HOOPESTON — It's tough re-opening a movie theater in the middle of a rough winter.
"We just need the weather to cooperate," said Jim Richards, a Hoopeston resident involved in the effort to save the historic Lorraine Theater.
The Save the Lorraine Foundation took over the theater last month after Hoopeston native Fontella Fraley Krout bought it from the bank that had foreclosed on the previous owner. Krout immediately donated the Lorraine to the foundation, which took possession on Dec. 13.
To keep the heat and lights on, the foundation began showing movies on weekends, beginning right after Christmas in the little Lorraine, a smaller theater about a block away that is part of the property. The foundation had a good turnout that first weekend for "Fast and Furious 6" and "The Goonies."
But the next weekend, the winter storm that paralyzed most of Illinois blew into Hoopeston.
"It's been a little shaky since then," said Richards, who is gearing up for this weekend's showing of "Dirty Dancing" and "Cars."
The Lorraine Theatre opened in 1922, showing only silent movies until 1937, when Axel J. Claesson, a theater designer from Chicago, remodeled it into an art deco style theater. A sound system and restrooms were added then, too. In 1992, the projector system was upgraded, and a digital surround-sound system and speakers were added along with a new screen.
In 2007, longtime owner Greg Boardman sold it after almost 20 years, and the theater has struggled since then. A California man, Joshua Caudle, bought it in 2008, but by April 2012, the theater closed when the bank foreclosed on the property, according to Richards.
It has sat empty for more than a year, and in August, Richards and more than 30 other Hoopeston area residents met to discuss saving the theater. They decided to form the foundation to take over the property, which includes the Lorraine Theatre, and what's known as the Lorraine II or little Lorraine, a separate store-front theater set up by the previous owner that is about a block and half from the Lorraine and seats about 50 people. But, Richards said, Main Source Bank could not donate the property to the foundation.
That's when Krout heard about the situation through a Realtor friend and decided she could buy the theater and donate it to the foundation.
"I have fond memories of going there when I was young," said Krout, who lives in Danville. "I would just truly hate to see it closed permanently."
To bring customers into the theater during the Great Depression, the Lorraine Theatre hosted "bank roll nights." Once a week, a drawing was held, and a cash prize was given away, and if no one won, the money rolled over to the next week, and a larger prize was given away. Bank roll nights continued into the 1950s.
Krout remembers winning $90 one bank roll night, which was a lot of money to a 16-year-old in those days. But as an avid movie-goer, she was just as excited about the six-month free movie pass that came with it. Krout was at the Lorraine at least three times a week using that free pass.
"I probably saw some I didn't even like," she said.
Once the foundation took possession last month, Richards, president of the foundation, and the other members got to work cleaning the little Lorraine, which is in better shape than the Lorraine. The little theater is functional, and that's where the foundation is showing the weekend movies for freewill donations. That should keep money rolling in to pay for heat in the Lorraine and other bare necessities, like liability insurance, until the group's nonprofit status comes through, and they can begin fundraising and grant writing in earnest.
Richards said it will take a lot of money and work to restore the Lorraine, which needs its marquee repaired; some tuckpointing on the exterior and inside; new carpeting; a ceiling, heating and more. Richards said once the group gets its nonprofit status, it will begin getting estimates for the necessary repairs, so the foundation's members will know exactly how much it's going to cost to restore the theater.
In the meantime, they are committed to showing movies at and renting out the little Lorraine, not only to pay insurance and utilities, but to keep an active presence in the community.
"Showing we are a visible force rather than just letting the theater sit," he said. "It's a unique building. It was one of the premiere theaters here. ... We need to put it back to that."