April 10, 2013

Restored Virginia Theatre, 91 years old, holds Champaign’s memories

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Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, Illinois

Danielle Sheppard

Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, Illinois

By Emily Siner / For CU-CitizenAccess.org

Leonard Doyle stands by the front window, next to the box office, and looks out. Park Avenue looks different than it did in 1948.

That was the year he got his start working here as an usher, still in high school. He remembers watching great entertainers come through the building: Guy Lombardo, Red Skelton, the Marx Brothers. They stopped by on their way from Chicago to St. Louis.

At the newly renovated Virginia Theatre, memories come back to life.

“It’s just beautiful, simply beautiful,” said Doyle, who still works at the Virginia, now as a volunteer. “Some of the stuff that they have uncovered, I didn’t even know was here, and nobody knew was here.”

The Champaign Park District, which took over the building in 2000, will reveal its $9 million, 11-year renovation project to the public on Saturday, April 13, from 1 to 5 p.m., just in time for Ebertfest the following week.

Built in 1921, the Virginia was designed as a Vaudeville theater. It was part of a vibrant entertainment community in downtown Champaign at the time, Doyle said.

But it had fallen in disrepair by the time the park district acquired the building, according to a park district memo. But since then, nearly every aspect of the building has been replaced, refinished or restored.

The park district closed the theater after Ebertfest last year for the final sprint. Some notable changes include compliance with modern safety and wheelchair accessibility standards, like widened doors, elevators and seating areas for 18 patrons in wheelchairs and their companions.

The bathrooms, lobbies, foyer, auditorium, stage and dressing rooms are all brand new, as are some of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the theater. The park district replaced the old marquee on the front of the building with a replica of the 1920s version.

The most striking features, however, are the old ones that have been restored to their former glory. Last October, for example, while the painters were cleaning paint on the ceiling of the auditorium, they uncovered eight original canvas murals and stencil work, probably from the 1930s or ’40s, said Steven Bentz, director of the Virginia Theatre.

They also found and restored original gold leaf on the arch around the stage.

“We always thought it was little bit more plain than this, and it turns out that once we got past all that 90 years of grime and paint, there was quite a bit more glamour here than we had expected,” Bentz said.

But the restoration has not come cheaply. As of early February, the total price tag was about $9 million, said park district financial director Jan Plotner. Unexpected surprises increased the cost from original estimates. For example, the restoration and partial-replication of the eight historic murals cost $72,000, according to park district board meeting minutes from last October.

But the overall cost didn’t surprise Ken Stein, executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres, a national organization dedicated to sustaining theaters built 50 or more years ago.

“I have seen projects that have been $50, $60 million; I’ve seen others that have been done for less than a million,” he said. “It really just depends on what the state of the theatre is and what the end product is.”

Communities are sometimes scared off by large numbers, but it is often cheaper to adapt an old arts facility than build a new one, he said. He called restoration an “investment” in the area.

“When you do restore a theatre to bring back to use, it has an incredible ability to revitalize the community surrounding it,” he said. “There’s something about the old theater than just really touches people’s hearts and can bring a community together.”

Old theaters also have the ability to inspire large donations, he said. This was true at the Virginia: donations and grants totaled $3.2 million as of early February, said Plotner.

Two years ago, the park district raised $165,000 to help restore the theatre’s Wurlitzer organ, a one-man instrument designed to accompany silent films in place of an orchestra, said Andrew Weiss, park district park planner.

The park district’s payments will be paid off without borrowing money, said Plotner. It budgeted $5.5 million for renovations during its fiscal year, which ends in April.

The park district will budget about $300,000 to finish off the project in the next fiscal year, although that number may change by the time the budget is released next month, said Plotner. These finishing touches include renovating the roof and adding safety features around the dome of the auditorium.

Meanwhile, starting this week, the Virginia will be open again for the community.

“This building has been such a central part of the cultural life of this community and such a hub for downtown Champaign that people clearly care about the place,” Bentz said.