Tom Kacich: Movie theater to celebrate centennial
Its grand opening was on a Wednesday evening in the middle of November, hardly an optimistic circumstance.
But it was 11/12/13 when the Park Theater offered its first show. Perhaps that date was good luck because against almost all odds, it's still there 100 years later, not the grandest theater nor the most technologically advanced, but still showing movies.
No other theater in Champaign-Urbana, and perhaps in all of downstate Illinois, is older than what is now known as the Art Theater.
Operating a theater 100 years ago was not without risk. There was plenty of competition, not just in Champaign-Urbana but in virtually every small town in the area. Even St. Joseph had a movie theater in 1913. And the twin cities already had two vaudeville theaters — the Walker Opera House at 31 N. Neil St. in downtown Champaign and the Illinois Theater at 400 W. Railroad Ave. (now Springfield Ave.) in Urbana — plus three motion picture houses — the Lyric at 57 N. Neil St, C, the Neil at 69 N. Neil St., and the newly opened Colonial Theater on Market Street (now Broadway Avenue) in Urbana.
And just four months earlier, a disastrous fire had destroyed the Varsity Theatre, located on the same site as the Colonial. Fortunately no customers were in the theater at the time the blaze broke out after a Saturday matinee. Otherwise, said the Urbana Courier, there would have been "a holocaust too terrible to contemplate."
"That which happened is like what caused the Iroquois disaster — a draught swept the flame over the audience section, with heat so intense that the wall paper fell from the walls and the varnish was burned from the scots," the Courier wrote, referencing the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago that killed 605 people.
The Park had a fireproof auditorium, its owners said, specifically designed for motion pictures.
And newspaper advertisements said it was "safe, roomy and a place of refinement."
Not room enough on its opening day, apparently.
The Champaign Daily News reported on Nov. 13 that 1,500 people attended the three one-hour shows presented on opening night, and that several were standing at the rear of the auditorium of the 600-seat theater for the first show at 7 p.m.
Not to be outdone in superlatives, the Champaign Daily Gazette said that four shows were given on opening night and "yet scores of people were turned away for lack of room.
"All those who were fortunate enough to gain admission were delighted both with the general attractiveness and comfort of the new theatre and with the high class entertainment given."
The opening night show was no "Gravity," with all of its Imax 3-D, Dolby surround-sound magnificence.
The curtain-raiser — remember this was before sound and color movies — was very old school: a Civil War drama called "The Veteran," a comedy about two hoboes called "Two Men and a Mule," another laugher called "A Small Town Act," (starring "Fatty" Arbuckle, who later became the first big Hollywood star to become entangled in a scandal), and a documentary titled "The Milk We Drink."
Newspaper previews of the latter called it a film in which the composition of milk "and the actions of bacteria are portrayed for the audience."
The interior of the Park was described as "pretty," colored in white and gold with the seats "spaced so as to give comfort to all."
But a pipe organ that was to have been in place for the opening didn't appear until February 1914.
The most spectacular feature of the Park, at least according to the story in the Daily News, was its rooftop sign.
"Many persons on the streets," the Daily News said, "remarked upon the novel and pleasing effect of the electric sign with its fountain effect of changing lights above the word 'Park,' placed upon the theater roof so that it can be seen for several blocks."
According to a report prepared by city officials 15 years ago, the Park was built and owned by two local brothers, Mark and Bert Cooper, who had it until about 1929, when it was equipped for sound and sold to the Urbana-based Alger Brothers theater chain. Alger Brothers ran the theater until 1958, when it was closed briefly, then reopened as the Art Theatre, showing foreign and art films. From 1971 to 1986 it showed adult films, then closed briefly in 1986, and reopened in January 1987 as the New Art Theatre. It is now again known as the Art Theater and is a cooperative with more than 1,300 patrons.
There will be an Art Theater centennial celebration on Nov. 12, including the presentation of a documentary film about the Art, a panel discussion about a new book celebrating the theater and a screening of a program of silent short films.
Watch for more information about the events in Thursday's e3 section of The News-Gazette.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.