Virginia renovation revealing details lost in time

CHAMPAIGN — The Virginia Theatre has never looked bigger, with its seats removed and light flooding in on the enormous hall from doors opened by workers.

Pretty spry for a 90-year-old.

Work has just begun on restoring the theater to its glamour of yore, with comfortable seats, repaired plaster works and a new paint scheme that fits with the feel of the space.

The work, which the Champaign Park District said will cost more than $5 million, is scheduled to be finished before the next Roger Ebert film festival in April.

Even in its "before" picture, the 1921 edifice is overwhelming. New touches are happening daily, like the cleaning of ornamental plaster medallions of Spanish conquistadors on the balcony that were so filthy that they looked abstract.

"With some of the plaster work cleaned up, it's possible to see details that haven't been visible for decades," said Laura Auteberry, the district's marketing and development director.

For many years, the theater was owned by the George Kerasotes Corporation. The park district acquired the property in 2000.

Stripping away the detritus of a great venue has revealed items lost in time. The prominent fire marshal signs give the name of Gov. Dwight Green, who served from 1941 to 1949.

Graffiti dates to at least 1952, including a rendering of a fat-faced clown. There also are several references on the wall to longtime operator RKO Pictures, as well as a poster from the 1992 film "Father of The Bride," the last show offered by GKC.

The building was commissioned in 1920 by A.W. Stoolman, a local contractor, and designed by theater architects C. Howard Crane and H. Kenneth Franzheim, with help from local architect George Ramey, the district's history website says.

Stoolman named the theater after his daughter, Elizabeth Virginia Stoolman.

Unfortunately, there's nothing old to see in the dressing rooms where the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin waited to go on stage, their acts alternating with movies, Virginia Theatre director Steven Bentz said.

The interior of the building is Spanish Renaissance Revival, and the outside is Italian Renaissance Revival, an elegant matchup of the time, Auteberry said.

The theater, at 203 W. Park Ave., opened on Dec. 28, 1921, with a live show of the stage mystery "The Bat" by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. The next day, silent films premiered there.

This is the grand finale in a series of major renovations, including the lobby, the books and the pipe organ and its fittings.

In the latter case, Bentz said, "we found a 'stage thundermaker' in the organ loft."

That's a big piece of sheet metal meant to create rumbling nature sounds, but it had been folded over and curved, he said.

Wooden "traps" have gradually been sealed on the stage, from when they were needed for live theater.

After the lobby was restored, Bentz said, a lot of color began returning to the walls.

"They were blackened by years of cigarette and pipe smoking in the auditorium, when everybody smoked," Bentz said.

Auteberry pointed out several sites where new paint was being tried out to make something new fit in with the theater's aesthetic.

But Bentz said one old feature won't be missed: uncomfortable seats.

"The new seats are in the style of that time. The whole approach is to use that design language, but with modern amenities, including new bathrooms," he said.

Comments

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vcponsardin wrote on August 12, 2012 at 10:08 am
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The Marx Brothers I can believe, they were major vaudvillians during the 20s.  Red Skelton I can believe too.   But I doubt Chaplin ever played the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.  He was one of Hollywood's top paid stars and producers back then.  It's unlikely he would have taken time off to perform on tour, even between the showings of one of his films.  I wonder what evidence they might have of Chaplin's performance?  When was it?  What was it?  Curious.

vcponsardin wrote on August 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm
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The Virginia Theatre also claims Buster Keaton played live on stage there.  This, too, I doubt as Keaton was running his own Hollywood production company by 1920, cranking out a regular line of two-reelers and full length films year round.  Neither Keaton nor Chaplin would have had the time or the inclination to return to the touring vaudeville grind by the time they were major Hollywood stars.  But if someone can produce a program or newspaper review from that era proving they played the Virginia, I'd be very interested.

jdmac44 wrote on August 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Both Chaplin and Keaton were done with Vaudeville in 1917.  Chaplin went into a lucrative film career, Keaton spent some time serving in France during WWI had a short stint on Broadway and then was making films in 1920.  They both engaged in very physical and abusive styles of comedy on stage, making it even less likely that they would go back to touring when they were pulling in millions doing a few takes in front of a camera rather than night after night after night.