Operated by the Art Theatre Guild
126 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois
Opened 3 October 1958. Closed 1986.
An enterprising businessman from Ohio, Louis K. Sher, was buying single-screen theaters, like the Park, and transforming them into what would become known as art-house cinemas. Sher, who called his company the Art Theatre Guild, bought his first theater in Columbus, Ohio in 1954 and began showing foreign films, mainly from Europe but also Japan. Art Theatre Guild cinemas also featured American films considered underground, independent, or experimental. The Art Theatre Guild eventually became a chain of more than 50 theaters, all art-houses. They typically offered free coffee and used the lobby walls as an art gallery.
The screen at the Park did not remain dark for long. The Art Theater Guild reopened the theatre on Friday, 3 October 1958 as The Art Theatre. The movie at the grand opening event was the 1954 French film based on Stendahl’s novel, Le Rouge et le Noir, or The Red and the Black, and a new era was born. Among those present at the opening were Champaign Mayor Virgil F. Lafferty, who cut the ribbon; Louis Sher, Columbus, Ohio, president of the Art Theatre Guild; Richard Packer, manager of the Art and former manager with the Art Theatre Guild in Denver, Colorado; and Andrew Moraetes, manager of the Illini Theatre, another recent Art Theatre Guild purchase.
Movie fare at the Art Theatre during the Art Theatre Guild era ranged widely, from international, American independent, avant-garde, and erotica, to, eventually, adults only porn. Until the 1970s, its focus was solidly on films that helped define it as an art-house. In March 1959, for example, the Art screened Jacque Tati’s 1958 Mon Oncle (My Uncle) awarded “Best foreign film of the year” by the New York Film Critics. The Art Theatre left the screening of more mainstream films to other theaters.
Pulitizer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, an Urbana, Illinois native, was introduced to international films at the Art Theatre. In a June 28, 1991 article in Entertainment Weekly, Ebert writes elegantly about the Art in its early days:
“The atmosphere of the Art reflected the new beatnik culture of the '50s, and to walk through the doors was like breathing the air of freedom. There wasn't any popcorn for sale, but the coffee was free, black, and strong, and at the age of 16, sitting in the dark wired on caffeine and trying to puzzle through Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, I felt I was on the brink of amazing discoveries about the world, life, and myself.
Some of the movies I saw were creating a new American cinema-movies like John Cassavetes' Shadows and Frank Perry's David and Lisa. It was at the Art that I fell in love with the gritty socialism of Britain's Angry Young Men, in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with Albert Finney as the rebellious factory worker with a wild streak, or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, with Tom Courtenay as a reform-school boy who defeats the sadistic warden the only way he knows how.
There were the British comedies, too: Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellers in I'm All Right, Jack, and Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael in that underrated study of one-upmanship, School for Scoundrels.
The British films were accessible — so easy to understand they slapped you in the face. But I was also a fan of movies I understood only imperfectly, like Bergman's metaphysical allegories, or Antonioni's mysterious L'Avventura, or Fellini's La Dolce Vita — the portrait of decadence that seems wise to me now, but at the time seemed seductive and exciting. When the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes opened, I went to see it three times, as excited by its photography as by its ideas.
I remember those movies at the Art so vividly. The posters outside, with their stark surrealistic images and bizarre typography. The earnest bohemians in the lobby, sipping their coffee and talking like the captions on New Yorker cartoons. The notion that in a movie you had never heard of you could discover truths you had never dreamed.”