Our town, their billboard: 8 great moments in Chicago naming-rights history

[From The A.V. Club Chicago, with David Wolinsky / May 12, 2010]

Chicago history is littered with local institutions converted to billboards for big corporate spenders, be it Shell buying up the Air and Water Show or Macy’s takeover of Marshall Field. It’s always sad to see our fair city reduced to cheap advertisements and our memories bound forever to the names of faceless behemoths (“Great show at the Ford last night!”), but must a new name on the outside really mean provincial death on the inside? Must we all become petulant, pouting teenagers once The Man starts buying up our precious venues and landmarks? As the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority considers selling the Navy Pier and McCormick Place marquees to the highest bidder, The A.V. Club dug deep into the world of corporate colloquialism and found the marriage of entity and venue hiding at least a sliver of an upside.

Best Reduction Of 103 Years Of Chicago Baseball History To Jokes About Joan Cusack Bobblehead Giveaway Nights: Comiskey Park II becomes U.S. Cellular Field, 2003

When it opened in 1991, Comiskey Park II’s blandness could make even the most loyal fans shrug their shoulders and ask what they had done to deserve it. Still, retaining the name of former team owner Charles Comiskey showed a respect for team history that could make even the nightmarishly steep upper deck forgivable. A 20-year, $68 million deal with U.S. Cellular brought a much-needed cash infusion to right the wrongs of the park’s original design, and the new flourishes gave “The Cell” character it was born without—although those wretched blue seats took the Comiskey name with them. “The Cell” became unfortunate shorthand considering the cheap shots taken at the ballpark’s clientele, but the newfound respectability proved a fair trade for dumping the moniker of the guy whose cheapness drove his players to throw the 1919 World Series.

Best Momentary Beer-Fueled Neutralization Of Famously Iron-Fisted Mayoral Rule: The Mayor Daley Marathon becomes the Chicago Marathon (1979), which then becomes the Old Style Chicago Marathon (1988)

The original Chicago Marathon wasn’t Mayor Richard J. Daley’s idea, but so strong was his influence that the first two runnings of the Chicago marathon bore the Boss’ name. As the Jane Byrne-Harold Washington ’80s worked to undo much of the original Daley’s work, so too did the Marathon shed the Daley brand. The race briefly found sponsorship from Beatrice Foods (now part of ConAgra), and in 1988 it was adopted by that most athletic of Chicago institutions: Old Style lager. The Old Style Chicago Marathon moniker gave the race a distinctly Midwestern slant (where else in the world do people equate cheap beer with athletic excellence?), but parent G. Heileman Brewing Company dropped out after the 1991 race, thus ending the brief, perfect marriage of Chicago’s intense work ethic to its supposed progressiveness and renowned, irreverent boorishness.

Best Reclamation Of Legitimate Theater From Those Darned Kids With Their Rock Music: The Bismarck Theatre becomes the Cadillac Palace, 1999

Although originally opened as a performing arts theater, the Palace spent much of its life (from 1931 to 1984) as a movie house, until a 1984 renaming and repurposing gave rise to the Bismarck Theatre. The dedicated rock venue gave precious stage time to the likes of The Cure, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and a large number of contributions to Frank Zappa’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore live-album series. Still, realizing a seated theater was not the ideal setting for “Relax” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?,” the owners of the Bismarck Theatre decided they’d be better off getting out of the rock game. They restored the theater to its original French-style design, rededicated it to live theater, and rechristened it the Cadillac Palace in honor of its original name and its new $20 million benefactor.

