One of the most durable urban myths of Chicago architecture is that turn-of-the-century utilities mogul Sam Insull designed the Civic Opera House to look like an armchair with its back facing east—so that if he were sitting in it, he'd be turning his back on New York. The whole opera house, the story goes, was built after his wife was rejected by the New York Opera companies.
A cursory glance at the facts would show that the story has no basis. In fact, Mrs. Insull was about 60 when the Civic Opera was built, and she was never an opera singer. However, before their marriage, she had been a professional actress, and staged a small comeback in 1925. Most reviews of her were rather polite, but screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz later said that he passed out drunk trying to write a scathing review for the New York Times, a scene he then wrote into Orson Welles' classic film Citizen Kane after Kane builds an opera house for his new wife, Susan Alexander.
It's generally agreed that the character of Susan Alexander is mostly based on Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst's girlfriend, and her film career. But Welles did say that Insull was part of the inspiration for Kane, too. And after Mrs. Insull's New York stint, Insull did lease the Studebaker Theater so she could start a repertory theater there. Work on the Civic Opera started right around the time that repertory project failed.
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