Tom Kacich: Walker Opera House, from theater to vaudeville to movies
Long before there was the Krannert Center or Assembly Hall, the Virginia Theatre or even the 100-year-old Art Theatre (formerly the Park Theatre), there was the Walker Opera House at the northwest corner of Neil and Park streets in downtown Champaign.
The Walker was the first real theater in Champaign-Urbana, and it bridged three different eras of entertainment — legitimate theater, vaudeville and motion pictures — all in a brief period.
The Walker closed in April 1914, but when it hosted its first performance is open to debate. One newspaper story from the time said it opened in 1881 as a United States military arsenal. Another said it was erected as an armory for the state militia in 1884. A third didn't offer a debut date but said that "a man who is not yet old" remembered that he had danced at a commencement ball in the building in 1884.
In fact, there was a lot of confusion about the Walker, including its size. The Champaign Daily News and Urbana Courier-Herald said it seated 800. Julius Cahn's Official 1900 Theatrical Guide said its capacity was 1,100 in a market of 20,000 residents. Other sources, however, claimed it seated 1,500, even 1,600.
It was by no means an opera house in the tradition of a grand European opera house. The Champaign Daily Gazette said it had undergone many changes in its short life.
When the Walker opened, another newspaper story noted, downtown streets weren't even paved.
"The floor was originally level and the little storerooms in the front were basement affairs instead of being on the street level," the Gazette reported shortly before the Walker closed.
At one time there had been a carriage showroom at the site, and horses were bought and sold there. Flower shows, temperance speeches and political events were held at the Walker, and election results were reported there. When University of Illinois students wanted to celebrate a big football win, often it was done in front of the Walker, where a bonfire would be ignited and boisterous students sometimes would throw rocks and engage in other foolery.
"Before the day of the Australian ballot (voting in private on a uniform ballot) they were often used for election purposes," the Gazette said of the rooms at the front of the Walker. "Many of the early day high school commencements were held in the old building. In the old days many dances were given there. None of the dancers came in taxies for taxies were unknown. Few of them came in carriages."
Among the stars to perform at the theater were comedian Will Rogers and the Marx Brothers. In fact, the latter group was among the final acts at the Walker, performing there in early April 1914, about three weeks before the Walker closed for good. The young brothers (Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo, then ranging in age from 27 to 21) performed two comedy sketches at the Walker, "Fun in Hi-School" and "Mr. Green's Reception."
(Coincidentally, the Virginia Theatre — about a block west from where the Walker once stood — will show the Marx Brothers' 1935 film "A Night at the Opera" on May 24).
The Walker closed on April 25, 1914, with a four-act vaudeville show featuring acrobats Schreck & Percival, blackface comedian Harry Van Fossen of St. Joseph, Mo., the musical duo Wells & Knowland and the comedy sketch group George Harcourt and Company.
About six months after the Walker closed, the New Orpheum Theatre (still standing but now a children's museum) opened about three blocks north on Hickory Street. It was to have seats for 1,100, would cost $60,000 to build, and would be operated by the same company and overseen by the same manager who managed the Walker.
Theater talk. At 7 p.m. today in the Robeson Room of the Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green St., C, Perry Morris, theater historian and president of the Champaign Historical Society, will speak on "Champaign and Urbana Theaters 100 Years Ago." Certainly among the theaters he'll discuss are the Walker, the New Orpheum (which was built near the site of the original Orpheum Theater in Champaign) and the Park Theatre, now operating as the Art Theater Co-op, which opened in November 1913.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.