Fox Country Fair

Northwest corner of Springfield and Mattis Avenues

Opened 9 February 1967

Renamed and moved to shopping center 14 October 1976

A “News-Gazette” story in the 26 July 1966 edition reported that the new motion picture theater in the Country Fair Shopping Center, currently being built by Edmunds Construction Company of Danville, was expected to be completed in early December.  The interior fill was in place and the rear wall complete.  The masonry walls would be completed soon. 1

Described as “ultra-modern,” the freestanding building at the north-west corner of Springfield and Mattis, was designed by Hauser and Macsai architects of Chicago.  The location provided ample parking in the shopping center lot. 2

The building would have a two-story lobby highlighted by two-story glass at the front, trimmed with blue porcelain enamel facia.  Instead of long, straight side walls, the would be “saw-toothed,” the primary purpose being to enhance the acoustics.  It also added visual interest to the outside of the building. 3

Fox Country Fair will be the third new theater to open in Champaign-Urbana in the past 13 months, following the Co-Ed II (December 1965) and the Thunderbird (February 1966).  The Co-Ed II was the first new indoor theater in Champaign or Urbana since the original Co-Ed opened in September 1938. 4

The Fox Country Fair Theater is owned by National General Corporation.  The 848 seat theater, built at a cost of approximately one-half million dollars, is the newest addition in the corporations $50 million expansion program. 5  It is the fifth new theater opened by National General Corporation in the last two months. 6  The new Fox Country Fair was equipped with all the current sound and projection techniques including Todd-AO and Cinerama. 7

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Champaign Urbana Courier photo by Curt Beamer, March 1971.  Courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives.

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Ad from the Champaign Urbana Courier

Saturday 4 February 1967

Ad from the Champaign Urbana Courier

Thursday 9 February 1967

William Rector was named managing director of the new Fox Country Fair Theater.  He had been associated with Fox Midwest Theaters for 20 years beginning at age 16 as a doorman.  Soon after, he was soon promoted to assistant theater manager and held that position for three years while attending the University of Wichita.  Rector served four years with the Air Force then went back to Fox Midwest Theaters and was assigned to theaters in Salina, Kansas.  He then managed Fox Midwest-Mountain theaters in Kansas, Wyoming and Missouri. 8

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Scan from microfilm of Fox interior from Champaign Urbana Courier Thursday 9 February 1967

Opening night

A Hollywood style grand opening was held on Thursday, 9 February 1967. 9  The ceremonies began at 7:45 when the 800 invited guests began arriving.  Music was provided by the Rudy James Dixieland Band until the movie began around 8 p.m. 10

Several dignitaries, glamorous women, and a movie star were among the guests. 11  Local dignitaries included Champaign Mayor Emmerson V. Dexter, Urbana Mayor Stanley B. Weaver, and Champaign city manager Warren B. Browning.  Miss Champaign-Urbana Brenda Bollman and Miss Illinois Mary Inzerelle were in attendance.  National General Corporation vice president Bill Thedford attended the festivities as did Fox Eastern Theaters divisional manager Bob Smith. 12

Chill Wills, western film star, was a special guest at the grand opening Thursday.  He also made appearances at the 5, 7, and 9 p.m. shows Friday. 13  Wills got his start as a “falsetto tenor” at age nine in church choirs.  

He built his reputation for home-spun patter in vaudeville.  A major film star for 30 years, he starred such pictures as “Giant,” “The Yearling,” “The Wheeler Dealers,” and “The Alamo,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination.  The six-foot, two-inch Texan was currently starring as Jim Love in ABC TV’s western-comedy series, “The Rounders.”  The Gazette said, “Wills voice, famous in its own right as that of Francis, the talking mule, has been described as a bass-toned gravel and as a foghorn with insomnia.” 14

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Chill Wills photo scanned from microfilm from a News-Gazette story 6 February 1967.

The inaugural movie at the Fox Country Fair theater was Walt Disney’s latest picture “Monkeys Go Home.” It starred Dean Jones, Yvette Mimeaux and Maurice Chevalier.  The was the last picture completed by the Disney studios before Walt Disney’s his death in December 1966. 15

The theater opened to the general public on Friday, 10 February 1967. 16

Fox Theater chain sold
National General Corporation

Fox Midwest-Mountain Theaters division of National General Corporation operated over 250 theaters, including the Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood and others that ranged in size up to the huge Century 21 Theater in Denver and the Plaza Theater in Kansas City. 1

When National General opened the Fox Country Fair in February 1967, they had opened six theaters in the prior two months, plus the Fox Eastgate in Carbondale in June, and they had a theater under construction in Springfield. 2 The Fox Country Fair Theater was part of National General Corporation’s $50 million dollar expansion program spurred by a recent resurgence in the motion picture industry.  Their theaters were designed to serve new and growing suburban areas. 3  The goal was to add another 100 houses in the U.S. and 50 in Canada with the next three years. 4  They were looking to expand even more by opening theaters in large cities throughout the world and become the biggest circuit in the world within the next three to five years. 5

A National General subsidiary, National General Productions, had plans to produce six films in 1967 and ten in 1968.  They did not have their own studio so had to contract with other studios for production facilities.  Their current films included “The Quiller Memorandum,” filmed in Berlin and London in association with the Rank Organization of England.  Costs were shared on a 50-50 basis.  It starred George Segal, Alec Guiness, and Senta Berger, and was written for the screen by Harold Pinter.  Others were “Divorce American Style” starring Dick Van Dyke and financed for $2.7 million by Columbia, and Pierre Salinger’s “With Kennedy.” 6

National General operated theaters and a film production company, National General Productions.  Their other businesses included real estate, a savings and loan association, a prefabricated buildings manufacturer and distributer, and Mission Pak who packaged and distributed fancy fruit products.  Additionally, the president and chairman of the board of the company, Eugene V. Klein, was part owner of the San Diego Chargers football team. 7

California investor Ted Mann bought all National General Theater Inc. facilities for an estimated $67 million. 8 effective 1 July 1973 including 300 Fox branded houses.

The Fox was sold to California investor Ted Mann, effective 1 July 1973.  Champaign Fox manager Jim Head said the sale would mean “only a change in logo in the advertisements.  Film fare and theater management will remain the same, but the name will be changed to Mann Theater.” 17  Mann bought all National General Theater Inc. facilities for an estimated $67 million. 18  This included the 300 Fox houses, most of which were in California. 19

Fox Theater relocates

The Fox Theater in Champaign moved to the north side of Country Fair Shopping Center 14 October 1976.  Mann Theaters manager Marty Hellwig announced that the theater would cease operation on the 13th or 14th of October in the 850 seat, single-screen auditorium at the northwest corner of Mattis and Springfield avenues.  The theater re-opened in newly remodeled facilities on the north side of Country Fair Shopping Center.20  The former Kroger store, east of Goldblatt’s, in the shopping center, had been transformed into a four-auditorium complex.  The four smaller auditoriums had seating capacities ranging from 180 to 250. 21

A note on the old theater building

A Courier story in the 22 January 1977 edition reports The American National Bank president Gerald L. O’Neill’s announcement that the bank would move into new quarters in the Fox Theater building.  Remodeling was to begin immediately.  The renovation would provide more than 8,000 square feet of customer space in a new main bank building.  Additional second-floor office space would be available for lease.  Work was expected to be completed around the middle of 1977.  The bank was currently located just west of the theater. 22

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The theater building in 2019 showing west (front) and north sides.  Perry C. Morris photo.

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The theater building in 2019 showing east (back) and north sides. Perry C. Morris photo.