All systems go at Virginia

All systems go at Virginia

$750,000 grant to pay for new sound, lighting systems

CHAMPAIGN — Considering its current lighting and sound systems, technical director Andy Hall views the Virginia Theatre as the most "beautiful warehouse in the world."

That's going to change.

The Champaign Park District will receive $750,000 from the Illinois Public Museum Capital Grants Program to renovate the theater's sound and lighting systems.

The work will be done next summer.

"This grant will take us to the point where we are actually a professional level venue that puts on national touring acts without having to go outside the building to make rental purchases," Hall said.

"That's going to be really important to us as a venue."

Virginia Theatre director Steven Bentz said it will mean reduced spending for everyone. "Renting each and every time for a production is like renting a car — an expensive way to go about it," he said.

The new sound system will be for live events. The Virginia already has a state-of-the-art sound system for movies that includes 36 surround-sound speakers through the house. That system came with the addition this spring of a new digital projection system.

"What we don't have is a sound system for live events," Bentz said. "If you want to go on the stage and talk, I can give you a microphone — and that's about it."

The current system, he said, is ineffective in reaching the balcony and other areas of the two-level house. The new line array system, to be suspended from the ceiling, will reach all levels.

"Then you bring in under-balcony fills — small speakers on the underside of the balcony to make sure back corners of the main level receive sound as well," Bentz said. "Then you've got full, rich coverage of the entire house."

As for the current system, Hall said the recent round of renovations at the Virginia allowed for better lighting potential — but none for the front of the stage.

"We're relying on an outdated, archaic system for the front," he said.

The new system will include recessed lights toward the back of the dome, and the removal of the lighting truss beneath the dome — Bentz called it an eyesore. The new system will result in a brighter stage up front, better theatrical lighting and "rock 'n roll lighting" for bands, Hall said.

Bentz said the district will "make" the $750,000 grant cover the cost of both systems. The nice thing about the grant is it requires no matching funds, said Champaign Park District Development Director Laura Auteberry, who wrote the application.

She requested $750,000, the maximum allowed; applicants in this round would each receive all they asked for or nothing.

"So we were very tickled with that," she said. "The maximum amount you could get the last time was $1 million, and we got only $500,000, which we were grateful for, but it wasn't enough for new lighting and sound systems.

"We were thrilled to get this grant and be able to finish," she added. "This gets us almost done with the Virginia. This is pretty much it as far as the big stuff. As far as I know, this is the last thing that will require" closing the theater while the work is done.

Any unexpected expenses for the Virginia renovations will come from the Virginia restoration fund. The Champaign Parks Foundation will continue to raise money for the fund, which totals a little more than $100,000 now.

So far, the district has raised and spent $7.5 million on restorations and renovations at the Virginia, built in 1921 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

All of the money came from grants and private donations — and a $1 fee on every ticket purchased at the Virginia since 2000, when the park district acquired the theater.

The money for the Public Museum Capital Grants program — altogether, $20 million was awarded statewide in this latest round — came through Illinois Jobs Now, a capital program approved in 2009 by the Illinois General Assembly.

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