Yes, Virginia, you look great

It took a lot of time, money and loving care to restore the Virginia Theatre.

Ebertfest began Wednesday night at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, and how fitting it is that the new, improved Virginia made its debut for this annual gathering.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who died two weeks ago, was one of the biggest believers in the idea of restoring the Virginia to its former grandeur. Now his dream — and the dream of many others — is a reality.

The major work is done, and the theater is a real beauty. This community has added another jewel to its collection.

Like many great buildings, the Virginia's story is evolutionary. Built in 1921, it was a show-business mainstay for decades. But as time passed and ownership and use changed, the Virginia began a slow, steady decline. It was headed for the wrecking ball.

Thankfully and thanks to some timely leadership by city visionaries, the Virginia has been resurrected and its future looks bright.

The key was the decision by the Champaign Park District, at the behest of city leaders including former Mayor Dan McCollum and under the leadership of retired park district chief Robert Toalson, to purchase this magnificent property in 2000 and begin its restoration.

Last weekend was the first public showing of the latest round of improvements — a refurbishing of the theater that includes new seating and restoration of its magnificent architectural details.

All told, the park district has spent about $7 million, money raised from property taxes, grants and donations. One especially large donation — from the estate of Michael Carragher — financed an earlier restoration to the theater lobby.

Laura Auteberry, the park district's marketing and development director, said there still is roughly $1.4 million of work to do. The roof needs work. The theater must purchase a new digital projector, build a men's bathroom on the first floor and make lighting improvements. That work will be done as funding permits.

But the restoration is largely over, and it's a job beautifully done, one that will pay our community dividends for many years to come.

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