ILLINOIS THEATRE

312 West Springfield Avenue, Urbana, Illinois
(originally Railroad Avenue)

Opened 3 March 1908

Closed 3 April 1927 (theatre burned down)

The Illinois Theatre as shown on a postcard

 The Illinois Theatre had a varied history over its relatively short life.  There was much success including the appearance by the world-renowned Madame Sarah Bernhardt in 1917 as well as nationally recognized stars of the day such as Maude Adams.  There were also periods of decline.  In its final few years, the Illinois was owned and operated by the Ku Klux Klan, a fact we are not going to ignore in order to present a more complete history of the theatre and the times.

The origins of the Illinois Theatre

A page one story in the Champaign Daily Gazette of Wednesday 10 January 1894 optimistically began “Urbana will have a handsome new opera house in the near future.  At least that is the talk and some important steps have already been taken in the matter.  So far, the project has been kept a secret, and consequently few people have been made acquainted with the plans.” 1

The story went on to say that “there have been occasional expressions of a wish for a new place of amusement at the county seat, and this has become more pronounced as the city’s improvements have increased.  Busey’s Hall has well served the purpose for which it was constructed’ in 1870, “but objection has been made that its stage is too small for first-class companies.  The fault may lie in this, and yet it may be that no one has yet done the most that could be done in the management of the house.  Apparently, a majority of the companies that have appeared here in the past few years, have failed to strike the popular chord and so amusements have run with a drag in Urbana.” 2

The Gazette reported that a few gentlemen had met informally in W.J. Ford’s office to discuss the project and begin to make plans.  The men even sketched out plans for the building that they expected to cost around $20,000. They imagined it built of brick, two stories high with a tower in the center, “to lend dignity and architectural beauty to the structure.”  There was to be two good sized store rooms with plate glass show windows on the first floor.  A wide staircase between the store rooms would lead to the second floor with office rooms on the front of the building with the theatre at the rear.  They planned a seating capacity of 500 or 600 and possibly some box seats.  The stage was to be large and the dressing rooms generous in size.  They had their eye on a lot on the east side of Market Street [now Broadway] just north of Main Street. 3

A reported $9,000 had been pledged at the meeting, with W.J. Ford putting in $4,000 and others pledging $1,000 each.  It was thought a majority of the city’s merchants would be willing to contribute.  Another meeting was scheduled for 11 January at Ford’s office to begin organizing the stock company. 4

The opera house meeting held 11 January night was very well attended by Urbana citizens.  Louis Stout was chosen to chair the meeting and John Thomas was chosen as secretary.

Several men made short talked briefly of their support of the project.  They included W.W. Lindley, G.W. Call, Dr. J.F. Morrison, W.J. Ford, R.Z. Gill, D.D. Cannon, John Thomas, and Thomas Kerr. 5

It was determined that $2,000 annually could be realized from building rentals, based on the available space in the plans proposed by R.Z. Gill.  This did not include any revenue from the theatre operations.  W.W. Lindley, George W. Call and W.I. Saffell were appointed as the site selection committee.  The stock subscription committee was yet to be appointed. 6

There were four sites under discussion for the proposed opera house.  Two were on Market Street [today’s Broadway], directly north of the Herald building on the corner of Broadway and Main, and another south of the city building.  A vacant lot on Main Street east of the court house and the lot on Race Street, directly back of the Lowenstern building were also under consideration.  Two of the sites were owned by Thomas Lindsey’s heirs and the understanding was they would exchange either one for stock in the building.  Opinions varied considerably on which site was best. 7

Early Urbana Opera Houses
busey's block 1873 map ed_edited.jpg

Busey's Block and the Burt & Gill building was built in 1870.  Busey's Hall was on the top floor.  The buildings survived the Great Urbana Fire of 1871, but not a fire in April 1878 caused by a defective flue that destroyed both buildings.  It was quickly rebuilt as a two-story building, again with Busey's Hall on the top floor.  That building still stands.  The W.I. Saffell department store took over the entire building in 1898.

tiernans block edited from 1873 map.jpg

The Tiernan block from an 1873 map.  The third floor opera house opened in 1872.  The building was sold to the Urbana Masons who used the opera hall as their main lodge room.  The building was expanded and a new facade installed in1914.  This building still stands on Main Street in Urbana.

