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Sales and public relations manager Mitch Marlow talks about the installation of the new audio system at the Virginia Theatre on Tuesday.

Normally, a crowd of 50 for a show at the 1,525-seat Virginia Theatre would not sit well with longtime director Steven Bentz. “That would not be good news,” he said.

But come Oct. 1, when the downtown Champaign theater is scheduled to reopen, filling 50 seats — the maximum allowed under COVID-19 restrictions — might just set off a celebration. It’s been that long.

“We can’t wait to do what we have to do to light the building back up,” Bentz said.

Jo Dee Messina’s concert on March 5 was the last event hosted by the Virginia before it closed. The theater has used the down time to install a concert-quality sound system, a major and much-needed project that is expected to wrap up by Sept. 30.

On Aug. 17, the Virginia will release a revised fall and spring lineup that will include live events and films — subject to change.

“It’s our hope that such things will be possible,” Bentz said. “But anyone who is planning anything — from family reunions to weddings to rock concerts — is facing difficult choices.”

In the meantime, staff at the Virginia will continue to engage its regulars the best it can: making popcorn and other concessions available for curbside pickup from 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, an idea that has boosted morale more than it has the budget.

“The staff comes back smiling every time,” Bentz said, “because they’re tickled pink. They say ‘This is magic.’ It’s a little taste of normal life.”


Mitch Marlow sits on top of the platform at the stage made to protect the organ in the pit in the empty auditorium at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. He is lit by the theatre’s “ghost light”, which is a tradition in theaters tomato the ghosts happy and so they are never totally dark.