historic North Loop section.
By Mike Binkley, North Loop Neighborhood Association