CHAMPAIGN - Owner Tom Angelica has closed downtown Champaign's New Art Theatre.
The longtime art and independent film house closed Thursday night. The Oscar-nominated movie ?Chicago? was supposed to open Friday, but did not. Angelica could not be reached for comment, but in a message on the answering machine at the Art, he says, ?I regret to inform you that we will no longer showing movies here. It's been a great run, but I'm moving on. If you want to send donations, they will be forwarded.?
However, the closing looks to be only temporary. Building owner David Kraft of Urbana has been talking with the owner of a Decatur theater about taking over the Art.
?Skip Huston has been the most interested in taking over the theater. He's the frontrunner and the only one I'm talking to at this point,? Kraft said. ?I'm just anxious to get it back open and improve it and make the Art something everyone can be proud of. I want it to be better than it was before.?
Kraft has had an ongoing dispute with Angelica for more than a month. Angelica fell behind in his January rent and, according to Kraft, never paid his security deposit or offered proof of liability insurance. He has since paid the January rent and is current with the rent for February.
?I have not heard from Tom at all,? Kraft said. ?I can only say I was surprised to learn about the theater's closing through an answering machine.?
Huston owns the Avon Theatre in Decatur, a downtown single-screen theater that also shows art, independent and foreign releases, along with some mainstream films that fail to find an audience in multiplexes.
He has not yet signed a lease with Kraft, but that appears to be only a formality.
?Nothing is signed yet, but we have an agreement in principle. I wasn't planning on going over there next week, but now it looks like I will be? to sign the lease, Huston said. ?This has happened faster than any of us thought it would.?
Depending on when Angelica vacates the theater - he has till the end of February - Huston said the Art will likely be closed for at least one month and perhaps longer. Kraft would like to see the Art - the ?New? will likely be dropped - reopen by the time Ebertfest starts. Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival runs April 23 to 27 at the nearby Virginia Theatre.
?It would be great to have it reopen by Ebertfest. That's really what I would like to shoot for,? Kraft added.
Huston and his staff already have plenty of ideas for the Art, which will continue to show art, independent and foreign releases.
?I have already identified staff for the theater,? he said, including his daughter, who graduates in May from Eastern Illinois University.
?We want to build out the stage so that we can do multipurpose things, like appearances. The lobby will be gutted - cleaned, new carpeting, new paint - and the concession stand redone.
?No one should worry about this,? he added. ?The Art will come back and it will be better than ever. I promise that.?
In the meantime, at least one person plans to send Angelica a donation to help him pay bills.
David Meyer, owner of Meyer Drapery, the Robeson Building, the downtown Champaign parking garage and other businesses, has donated 200 parking passes in the garage to Ebertfest.
?The idea is that they can sell them for $30 each and then donate the proceeds to the Art to help that situation,? Meyer said.
Meyer wants the proceeds split between Kraft and Angelica, but Kraft has turned down the offer. Angelica, however, is clearly open to the idea.
?I have talked with David Kraft and I know he's not interested, but I'm still going to go ahead and do this. I appreciate the efforts of both guys to keep the theater open,? Meyer added. ?At least it could help Tom pay off some bills.?
In a letter to both, Meyer wrote, ?While I am not sure of what the future holds for the Art Theatre, my wife and I wish to do the following for you as a token of our appreciation. ... This may be ?too little, too late' (but) I hope it helps each of your respective efforts and lets you know how important your efforts are to the community.?
The Art Theatre building was constructed in 1913 and opened as the Park Theatre. It showed mainstream films, first silent and then sound, until 1958, when it was purchased by the Art Theater Guild, a national chain of art houses. Between 1958 and 1968, the Art was the place for alternative cinema in Champaign-Urbana and East Central Illinois.
However, the market for art films dipped in the late 1960s and the theater's programming was switched to pornographic films, which were shown from 1969 to 1986. It closed when videocassettes and home VHS players became popular, which hurt attendance.
Angelica, John Manley and Ron Epple bought the theater on Jan. 1, 1987, renaming it the New Art Theatre.
They took it back to a successful art house, although attendance sagged again in recent years. Angelica later became sole owner of the theater, while Kraft bought the building from the Manley family two years ago.