CHAMPAIGN — For 100 years, the Virginia Theatre has been a landmark in the business district of Champaign.
Now, it’s ready to re-open with a fresh look and sound, thanks in part to a pandemic that closed the facility since March 2020.
“We made good use of the downtime,” said sales and public relations manager Mitch Marlow.
When the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season, officials renovated the theater, which is home to the annual Eberfest Film Festival and has hosted performances by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.
Exterior duct work was completed, and patrons will be cooler in the summer thanks to a new upgrade of the auditorium’s heating and cooling system.
“That was huge, because the old one was quite old, and during the hot, summer months, it just couldn’t keep up with a full house,” Marlow said. “That was a game-changer for us.”
The paint and plaster were spruced up, and a state-of-the-art sound system was installed.
“It’s the latest, greatest version of the best system, and we are thrilled with it,” he said. “It sounds amazing.”
For the past 20 years, the theater rented sound systems for musical performances, which was an issue, said theater director Steven Bentz.
“That means that for every performer who came in, we had to rent and install a sound system each time, and besides the cost and the time involved in that, it was always just a temporary solution,” he said. “It was never perfectly designed to the space. But they did detailed sound studies on that room, and we have something that is custom-made for the space, and it is nice to see that problem solved, going forward.”
State grants helped with much of the renovations.
Then the 2020 season was KO’d.
“We had more than 10 different shows that had to be rescheduled, and some of them more than once,” he said. “We really felt bad for the patrons, and we have a lot of patrons who held tickets to more than one of those shows. That is asking an awful lot, and folks have been remarkably patient with that. We never once doubted that we would be back up and running, and our patrons never doubted it either. It was gratifying to receive the phone calls and e-mails from our patrons who were really supportive through it.”
The part-time staff was laid off. The few full-timers the theater has were temporarily re-assigned to other duties in the park district.
“It felt like a long winter that lasted multiple seasons,” Marlow said. “We just put the theater into a winter type of hibernation mode and cleaned everything out.”
Attempts were made at keeping the patrons involved. Curbside concessions were offered, and there were some online streaming events, but those couldn’t capture the historic atmosphere of the building.
“The theater is the attraction,” Marlow said. “People come here for the experience of being in this grand old movie palace and having a huge screen and sound system. We were looking for ways to interact with the public, but you can’t match the experience of being here.”
The theater re-opened for its first public event since March 2020 this weekend with “Opening Night” on Saturday.
Previously this year, two other events were canceled.
Gordon Lightfoot had to postpone after he injured his arm, and Eberfest, the popular film festival, was also postponed until 2022.
“We are thrilled to be opening back up,” Bentz said. “We have a number of great shows coming up, and we are very excited to see our patrons again. They missed us, but we missed them.”