A few days later, another possible site was added when Hugh Connerty offered to sell two adjacent lots and buildings on [the 100 block of West] Main Street opposite the Columbian hotel for what he had paid for them. 8

On 30 January 1894, The Champaign Daily Gazette reported that the committee members were soliciting Urbana business men and intended to continue until all had been visited.  The committee was putting off incorporating the company until they had a firm figure of how much could be raised via the stock subscriptions.   The Gazette quoted W.W. Lindley, one of the active committee members: “Nothing has been said about the project for some days, but none of us have lost interest in the matter.  We are bound to have a nice opera house for Urbana, and do not propose to give up until we get it.” 9

Several months later, on 9 June 1894, The Champaign Daily Gazette reported: “There will be a meeting of Urbana citizens in W.W. Lindley’s office Thursday evening, at 7:30 o’clock, to discuss plans for the erection of an opera house.  All interested citizens should attend. 10  That appeared to be the end of it.  Presumably they had not been able to raise the necessary funds.

There was renewed interest in 1898.  Busey’s Hall was now closed.  In fact, the entire building was now being used as W.I. Saffell’s department store and Urbana had no opera house.  In Champaign, the Walker Opera House was the main theatre for the Twin Cities.

A brief report in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 9 February 1898 indicated a movement was afoot for a long-needed improvement: an opera house.  None of the organizers were named and few details were given other than they anticipated organizing a stock company, capitalized at $50,000, to build the play house to be located across from the city building and probably would include one or two store rooms. 11  That effort was also not successful.

There was more talk in 1902. “It is hoped that Urbana will soon boast of a new opera house.  The most favored location is on the corner of Elm and Market streets.” appeared in The Champaign Daily Gazette, of 28 January 1902. 12  Again, no opera house was built.

Then, in 1903, The Champaign Daily Gazette printed this report on 31 January: “At noon today, W.E. Coffin announced that he had $5,000 subscribed toward securing Urbana an opera house.  For some time Mr. Coffin has been thinking seriously about the opera house problem but no one seemed to care in assisting him in securing one so he started out himself to raise the money.  He intends to raise $25,000 before he stops and is now confident the opera house question is no myth.” 13  Despite his confidence, Mr. Coffin was not able to get the opera house built.. 

The year 1906 brought increasing interest in building one or two new opera houses in Champaign and Urbana.  George W. Chatterton of Springfield visited Champaign on Saturday 3 February 1906 reported The Champaign Daily Gazette.  He was exploring the possibility of building an opera house in Champaign.  His proposition was that if the citizens would buy out this new house, at $10 each, for the first night’s performance, he would build an opera house with a seating capacity of at least 1,500 or more people that would cost $60,000 or more.  The Gazette quoted Mr. Chatterton: “Speaking about the location, that will be easy enough after the money is in sight.” 14

The Champaign Chamber of Commerce opera house committee had been working with George W. Chatterton.  The committee took options on several sites for the opera house, but it was said that Mr. Chatterton did not consider the location as the really important part of the proposition to build in Champaign. 15

George W. Chatterton was back in Champaign Friday 16 March 1906 looking to arrange financing to build an opera house in Champaign to add to his opera house circuit.  Chatterton said he was short of ready cash at the moment as his money was tied up in his other  opera houses.  He was no longer asking for the $15,000 from the opening night’s seat sale, but was willing to pay interest on that amount secured by stock.  He also said he was able to put up $45,000 toward the planned $60,000 building. 16

Another theatre promoter spent time in the summer of 1906 remodeling the Coliseum that had opened 28 August 1905 in Champaign.  It wasn’t going to be as lavish or as big as people perhaps hoped.  It was renamed the Crescent and reopened 26 November 1906.  It is by no means clear if that made it more difficult to raise funding in Champaign, but Chatterton began talking to promotors in Urbana.

