Aerial view of Ravinia's train station.
History of Ravinia
In 1904, the A.C. Frost Company created Ravinia as an amusement park intended to
lure riders to the fledgling Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad. The amusement
park boasted a baseball diamond, electric fountain and refectory or casino building
with dining rooms and a dance floor. The prairie-style Martin Theatre (then called
Ravinia Theatre) is the only building on the grounds that dates back to that original
construction. Over 100 years later, Ravinia Festival is the oldest outdoor music
festival in North America and is lauded for presenting world-class music. The festival
attracts about 600,000 listeners to some 120 to 150 events that span all genres
from classical music to jazz to music theater over each three-month summer season.
Over the years, the festival has hosted such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, The
Ballet Russe, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Lucrezia Bori, Dave Brubeck, Pablo
Casals, Van Cliburn, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin,
José Greco, Jascha Heifetz, John Houseman, Janis Joplin, Yo-Yo Ma, Luciano
Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Oscar Peterson, Stephen Sondheim, Isaac Stern and Frank
In 1905, Walter Damrosch leads the New York Symphony Society.
The first piece ever played at the park was "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come
Home" on a steam calliope. Soon after, Walter Damrosch brought the New York Philharmonic
to the open-air pavilion, which also saw dance productions by Ruth Page and Ted
This mix of popular diversions and music performances was not sufficient to keep
the railroad afloat, and in 1910 the first incarnation of Ravinia Park came to an
end, and the property went into receivership. A group of North Shore residents,
convinced the high quality of presentations should continue, purchased the park
and founded The Ravinia Company under the leadership of philanthropist Louis Eckstein,
who served as impresario and personally subsidized the organization for 20 years.
With a gala reopening in 1911, Ravinia became primarily a summer venue for classical
music. Opera was added to the concert programs in 1912, and by the end of the decade,
Ravinia earned a reputation as America's summer opera capital. During Ravinia's
"Golden Age" of opera, 1919 to 1931, Ravinia audiences heard the greatest singers
in the world, including such luminaries as Edward Johnson, Giovanni Martinelli,
Claudia Muzio, Rosa Raisa and Tito Schipa.
In May 1949, the original wooden Pavilion burned to the ground.
With the onset of the Great Depression, that Golden Age ended, and the woods fell
silent for five years. Again, local businessmen came to the rescue by forming the
Ravinia Festival Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to presenting
music of the highest quality for less than cost. In 1936, Ravinia became the summer
residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which remains the centerpiece of the
music festival today. In 1944, Eckstein's widow donated the 36-acre park to the
Festival Association. In May 1949, the original wooden Pavilion burned to the ground.
Six weeks later, the festival opened on schedule without missing a single performance
under the shelter of a 33-ton canvas cover, which was originally designed to hangar
B-29 bombers. After the season, construction began on a new Pavilion that doubled
the audience capacity.