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"Old" Orpheum

Northwest corner of Washington and Hickory Streets, Champaign

Detail from a postcard.

The white, barn-like structure

is the building that housed

the Coliseum, the Crescent,

and the "Old" Orpheum.

An existing building on the corner of Washington and Hickory Streets in Champaign was thoroughly remodeled during the summer months of 1905, transforming it into the Coliseum.  E. W. Ryan was resident manager of the Coliseum, for a Mr. Seigfried who operated a circuit of twenty-one theatres.

The new theatre held at least three-hundred spectators.  The main curtain was painted with a Champaign street scene.  It showed the Economy building, the Walker opera house, and Park street, with a view of the fountain and West Side park.

An open house to show off the new theatre was held on the Saturday evening before opening night.  A large number of visitors attended, expressing great surprise at the changes that had been made.  The entire interior was new and clean and extra care had been taken to provide the maximum amount of ventilation.

The "Champaign Daily Gazette" called the Coliseum "a place of amusement, where the wrinkles of care will be smoothed away by a happy laugh, stimulated by real funny acts and sayings."  The managers had promised to give a class of entertainment which would be equal to anything going.

Opening night was Monday, August 28, 1905.  The house was crowded and the audience enjoyed every part of the program.  It consisted of high class vaudeville acts direct from Chicago, that would remain for the whole week.  The bill included: the Three Graces, comedy sketch artists; the Great "Kippy," reportedly the best juggler around; Neff and Miller, black-face comedians and fun-makers; Curtain and Blossom, acrobats and coon shouters; singer Marie Lawrence; and George St. Clair, illustrated songs.  The moving picture part of the program was "Raffles."

The admission prices to the Coliseum were 10 and 20 cents for the evening entertainments.  Curtain time: 8:15.  Matinees cost 10 cents for all seats.  They were given Tuesday through Saturday.  Curtain time: 2:30.

The management took special care to make the ladies and children welcome at the Coliseum, especially for the matinees.  Female attendants were always on hand.  The management promised to give unaccompanied children extra care and attention.  Friday afternoons were ladies' souvenir matinees, and Saturday afternoons were children's candy matinees.

The second season brought a change of management and a change of name.  The new lessee was the Crescent Amusement Company.  Crescent had vaudeville theatres in a number of Illinois and Indiana towns.  Local manager was Eller Metzger.

The new lessees had $1,500 worth of remodeling done, including replacing the theatre front and elevating the floor.  The opening was delayed, however, when Mayor Blaine, feeling the house was dangerous, held up issuing the operating license.  Additional remodeling took place to make the house as fireproof as possible.  In addition to the ceilings, the walls, including the five large exits, were lined with steel.  Manager Metzger assured the Mayor and the public that he would have a fireman and ample fire extinguishing equipment on hand at all performances.

The formal opening of the Crescent theatre was held Monday, November 26, 1906.  The audience was small, but enthusiastic about the program and the remodeled building.

The Crescent management inaugurated several promotions.  Tuesday and Thursday nights were "cash night."  Someone in the audience at each performance would win $2.50 in cash.  Another promotion, on Friday and Wednesday evenings, gave two coupons for every admission ticket.  These coupons were collected until the holder had six, twelve, eighteen, or twenty-four of them.  He or she could then exchange them for a gift.  There were also special children's matinees where each child attending received a souvenir, usually candy.  Sometimes there were drawings for a doll.  At some performances every lady in attendance received a souvenir such as a hat pin, stick pin, or silver-plated teaspoon.

Another popular feature was amateur night held every Friday.  In addition to the regular bill, open time was allotted for local folks to perform.

In late February, 1907, another change took place.  The Crescent theatre closed after the night's performance on Saturday, February 23.  Business had been bad with the company losing money here for some time, so the owners decided to close the theatre. 