By the autumn of 1906, the talk in Urbana had gotten serious.  The Champaign Daily Gazette ran a story on 22 September 1906 that reported an unnamed “Urbana business man who pays more attention to the accumulation of money than he does to mere talking, says he is able to declare positively that Urbana will have a fine new opera house at the beginning of the theatrical season next year.  The question has been talked of for years, but has now reached such a stage that money will do the talking, it is asserted.” 17

The article went on to say the theatre would be a four-story building just west of the Flatiron building which is where it was eventually built.  These plans included two floors for the Flatiron Store, a dance hall on the fourth floor, and a summer roof garden joined to the Flatiron building.  The reported location proved to be where the opera house was built, but the other features did not come to fruition. 18

Illinois Theatre stock certificate front UFL.jpg

Illinois Theatre Stockholders

F. Stanley Boggs    A. F. Fay

Geo. W. Busey    Ed Busey

C. N. Clark    W. I. Saffell

M. W. Busey    Zack G. Oldham

W. F. Baird    A. M. Lindley

W. F. Burres    D. E. Park

E. G. Benton    O. C. Boggs

B. F. Swartz    Ed Hays

Spencer E. Huff    Nellie L. Cherry

C. D. Rourke    A. P. Saunders

J. W. Stipes    J. A. R. Koch

J. W. Royer    Frank H. Boggs

F. T. Kegley    Knowlton & Bennett

F. E. Pinkerton    J. M. Bartholow

J. F. Peterson    John L. Glover

L.E. Ford    M. Lowenstern & Son

S. T. Busey    Emma Maxfield

Mary E. Busey    D. C. Busey

T. B. Thornburn    R. Z. Gill

W. B. McKinley    F. H. Jahr

Augusta B. Morgan    A. M. Fauley

J. G. Oldham    McClain Sisters

Fred Pell    B. F. Stevenson

J. H. Savage    G. W. Lindsey

Dr. Van Doren    T. E. Lindsey

Jacob Becker    L. McWilliams

William Becker    G. H. Baker

H. I. Green    Paul G. Busey

A. F. Fay    Elmer Dougan

H. D. Oldham    C. C. Gere

Scan of stock certificate courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library

By October, 1906, it was looking more certain that Urbana would have an opera house.  Quoting the Champaign Daily Gazette: “The question of whether Urbana is to have an opera house is attracting renewed interest in the county seat by reason of an earnest discussion of the matter which is now taking place.  The ball was started by a prominent citizen, who favors the opera house, saying he would be one of a number of citizens to subscribe liberally to the undertaking.  This called forth a spirited protest from Rev. Willoughby N. Toble, of Trinity Methodist Church, declared that an opera house in Urbana would be a "public curse."      That Rev. Mr. Toble did not voice the opinion of most of Urbana's people was evidenced by the replies which were promptly made.  Practically everyone in the county seat wants an opera house, and many are ready to back up their belief with subscriptions.  It is reported that five of Urbana's most successful business men will give $1,000 each to the building of a $100,000 playhouse.” 19

The Illinois Theatre Company

An ad hoc citizens committee had been soliciting people to purchase stock to make the new opera house a reality.  By early 1907, as reported in The Champaign Daily Gazette on 8 February, subscribers had taken $34,000 worth of stock out of the $40,000 goal. 1

The subscribers had met in the court house on 6 February and formed a temporary organization to take charge until the company was incorporated.  C. N. Clark was elected President, Dr. W. F. Burris vice-president, George Busey, treasurer, and Zach G. Oldham secretary.  N. W. Busey, T. B. Thomby, and C. N. Clark were appointed a building committee. 2

“Final plans for the proposed Illinois Theatre in Urbana, were presented to the stockholders at a meeting Monday evening.  They were approved, and it was decided to submit them to contractors for estimates as to the cost, a report to be made in about two weeks,” reported The Champaign Daily Gazette on 9 April, 1907. 3

The article went on to give some preliminary descriptions of the theatre, and announce that about $4,000.00 worth of tickets for the opening night’s performance had been sold.  The promoters had maintained that $10,000.00 had been necessary to authorize beginning construction.  Once the bids were received, they would meet to decide whether or not to proceed.  4

