Open-house visitors get firsthand look at Virginia Theatre's renovations
CHAMPAIGN – Sunday afternoon's Virginia Theatre open house brought back pleasant memories for Mary Wood of Champaign, whose son, Steve Wood, worked there as a manager in the 1970s.
"Every time I came to a movie at the Virginia, my son would want to know what I thought of it," Wood said. "I think he would be proud of how nice the place looks today."
For Mary Thompson of Urbana, the open house was an opportunity for her to sit back in one of the theater chairs and enjoy the view.
Thompson usually is on her feet for many events at the Virginia, serving as an usher for Aisle 3.
"I really enjoy the plays they show here," Thompson said. "The Virginia is old and has been here for so long, and its a homey place to make new memories."
Wood and Thompson were two of hundreds of area residents who turned out for the Virginia Theatre open house.
Champaign Park District Marketing and Development Director Laura Auteberry said the event was an opportunity for the public to see firsthand recent renovations to the lobby areas, paid for by a $1 million gift from the late Michael Carragher.
Guests munched on free popcorn and took facility tours to check out improvements and restorations to the lobby areas.
"We have a brand-new concession stand, all the paint and the plaster work in the lobby has been restored, we have new carpeting, all new finishes and lighting, and the box office and the upper lobby have been redone," Auteberry said.
"We wanted people to see all the changes that have been made. Anybody who comes here a lot was used to seeing the plaster work that was falling apart and the paint work that was old and faded. We wanted people to see all the efforts that we've made."
Virginia Theatre Director Steven Bentz said the improvements help maintain the historical integrity of the theater, which opened as a vaudeville house in 1921 and currently hosts a variety of events throughout the year ranging from community plays to Roger Ebert's annual film festival.
"It brings this 1921 gem back to its prominence," Bentz said.
Perry Morris of Urbana said he was impressed by the improvements.
"I think they've done a beautiful job," Morris said. "I like all the old theaters."
Doug Goodwine of Champaign said he grew up going to movies at the Virginia.
"I absolutely love the huge screen," Goodwine said. "The picture isn't all jammed together like you see in the multiplexes, and the Virginia has a great personality of its own."
A barbershop quartet called Prairie Blend performed for the guests in the renovated lobby.
Kevin Swartz, baritone singer for Prairie Blend, said the Virginia Theatre is a special place for all performers.
"Most of the songs that we sing range from the early '20s through the '30s and '40s, so to be able to entertain others in a place that was built during that period is incredible," Swartz said.
Auteberry said more renovation work remains to be done. Auteberry said improvements will be made to the upstairs restrooms in the next few months.
The Wurlitzer organ has been temporarily removed from its spot next to the stage so it can be disassembled, restored and reassembled.
In addition, the main auditorium needs plaster and painting work, the stage's infrastructure and dressing rooms will need to be renovated and eventually the facility's seats may be replaced or restored.
Bentz said one of the decisions yet to be decided is whether to make the seats wider to meet the needs of the current population. While wider seats would mean more comfort for guests, they would decrease the facility's seating capacity, which Auteberry said is currently listed at about 1,500.