Manager Metzger did not have sufficient funds on hand to pay the bills due Saturday night.  The performers, unhappy with the situation, surrounded him demanding their money.  Feeling threatened, Mr. Metzger called for police assistance.  He paid a portion of each performer's claim using the night's receipts, promising that the company's main office would be sending them the balance. 

The local creditors were treated in a similar manner.  They received letters from Mr. Metzger on Monday morning promising that the bills would be paid in full in a short time.  Some of the letters included money to apply on account.  

Sam Surazal, who had been a pianist at the Crescent for several weeks, wasn't ready to see the theatre closed.  He was confident that the audience support was there to make the theatre a success.  He quickly put together a company and made arrangements to keep the theatre open.  Mr. Surazal opened the theatre right on time Monday evening - not missing a day's show.  He kept the Crescent open the rest of the season, building up a loyal following with his vaudeville presentations and continuing the popular amateur nights.  He leased the theatre for the following season.

Mr. Surazal began booking with the Western Vaudeville Association for the 1907-08 season.  The acts for the first week were Joe Garza, hand balancer, DeWitt & Ashmore, comedy sketch, and Mitchell & Love, dutch comedians.  A typical performance included three vaudeville acts, two illustrated songs, and 2,000 feet of moving pictures.  The pictures being changed twice a week.  Mr. Surazal held matinee performances only on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. 

Monday, September 13, 1909, was the premiere of the Orpheum theatre in Champaign.  The Crescent theatre, now under new management, also had a new name.

The Orpheum circuit, which operated over fifty high-class vaudeville theatres along the Pacific coast, had come to Champaign. 

Marcus Heimann was the lessee of both the Walker Opera House and the Orpheum, and Samuel Kahl was the local manager for both theatres.  Mr. Heimann promised "to give Champaign the best the best line of theatrical attractions the coming season the city had ever enjoyed, regardless of the cost."

Champaign was the smallest city booking through Western Vaudeville Managers association, which booked in conjunction with the Orpheum circuit, the Keith & Procter United circuit, and other big city theatres.  Over 400 theatres were booked by the Western Vaudeville association and its affiliations.  This assured that the best acts available could be booked in Champaign.

The Orpheum would present exclusively vaudeville while the legitimate shows would play at the Walker.

The old Crescent theatre had been extensively remodeled and beautifully decorated over the summer.  All the seating was replaced with new opera chairs.  The boxes, which had just been put in the prior season, were removed.  The house was redecorated on an elaborate scale.  Special attention was given to upgrade the ventilation system.  New retiring rooms for both men and women were put in.  All new scenery was painted by Scenic Artist Squires.  The theatre had undergone a complete transformation.  So thorough was the job, that the theatre bore no resemblance to its former self.

The Orpheum opened on Tuesday evening, September 14, 1909.  Over 1,700 people attended the two performances.  The opening night crowds were delighted with the attractively remodeled theatre.  The only flaw of the evening was that the wardrobes of four of the performers had not arrived in Champaign and they had to perform in street clothes.

The opening night bill began with the motion pictures.  Next, the Cubanola Trio sang, followed by Miss Eunice Kline presenting the illustrated songs.  Next up was black-faced comedian Al Tyrell.  The established favorite on the Orpheum circuit kept the house roaring with laughter with his funny songs and monologues.  The dance team of Bissett and Scott, known as the "Hello George" boys, and considered the best dancing act in vaudeville, performed next.  The final act, direct from New York, was Ella Cameron & Company in a one-act comedy, "The Nutty Family."

The program changed every Monday and Thursday.  There was always the latest moving pictures and illustrated songs.  Daily matinee performances were given.

The end of the theatre came in late May of 1912.  The building was condemned and subsequently torn down.  This left the Walker Opera House, also run by Finn-Heiman, as the only live show house in Champaign.  The company decided to present legitimate shows the first half of the week and the vaudeville shows the last half of the week at the Walker until a new theatre could be built.  It was to take two years, but the Orpheum returned to Champaign in the Fall of 1914.

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