The Illinois Theatre Company stockholders met in the supervisors’ rooms of the court house Monday evening, 17 June 1907.  Stockholders present represented about 80 percent of the stock and all were in favor of starting the building, and therefore authorized the building committee to let the contract for the new playhouse. 6

A very short article in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 23 April, 1907, reported: “A meeting of the building committee of the new opera house company will be held Thursday evening to open the bids of the contractors.  A meeting of the stockholders will be held later.  It is said some of the stockholders will withdraw their stock subscriptions if saloons are voted out; but it is thought there will be no difficulty in finding new people to take their holdings.” 5

Contractor William F. Baird had the winning bid of $37,367, for the building alone.  With anticipated costs for decorating, interior furnishings, and stage appliances, the completed building was expected to cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. 7

The committee had made some changes from the original plan in order to reduce costs.  Few changes were made in the interior, but the exterior design was made plainer than originally planned.  Another change was in the location, shifting the building to the extreme western end of the flatiron property, at the head of Birch Street, fronting on Railroad Street, where the street car line ran.  A secondary entrance from Main Street was to be included, but an originally planned corridor connecting the south and north entrances was eliminated mainly due to the size of the lot.  The new location had been donated by the stockholders of the Elk Building Association. 8

The committee still hoped to raise $10,000 by the sale of first night tickets, with $4,000 already subscribed.  These funds were to be earmarked to the finishing of the theatre. 9

The contract stipulated, what turned out to be overly optimistic, that the building was to be completed by 15 November. 10

Constructing the Illinois Theatre

Members of the building committee were M. W. Busey, C. N. Clark, John W. Stipes, and T. B. Thornburn.  They chose popular Urbana architect Joseph William Royer as the architect for the new Illinois Theatre.  The group visited several opera houses throughout the state to assist Royer with his design. 1

JW Royer edited.jpg

Joseph William Royer

from Elk Club program 1910

“Excellent progress is now being made on the Illinois theatre and there is still strong hope that it will be finished in time for the opening on November 15.  The material is now on the ground for the roof,” reported The Champaign Daily Gazette on Saturday, 14 September, 1907. 8  Then on Wednesday, 25 September, 1907, the Gazette reported “At a meeting of the building committee of the Illinois Theatre company held Tuesday evening, the contract for decorating the interior of the building was awarded to Mitchell & Halback of Chicago.  The contract figure is $1,000.” 9

The main contract was awarded to well-known Urbana contractor, W. F. Baird.  Sub-contracts went to John S. Bennett for the brick work, Walsh & Hawley for the concrete work, Charles Holden for painting, Mitchell & Halbach for decorations, J. D. Green for plumbing and steam fitting, R. L. Rock, for the electric work, S. D. Gallagher for the plastering and plaster-of-Paris work, Cincinnati Seating Company for the seats, and Sosman & Landis for the scenery. 2

Construction work began about 1 June, 1907. 3  The newspapers printed periodic stories keeping the public apprised of the building progress.

The only excavation that was needed was for the concrete foundation walls. 4  The Champaign Daily Gazette reported on Saturday, 6 July, 1907, that Walsh & Hawley expected to complete the expedited foundation work the following week and then the brick masons could begin their work. 5  The brick was furnished by the Sheldon Brick Company.  The trimmings were St. Louis pressed brick.  Over 1,200,000 brick were used. 6  The theatre building was 70 feet wide and 127 long.  It stood 80 feet tall in the rear and 65 feet at the front. 7

il photo with houses and flat iron ed.jpg

The Illinois Theatre viewed from the south-west.  Cottages to the west of the theatre are visible as is the streetcar tracks running in front of the theatre.  Also visible is the rear of the Flatiron building (with the painted Flatiron sign.)