Most Subtly Spiteful Contribution To This City’s Last Great Sports Dynasty: United Center opens, 1994

Despite its notoriously wild atmosphere and deafness-promoting design, even its most devoted attendees knew Chicago Stadium had to go. Its replacement certainly didn’t match the bare-knuckled appeal of the Madhouse on Madison, but it didn’t have to—the spike in revenues from the Jordan-era Bulls’ dominance brought in the kind of cash flow needed to maintain the Bulls’ position as the premier team in all of sports, making unprecedented victory all the appeal the stadium needed. At the same time, United Airlines struck a deal with then-Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to pay $1.8 million per year through 2014 for the rights to the stadium’s name. For the Hawks, this initially meant nothing as “Dollar Bill” allowed his team to slowly disintegrate, but Reinsdorf’s Bulls used the extra cash to replace traitor Horace Grant with the superior Ron “Hollywood” Harper, who in turn proved instrumental in the Bulls’ next three NBA championships.

Special Achievement In Co-Opting A Public Space: Every corner of Millennium Park goes up for sale, October 1997 through July 2004

Not that anyone expected much of a park whose construction required four years and $325 million more than originally planned, but a stroll through this city’s second-busiest tourist hotspot reads like a veritable who’s-who of conglomerates, from Chase Promenade to the Exelon Pavilions. Millennium Park’s past life as a rail yard meant it already had little symbolic or aesthetic significance to Chicagoans; by letting AT&T, Boeing, McDonald’s, et al in on the ground floor, the city ensured the park’s history would forever be tied to outside sponsors. Yet with its nature and location providing more appeal to out-of-towners, no actual Chicagoan was harmed by this maneuver in the first place.

Outstanding Performance In Cleaning Up A Dirty, Dirty Arena: The Rosemont Horizon becomes the Allstate Arena, May 1999


Having killed five during its construction and later gaining national attention through the legal woes and rumored mob connections of former Rosemont mayor-for-life Donald Stephens, the Horizon had earned a dubious reputation by the late ’90s—even as it brought countless rock legends and a pair of Wrestlemanias to town. Its size and suburb-friendly location made the Horizon a gold mine for whoever got in on the action, and insurance giant Allstate eventually swooped in, striking a $20 million deal with arena management in 1999. Out went the gaudy, ’80s-tastic signage and on went a shiny new white and blue exterior (to match company branding, obviously). And while the sound-deadening design still makes the venue better suited to sport and spectacle than musical performances, Allstate’s scrub job at the very least made the Horizon look pretty—and without scaring away the Nicklebacks of the world.

Honorable Mentions For Audaciously Believing Concert-And-Theater-Going Patrons Will Somehow Associate Fun With Banking: The Majestic Theatre becomes the Bank Of America Theatre in 2008, Tinley Park’s Tweeter Center becomes First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in 2006

The Loop’s Majestic Theatre opened back in 1906, and was arguably the Titanic of theaters, audaciously being the city’s first million-dollar-plus venue and the tallest building at the time. But no amount of Harry Houdini or vaudeville bookings could stave off the Great Depression, which helped set a precedent for its many resurrections under new names: as the Sam Shubert Theatre in 1945, the LaSalle Bank Theatre in 2005, and most recently as the Bank Of America Theatre in 2008. The BoA Theatre is one of many venues in town watering down our local culture, depending on how much of a theater enthusiast you are. Since 2000, it’s been owned and operated by Broadway In Chicago, the company that brought us the hateful The Addams Family. Somehow, though, something tells us that not even Houdini could escape the wrath of this summer’s Shrek The Musical, coming to the also-BIC-operated Cadillac Theatre.

Similarly, the south suburb’s Tweeter Center is another example of how even suburbanites can’t get away from these kind of shenanigans. Hopefully, though, any suburban high-schooler who wants to achieve something in their life is staying the hell away from what’s become of that space. Back in the ’90s, the ridiculously named amphitheater played host to Lollapalooza, neat band pairings (like Wilco opening for R.E.M.), and the sort of country-music bookings really not found anywhere else. The last decade, though, is another story altogether: The venue has been scooped up by Clear Channel, with First Midwest Bancorp acquiring the naming rights. Really, the whole place’s shifted vibe can be communicated with just one of this summer’s “hottest” upcoming shows: Limp Bizkit.