THE ILLINOIS THEATRE

 

            Urbana had been left without an opera house when Busey's Opera House closed.  For years, people talked about opening a new opera house.  Support was strong and widespread, although the Rev. Willoughby N. Toble, of the Trinity Methodist Church, called the proposed opera house a "public curse."

 

            By the autumn of 1906, the new opera house was becoming closer to reality.  Early plans called for a four-story building, costing as much as $100,000, to be erected west of the Flatiron building.  A grand, elaborate building was envisioned.  The first story would house the opera house; the second and third, the Flatiron store; and the fourth, a dance hall.  Even the roof would be used.  A roof garden would be located on the roofs of the new building and the adjoining Flatiron building. 

 

            A group of prominent and influential citizens were backing the venture.  They were advised by theatrical manager George W. Chatterton of Springfield, who managed opera houses in Springfield, Decatur, Lincoln, Bloomington, and Danville.  The group formed a stock company, the Illinois Theatre Building company.

 

            Stock sold at $100.00 a share and was purchased in amounts of $200 to $1,000.  The goal was to raise $40,000.  $34,000 worth of stock in the new theatre company had been sold by February of 1907.  More than sixty people had purchased stock in the company.  The stockholders included several members of the Busey Family, T. B. Thornburn, G. H. Baker, C. C. Gere, and E. M. Knowlton and George M. Bennett of the Knowlton and Bennett Drug Store.

 

            The building committee consisted of M. W. Busey, C. N. Clark, John W. Stipes, and T. B. Thornburn.  They hired J. W. Royer as architect.  The committee accompanied Mr. Royer on visits to several opera houses throughout the state to get ideas for the design of their new theatre.  Final plans had been scaled down from what had been envisioned early on.  The building would remain quite grand, but would house only a theatre.  The idea of including a roof garden, dance hall, and retail space had been abandoned.  The exterior of the building would not be as elaborate as originally planned.  The estimate for the entire project was $50,000.  Final costs would exceed $60,000.

 

            By early April, 1907, the building plans were submitted to the stockholders for their approval.  Construction would begin as soon as advance sales of opening night tickets had reached $10,000 to help with the construction costs.  With only $4,000 in advance sales, the stockholders of the Illinois Theatre Company, Urbana, met on Monday, June 17, 1907 and authorized the building committee to let the contract for the building.  Contractor William F. Baird submitted the winning bid of $37,367.  This was for the building alone, and did not include the decorating, furnishings, nor the stage equipment. 

 

            The Illinois Theatre was located at 312 West Railroad Street (now known as Springfield Avenue), on land donated by the Flatiron Building association.  The building faced Railroad Street directly across from Birch Street.  It stood about 60 feet west of the now razed flatiron building.  The theatre building stretched northerly back to Main Street where a secondary entrance was located.

 

            Construction of the Illinois Theatre began in early June, 1907.  William F. Baird, a well-known Urbana contractor, was general contractor for the project.  The contractor for the brick work was John S. Bennett.  The brick were from the Sheldon Brick company's yards, and the trimmings were of St. Louis pressed brick.  Over 1,200,000 brick were used in the construction.  Walsh & Hawley were sub-contractors for the concrete work, Charles Holden for the painting, and J. D. Green for the plumbing and steam fitting.

 

            The contract for the electric work went to R. L. Rock at a price of $2,385.  The building contained five miles of wire and 1,900 lights.  The electric sign at the front entrance spelled "Illinois" in 18-inch letters using three hundred lights of various colors.

 

            The contract for interior decorations went to Mitchell & Halback of Chicago.  The price of the contract was $1,000.  Other sub-contractors were: plastering and plaster of paris work, S. D. Gallagher; seats, Cincinnati Seating company; and scenery, Sosman & Landis.

 

            The brick exterior was not overly elaborate.  The building measured 70 feet wide by 127 feet long.  The walls, 23 inches thick, rose 65 feet high at the front, and 80 feet high at the rear where the stage was located. 

 

            Seating capacity exceeded 1,400.  The gently sloping parquet and dress circles seated 500 people in leather chairs.  The first balcony seated four hundred, the second balcony three hundred, and the gallery 100.  There were ten boxes, five on either side of the stage at three levels.  The boxes were elaborately furnished and heavily decorated with roses and cupids.

 

            Twelve exits were provided.  It was estimated that the full house could have been emptied in two minutes.

 

            Each floor had a toilet and lavatory for both ladies and gentlemen.  A ladies dressing and check room was on the first floor and a smoking room for gentlemen was located in the basement.

 

            The stage was 43 feet deep and 67 feet wide with the proscenium arch measuring 35 by 37 feet.  Both a fire-proof asbestos curtain and a canvas curtain were provided.

 

            Fourteen large dressing rooms, each equipped with hot and cold water, were located behind the stage.  The dressing rooms were separated from the stage by a fire wall.

 

            The orchestra pit would accommodate forty musicians.  There were two entrances from under the stage.

 

            The Illinois Theatre was managed by George W. Chatterton, jr., who also managed the Grand opera house in Danville.  Mr. Chatterton's representative at the Illinois was Edward F. Rea.  Stage manager was William Funk, a long-time employee of the Chattertons.  Other staff members included: head usher, Ralph Sutton; electrician, Frank Anderson; head flyman, Robert Cummins and orchestra conductor, Professor Gus Rudolphson.

 

            Proceeds from the formal opening of the Illinois Theatre went to the building fund.  Mr. Chatterton's lease then went into effect for the subsequent performances.

 

            The new Illinois Theatre was formally opened on Tuesday evening, March 3, 1908, at 8:30.  The opening could easily be described as the social event of the year in Champaign-Urbana.  The Champaign Daily Gazette's coverage of the event included an extensive listing of those making up the capacity crowd.  Many of the twin cities' best known citizens were in attendance.  A few of them, whose family names are most familiar today include: members of the Busey Family, Isaac Kuhn, Mr. and Mrs. Jake Kaufman, Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Willis, Mr. and Mrs. F. K. Robeson, and Mr. and Mrs. N. H. Cohen.  The audience also included people from Ogden, St. Joseph, and other towns along the interurban railway line.  The evening was a festive affair.  The women wore elegant gowns and most of the men wore full evening dress.  The ladies were given red and white carnations as favors.

 

            The opening night production was "Marrying Mary," a musical comedy about a happy-go-lucky woman who had cast-off three husbands and the complications she encounters in trying to marry husband number four.  Marie Cahill, who had delighted audiences earlier in the season at the Walker Opera House, starred in the title role.  Her company gave the new theatre rave reviews.

 

            George W. Chatterton, jr., the manager of the Illinois Theatre, made the only speech of the evening.  He spoke briefly about the new theatre, claiming it to be the best in the state outside of Chicago, and announcing some of the attractions for the rest of the month.

 

            After the performance, quite a number of people remained for a tour of the theatre.  Every cab in the Twin Cities and eleven street cars were outside the theatre to return the audience to their homes. 

 

            Over the following several years, the Illinois presented equally fine productions.  On February 13, 1913, Charles Frohman presented theatre great Maude Adams in J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan".  In 1914, dancers Irene and Vernon Castle appeared at the Illinois.  Mrs. Castle's new bobbed hair-do caused a stir as the local ladies began imitating it and rushed to have their hair cut short.  Sarah Bernhardt appeared on October 16, 1917, in her last American tour.

 

            Other noted performers included Jinny Lind, Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Otis Skinner, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and favorite local musicians Sol and Julius Cohen.

 

            Eventually, a decline set in.  The quality of the theatrical productions at the Illinois suffered.  The high-class vaudeville acts were booked into other theatres and the stars no longer appeared at the Illinois.  Soon, the entertainment at the Illinois was limited to local amateur productions, prize fights, and wrestling matches.

 

            The last four years of its life, the Illinois Theatre was owned and operated by the Zenith Amusement company, a Ku Klux Klan organization.  The Klan purchased the building when it had outgrown its former quarters.  During this period, the theatre was used principally for Klan activities, but was available for rental by local organizations for theatrical productions.

 

            The Illinois Theatre burned in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 3, 1927.  A passing University of Illinois student turned in the alarm about 2:15 am.  At the same time two men living in north east Urbana, also noticed the smoke and reported the fire.

 

            The Champaign, Urbana, and University fire departments all responded quickly, bringing all their equipment.  However, the fire quickly enveloped the building, perhaps fueled by reported gas explosions in the basement.  The fire fighters soon determined it would be impossible to save the building, and concentrated their efforts on bringing it under control and protecting the neighboring structures.  They had brought the fire under control by 4:00 am, using over 297,000 gallons of water delivered in seven streams.

 

            Within a couple of hours, the interior of the once grand theatre had been reduced to a gaping hole strewn with rubble and charred timbers.  The thick lower walls survived the fire, but some of the thinner, upper portions had collapsed.

 

            The cause of the fire was not readily determined.  J. J. Reynolds, secretary of the Zenith Amusement company and the Zenith Mutual Benefit association, and exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan for Champaign County, maintained offices in the building.  He believed the fire was arson based on a history of threatening telephone calls and anonymous letters.  He and his stenographer had both received threatening calls Friday night.  The regular watchman for the building had left at noon Saturday for a visit to Indianapolis.  The building was left unwatched Saturday night.

 

            The authorities believed that the fire might have been started by spontaneous combustion, since there was wet lumber stored in the basement.

 

            The building was insured for $17,000, only about half of the $35,000 the Klan had paid for the building.  The Klan also lost many of its files and miscellaneous items.

 

            The last meeting held in the theatre was the production of a Columbia Parent-Teacher association play on Friday evening.

 

            Initial rebuilding plans, announced the day after the fire, called for the building to be rebuilt as a community hall and banquet room as soon as the insurance was adjusted.  The walls had survived the fire.  The plan was to remove the top portions to a one-story height, add a roof and rebuild the floor.  The new banquet room would have been able to accommodate 1,000 people.

 

            The banquet room plans did not materialize.  Eventually, the Tuscany apartments were built in the shell of the burned out theatre.  The apartments stood for many years before being razed and replaced by a new multi-story apartment building.

 

Perry C. Morris

Copyright 2018