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

The Champaign Daily News reported on 9 October 1907, “The steel truss to be used over the arch in the new Urbana theater arrived Monday and was carried to the site of building operations Tuesday morning.  The piece weighs 19,000 pounds, and was a big load for the team pulling it.  This is said to be one of the heaviest pieces of structural steel ever used in the two cities. 10

“The opera chairs for the Illinois theatre arrived Wednesday afternoon and are being put in position and will add much to the comfort of this popular little play house” according to The Champaign Daily Gazette on 17 October, 1907. 11  Setting the seats in the first balcony was being completed on Friday, 21 February 1908, and work was beginning on the parquet and dress circle. 12 

The contract for electrical work awarded to R. L. Rock was for $2,385.  Five miles of wire and 1,100 lights would be used. 13  A brief article in the 29 October 1907 edition of The Champaign Daily Gazette, reported that plumbing and heating contractor J. D. Green had the work well under way and expected to easily finish it within a month.  All materials were on site and much has already been installed.  There are six toilet rooms and 14 lavatories.  Heat will be generated by boilers in the building’s basement. 14

According to The Champaign Daily Gazette on 8 July, 1907. “J. C. Hobby of Joliet, was in Urbana Saturday making arrangements for painting the scenery in the new Illinois theatre.  He will commence his work as soon as the house is enclosed and expects to complete it within six weeks.  He came to Urbana from South Bend, Indiana, where he has completed a new opera house, and will paint the scenery for the new Grand opera house in Indianapolis before returning to Urbana.” 15  The Champaign Daily Gazette reported on 21 February 1908, that representatives of Sosman & Landis of Chicago, were in Urbana installing the scenery and the work would be completed within the week. 16

The floors had been given a thorough scrubbing removing all the dirt and debris from the building. 17  Carpets were being laid as of 27 February 1908. 18

There had been numerous delays in the construction of the Illinois Theatre, mostly due to the steel not arriving on time.  The opening had been postponed from time to time, but as of 11 February, 1908, the date had been set and tickets for the opening night performance would soon be put on sale. 19

It was reported at a stockholder meeting on 14 February 1908 that the seating had cost about $2,000 and the scenery $1,500.  The advance sale of opening night tickets had reached over $5,000. 20

19080229sa_TCDG_pg04_Illinois ad_New Illinois Theatre_edited.jpg

An ad from the 29 February 1908 Champaign Daily Gazette announcing three of the early shows to be presented at the new Illinois Theatre.

Description and Features of the Illinois Theatre

As the Illinois was nearing completion, The Champaign Daily Gazette ran a story on February 11, 1908 that included good descriptions of the theatre’s functions.  Here are highlights: 1

The "Illinois" sign on the front of the building has 18-inch letters and includes three hundred lights of various colors.  There were 1,900 lights used to light the entire theatre.

Toilet facilities for both ladies and gentlemen were provided on each floor.

Total seating capacity of the house was 1,400.  The parquet and dress circles sloped gently to the front and accommodated 500.  The chairs were leather.

“Six boxes that are a dream of art have been provided, one being on each side below and two on each side on a level with the first balcony.  Two of the upper boxes are double.  Elaborate furnishings have been purchased for each box.”

The first balcony seated four hundred people, the second balcony three hundred, and the gallery 100.

The full house could be emptied in two minutes.  Four exits were provided for each section of the building.

The orchestra pit was large enough for forty musicians.  There were two entrances from under the stage.

The stage was large at 43 feet deep and 67 feet wide, intended to be large enough for any road production.  The proscenium arch is 35x37 feet.  There were two stage curtains, the fire proof asbestos curtain and one of canvas.  No evidence remains to prove or disprove it, but it is likely that the canvas curtain had a decorative scene painted on it.  It seems unlikely that it would have been left plain.  It would have also been possible to have advertising on it as had been common in earlier opera houses. 

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Article from The Champaign Daily News of 10 April 1909

Illinois seating plan.jpg

Seating layout as printed in a city directory

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

The construction was originally expected to cost about $40,000, but ran over $60,000 as the building committee wanted the theatre to be as nice and well equipped as possible.

