History

The Egyptian Theatre has roots back to the age of the pharaohs. This historic structure owes this connection to the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in 1922. That discovery set off a nationwide interest in everything Egyptian. The Egyptian influence reached DeKalb County in 1928, when the DeKalb Theatre Company was trying to settle on a design for a combination motion picture house and vaudeville theatre. Needing a larger facility than its theatre at the corner of First Street and Lincoln Highway, the firm talked with Chicago theatre architect Elmer F. Behrens. Contracts for the new theatre were awarded in 1928, but construction, other than a foundation excavation, did not start until Spring of 1929. Dale Leifheit was president of the DeKalb Theatre Company and served as the building’s first manager when it opened on Dec. 10, 1929. It is believed that the initial construction cost roughly $250,000. The theatre served a population of approximately 8,545 in the city of DeKalb and 32,644 in DeKalb County.

By the 1930s, the theatre was one of over 100 theatres across the country to decorate itself in an Egyptian style. Of all the Egyptian theatres, the DeKalb theatre is one of only 7 remaining in the United States and is the only Egyptian Theatre east of the Rocky Mountains.

The other remaining Egyptian Theatres are located in: Los Angeles, CA; Delta, CO; Boise, ID; Coos Bay, OR; Ogden, UT; and Park City, UT.

United States map of remaining Egyptian Theatres

In the original design, additional buildings were supposed to be attached to the existing building, including a hotel on the north side of the main entrance, but they were never built due to the stock market crash in late 1929.

The stock market crash in October 1929 changed some building plans, but failed to dampen the opening celebration. The unique broken-tile main lobby floor was a compromise with a dollar shortage; it was originally supposed to be marble.

The theatre opened on December 10, 1929. The first film on the Egyptian’s giant screen was “The Hottentot,” an “all talking” film about horse racing; general admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The live vaudeville acts generally were reserved for weekends between movie showings. Ownership of the Egyptian changed hands over the years, but for a majority of its commercial life, the building was owned and operated by the Thomas Valos family, who ran a chain of Midwest motion-picture houses.

Egyptian Theatre in 1934, winter

In the forties and fifties, the Egyptian concentrated mostly on movies, with an occasional live event. On October 25, 1959 Senator John F. Kennedy made an appearance to a packed house at the Egyptian. A short three months later he would announce his candidacy for president. Throughout the sixties, the Egyptian was a movie house, although some exceptions still did occur.

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In the early 70’s the aging theatre continued to show movies and sometimes hosted concerts by popular up and coming rock bands such as Journey and Heart. By the mid seventies, the Egyptian was a ghost of its previous splendor. The plaster walls and interior motifs were crumbling away, the seats were in disrepair, the plumbing rarely worked, the boiler was no longer functioning, and there were holes in the ceiling letting in both rain water and wild animals. In 1977, the Egyptian Theatre was closed and the property given over to the city of DeKalb.

Egyptian Theatre circa 1979, marquee reads "Save the Egyptian"
With the theatre on the verge of being condemned in 1978, a group of citizens banded together to restore and save the Egyptian. The Egyptian was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In 1982, Preservation of Egyptian Theatre, Inc. (PET) qualified for a $2.3 million grant from the state of Illinois. This money allowed the restoration of the theatre to begin. Renovations were started in 1982 and finished by the fall of 1983.
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When the theatre opened again in 1983, it was host to dozens of events a year. The diversity of events was impressive, with multiple community groups and national groups calling the Egyptian Theatre “home”. The Egyptian season was filled with live events, weddings, receptions, community meetings, and movies. The theatre continues to be home to DeKalb County’s largest movie screen at 35 feet wide and 22 feet tall.
Today, the theatre is utilized by the community for a wide variety of events and also attracts national touring acts. From 2006 – 2019 nearly $2 million was invested in restoration, maintenance and upgrades to the Egyptian Theatre. In the summer of 2011, the original seats from 1929, which were still in use in the theatre, were sold off to the community and replaced by brand new seats that look nearly identical to the originals.
On May 1, 2019 (90 years to the day when the original groundbreaking took place), construction began on a $6.5 million expansion project. This project dramatically increased the public restrooms, concessions, storage, and most importantly…added air conditioning for the first time since 1929. The expansion project was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic that started in March 2020. The project was completed October 1, 2020.
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P.E.T.’s vision for the Egyptian Theatre since the beginning has been a community-based one. The success of the Egyptian Theatre has continually been embraced by both the arts community and by the people of DeKalb County. The vision of P.E.T. has grown from just keeping the doors open to opening new doors.

Over the years the Egyptian Theatre has been the stage for performances by: Lawrence Welk, BB King, Jay Leno, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis, Corky Segal, Danny Glover, Ron White, Brian Regan, Lewis Black, George Winston, Umphrey’s McGee, REM, Journey, Heart, The Violent Femmes, The Psychedelic Furs, Rick Springfield, Nick Swardson, Survivor, John Waite, Gaelic Storm, Lightwire Theater, The Second City and many more.

Red and orange lasers emanating from the stage out over a crowd in a theatre