GRAND BOULEVARD — A trove of historical theater backdrops have been discovered in the attic of The Forum, the long-vacant Bronzeville treasure that’s being restored to its glory.
Forum owner Bernard Loyd said the backdrops were found by contractor Michael Beaver, who was working at the site several weeks ago as part of an extensive renovation effort of the venue at 318-24 E. 43rd St.
Beaver was going through items in the attic when he came across the canvas backdrops, all tightly wrapped and covered in dust. He alerted Loyd and the two unfurled them, revealing what one local stage consultant called “remarkable” scenes.
Beaver found several pieces — a front drop and border pieces — that would’ve been used to hide theater equipment stationed above the stage and conceal the space during costume changes for performances. The border pieces feature little yellow curtains that would’ve fit into the aesthetic of the room, said Wendy Waszut-Barrett, who serves as president of Historic Stage Services LLC.
Waszut-Barrett said the backdrops date to 1897, around the time of the Forum’s grand opening.
Despite being ravaged by time and water damage, Waszut-Barrett told Block Club they can all be saved.
One backdrop in particular immediately captured the artist’s attention: a scene prominently featuring three Black people — two women and a man — dressed for a day on the town, pointing to what appears to be a cemetery.
“I’ve seen thousands of backdrops in my career. I’ve never seen one depicting people of color. It’s remarkable,” Waszut-Barrett said.
‘Against All Odds, They’ve Survived’
The hand-painted backdrops are the product of Sosman and Landis, one of the largest scenic painting firms in the Midwest at the time, Waszut-Barrett said.
The company leased its first building in Chicago around 1879, Waszut-Barrett said. By 1894, it was providing scenery to 4,000 theaters throughout the United States. The firm continued to grow, delivering backdrops to 6,000 venues in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and South Africa, Waszut-Barrett said.
“They weren’t just delivering scenery to theaters and public halls. They’re doing spectacles at the [Chicago] Coliseum,” Waszut-Barrett said, decking out the arena “like you were in the ocean or in some medieval castle.”
After the deaths of founders Joseph Sosman and Perry Landis in 1915 and 1905, respectively, the firm would last until the mid-century, Waszut-Barrett said.
Though the company did employ people of color at the time, the art never reflected their existence until now, Waszut-Barrett said.
Waszut-Barrett said the backdrops were only built to last 10 to 15 years, so for the canvases to still be salvageable after 130 years is remarkable.
Loyd said he was “blown away” by it all. The entrepreneur and Urban Juncture founder has spent the last decade painstakingly restoring the building, which served as the epicenter for Black South Siders for generations.
Finding the backdrops 11 years into his mission to return The Forum to its full grandeur makes it all the more meaningful, a “metaphor for both the building and Bronzeville,” Loyd said.
Loyd said he hopes to return the canvases to their full glory and have them on display at the venue. He and Waszut-Barrett will be discussing next steps in the coming weeks to determine the cost and timeline of the restoration.
For now, they’ve been wrapped back up and tucked away on the floor of the ballroom.
“We want to reconnect with that era, to tell the story of how we got from there to here. That last backdrop in particular is significant because of the Black people in it. We want to connect with that. As we found out from Wendy, Black folks have been creatives in Chicago for 127-plus years,” said Loyd.
Built in 1897, The Forum closed in the 1970s and fell into such disrepair that pieces of furniture had sunk into the floor due to water damage.
A stone’s throw from the 43rd Street Green Line station, the building served as a colorful backdrop for generations, hosting everything from concerts — Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters once played there — to movement meetings before its closure in the ’70s.
It is also known for having the oldest surviving hardwood ballroom dance floor in the city, according to Landmarks Illinois. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
The Forum was in danger of being demolished when Loyd, who has lived around the corner from the Black Chicago landmark for 25 years, bought the building in 2011 and announced an ambitious, $20 million effort to restore it to a functioning performing arts space.
Loyd has bankrolled most of the remediation efforts himself. Crowdsourcing and grants and rezoning have helped further his efforts, but Loyd estimates it will take $25 million to make the Forum fully functional again.
With a performing arts venue, the Lillian Marcie Center, planned a few blocks away from the Cottage Grove corridor, The Forum is an important part of a larger plan to rejuvenate 43rd Street and turn it into a destination spot. It could also be another feather in the cap for the Bronzeville National Heritage Act, the plan signed into law in December 2022 to provide $10 million in federal funding over 15 years to conserve, manage and develop cultural inventory.
While getting the ballroom back to full use is still a work in progress, Loyd said construction on the western portion of the building is due to wrap up soon, which will open up three storefronts. Gumbo Media will be one of the first tenants. Loyd also plans to open a coffee shop.
Loyd will host an activation in the space, “Train of Thoughts,” Oct. 12, where Bronzeville residents can share their stories about the community at the 43rd Street Green Line station. It’s inspired by the Chicago Film Archives’ Everyday People initiative — a collaborating partner — which shares home movies and amateur films along Chicago’s public transit system.
Loyd sees the backdrops as not only a metaphor for Bronzeville, but a significant part of its story as well.
“They’ve all been challenged, battered, all but discarded, but against all odds they’ve survived,” Loyd said. “They’re still incredibly rich and connected. As we figure out how to tap into that cultural wealth and reactivate those dormant links, we will bring the drops, The Forum and our community back to their full vibrancy.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: