Country Fair Theatres:

Mann, Wehrenberg, and Kerasotes

Country Fair Shopping Center, North wing.

Opened 14 October 1976

Closed 26 January 2003

Investor Ted Mann bought the 300 house Fox Theater chain, including the Fox at Country Fair, effective 1 July 1973. 1  

In October 1976, Mann Theaters abandoned the free-standing single-screen auditorium at the northwest corner of Mattis and Springfield Avenues in favor of a four-screen complex in the north wing of the Country Fair Shopping Center.  The four smaller auditoriums, created in the old Kroger store space, had seating capacities ranging from 180 to 250, compared to the 850 seats in the old building. 2

Ad from Champaign Urbana News-Gazette Thursday 14 October 1976.

Rhonda Fleming at the grand opening.

Scan from microfilm Champaign Urbana

News-Gazette 15 October 1976.

Actress Rhonda Fleming came to Champaign as guest of honor for a benefit movie premiere at the grand opening of the Mann Country Fair Fourplex on Thursday 14 October 1976.  Miss Fleming cut a ribbon of film to officially open the four-theater complex.  The initial film was a premiere showing of Paramount Pictures’ “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier. 3

The theater partnered with the Champaign-Urbana Jaycees to kick off their annual Pal Joey Program that raises money to provide food and clothing for families who cannot afford to give their children a merry Christmas. 4

The last ad for Mann Country Fair 4.

The Champaign Urbana News-Gazette 1 July 1982

First ad for Wehrenberg Theatres Country Fair 4.

 The Champaign Urbana News-Gazette, 2 July 1982.

Wehrenberg Theatres

St. Louis-based Wehrenberg theatre chain took over operations at the Country Fair theatre on Friday 2 July 1982.  It was part of a purchase of seven movie operations.  Two were in St. Louis and the rest in Illinois: Peoria, Springfield, Jacksonville, Carbondale, and Champaign. 1

Wehrenberg Theatres immediately locked out the four union movie projectionists giving only 24 hours notice.  The union had a three-year contract with Mann, that would have expired 1 November.  Wehrenberg’s newly installed manager, Michael Fisher, and his assistant, would be handling the projectionist duties formerly handled by two full-time and two part-time projectionists. 2

Manager Fisher said that the four Country Fair theaters had been generating about $200,000 in business annually.  Dropping the four employees could save $15,000 annually. 3

Kerasotes Theatres (GKC Theatres after 1985)

Springfield-based Kerasotes Theaters chain bought a group of Wehrenberg Illinois Theatres in five communities, including the Country Fair 4 at Champaign.  The sale took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, 18 May 1984.  The price was not disclosed.  The other theaters were the Town and Country Cinema, Springfield; Fox Theater, Peoria; Eastgate, Carbondale; and Illinois Theater, Jacksonville.  Wehrenberg operated 80 screens in the St. Louis metropolitan area and wanted to concentrate operations to major metropolitan areas.  Three managers were transferred to Wehrenberg theaters in St. Louis with the remaining personnel continuing with Kerasotes.1

Kerasotes, like Wehrenberg, did not use union projectionists.  Kerasotes maintained a technician who went from theater-to-theater to make sure things were working properly. 2

At the time, Kerasotes was the 10th largest theater chain in the United States with theaters in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa.  With the Country Fair theaters, it will operate 110 theaters  with 226 screens.  Kerasotes already operated the Cinema Theater and the Thunderbird in Urbana and the Co-Ed 4, the Virginia, the Orpheum, and the Widescreen Drive-In in Champaign. 3

An article in the 21 June 1990 edition of The News-Gazette reported George Kerasotes, of GKC Theatres, announcement that Country Fair Cinemas in Champaign would add four new theaters later in the year, doubling the number of screens to eight. The expansion to the north side of the complex would add another 1,000 seats to the 836 already at Country Fair.  Each auditorium would be equipped with stereo sound systems and rocking chair seating.  Dan Rogers, GKC’s executive vice president, marketing, said “With further expansion of this complex, GKC Theatres will be able to offer Champaign movie-goers a wider selection of films.”  They hoped to have the new auditoriums in use by Christmas 1990. 4

The same article gave an update on the number of local theaters.  In addition to Country Fair, GKC Theatres currently operated two single-screen theaters, the Virginia and the Thunderbird, the four-screen Co-Ed Cinemas, and the two-screen Urbana Cinemas.  General Cinema Corporation operated the four-screen theater at Market Place Shopping Center.  The New Art Theater in downtown Champaign was independently owned.  Michigan-based Goodrich Quality Theaters had announced plans in March to build their first theater in Illinois, a 10-screen theater in Savoy with seating for 2,289.  That would make a total of 31 commercial theater screens in Champaign-Urbana if none closed and all plans for new ones went through. 5

The expanded Country Fair Cinemas occupied 26,620 square feet on the north end of the shopping center. 6

The grand opening of the Country Fair theaters following a major addition and refurbishing of the screening rooms and lobby was held in May 1991.  These seven screens were the most recently opened of the 148 owned by GKC Theatres.  Company founder, 80-year-old George Kerasotes, was in town for the festivities. 7

GKC Theatres Grand Opening ad. 

The Champaign Urbana News-Gazette 19 May 1991,

GKC Theatres at Country Fair.

Collection of the Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library.

Officials at GKC Theatres wouldn’t comment on the future of Country Fair Cinemas to the News-Gazette for an 8 January 2003 story.  GKC had been running the Country Fair Cinemas as a second-run house screening four or five different movies each day until 29 December 2002 when it began offering a single daily showing of the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  More than 100 people attended the screening on New Year’s Day, even though the movie had been playing in town for eight months. 8

However, they did say that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” had been the exception to the rule that second-run (sub-run) films drew smaller crowds than they once did.  “The reason the schedule has been reduced is there’s been declining demand for sub-run movie products,” GKC’s James Whitman said.  At the same time, Whitman said, they’ve seen a resurgence in attendance for first-run shows. 9

Whitman said GKC Theatres Country Fair attendance has suffered “steady declines.”  “I wouldn’t call them substantial in Champaign,” but the company had seen “substantial declines year after year the last five years” at its second-run theater in Tucson, Arizona, and “declining continuously” at GKC’s second-run theater in Peoria.  They closed their second-run theater in Bloomington two years ago. 10

Scan from microfilm. The News-Gazette Wednesday 8 January 2003 

Country Fair Cinemas closed Sunday night, 26 January 2003, after showing its last movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  The seven employees all transferred to the Beverly Cinemas. 11

James Whitman, director of marketing for Springfield-based GKC Theatres, offered reasons for the closing.  “The largest factor, even in this economy, is the steady decline of move-over or sub-run movies in all markets.”  Fewer people were going to second-run theaters because more people were seeing movies the first couple weekends after release, and the window of time between theatrical release and DVD availability was shorter. 12

The Savoy 16, operated by Goodrich Quality Theatres, (which continued to play “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), the independent Art Theater, and the Beverly Cinemas operated by GKC Theatres were the remaining commercial theatres in the area.

After the theatre closed.

9 February 2008

Photo by Perry C. Morris