The article in The Champaign Daily News in April, 1909, reflects some variance in the numbers. 2

The Illinois Theatre Opening Night

Tuesday 3 March 1908

A story in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 11 February 1908 reminded readers that the Illinois was nearly done.  “With the opening of the new Illinois theatre… the dream of every man who ever worked on a newspaper in the county seat will have been realized.  For the past ten years when news was hard to find the reporters took delight in telling the needs of that city and an opera house was never forgotten.”  The article went on to reminisce about Urbana’s two prior opera houses, Tiernan’s Hall and Busey’s Hall, both long closed. 1

Further quoting the Gazette: From the closing of Busey’s Hall “until last year there was nothing but talk and rumors when George W. Chatterton of Springfield, who has opera houses in Springfield, Decatur, Lincoln, Bloomington and Danville, came along with a proposition that was accepted by a number of influential business men and the work of forming a stock company to be known as the Illinois Theatre Building company, was formed.” 2

On 26 February 1908, The Champaign Daily Gazette reminded readers that the formal opening of the new Illinois Theatre was set for the evening of 3 March.  Tickets to the opening night attraction "Marrying Mary," starring Marie Cahill, were going fast but several very desirable seats were still available in the parquet and balconies.  Many people from Ogden, St. Joseph and other towns along the interurban line have purchased tickets. 3

The Gazette reported that just 100 seats were still available the day before the opening.  Gallery seats were priced at 50 cents each and could be purchased at Oldham Brothers’ drugstore or at the box office. 4

Illinois Theatre Opening Night program UFL.jpg

Opening night program courtesy of the Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library 

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Newspaper ad for the formal opening From The Champaign Daily Gazette,

21 February 1908.

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Marie Cahill

as she appeared

in the play Nancy Brown

The new Illinois Theatre opened on Tuesday 3 March 1908 with a house filled to capacity.  The Champaign Daily Gazette said: “The handsome Illinois theater in Urbana was launched on its career as a play house Tuesday night with Miss Marie Cahill and her excellent company in "Marrying Mary.  The event was a leading society event in the history of the sister the immense audience being composed largely of elegantly gowned women and well-groomed men, the majority of the latter appearing in full evening dress.”  The ladies in attendance were given red and white carnations.  The Gazette also said: “The opening was without incident and to one not knowing, everything went as smoothly as if the house had been open for months.” 5

The Daily Gazette’s coverage included an extensive list of audience members with seats in the boxes and those seated in the parquet.  The list included well-known people of both Champaign and Urbana.  Many family names are still recognizable today such as Mr. and Mrs. F. K. Robeson, Mr. and Mrs. N. H. Cohen, Judge and Mrs. J. O. Cunningham, and many members of the Busey family. 6

George W. Chatterton, jr., of Danville, was manager of the Illinois for his family.  His staff included: resident manager, Edward F. Rea; stage manager, William Funk; head usher, Ralph Sutton; electrician, Frank Anderson; head flyman, Robert Cummins, and orchestra conductor, Prof. Gus Rudolphson. 7

Mr. Chatterton gave a brief talk about the new play house, calling it the best in the state outside of Chicago.  He announced the attractions for the rest of the month: "Brown from College," "Miss Bob White;" "The Great Divide;" the Latimer & Leigh Stock Company; the San Carlos Grand Opera company; "The Red Mill," and the Henry W. Savage Opera company in "Madam Butterfly." 8

More from The Champaign Daily Gazette’s review of the evening: “Miss Cahill's support was excellent and included such people as Nellie Lynch, Anna Mooney, Anna Belle Gordon, Mark Smith, W.T. Clark, William Clifton, Charles Judels and the handsome long skirted chorus. They could really sing and were a change from the customary chorus with the ordinary musical shows.” 9

The Gazette listed five songs they called the hits of the evening including "Three Men in a Boat," by Messers. Clark, Clifton and Smith, was one of the best,” and another one they called “the most enjoyable of all "Last One is Best of All," by Mr. Cowles.  Every number was heartily encored and the company was generous with its responses.” 10

The play house emptied quickly at the end of the performance, but quite a few people lingered to inspect the new theatre. Superintendent Pepper of the street railway line had provided eleven cars for Champaign and University people.  “Every cab in the Twin Cities was also in waiting and the necessity for widening the street leading to the opera house was never more fully demonstrated.” 11

Ticket sale proceeds from the first night's performance were earmarked for the building fund. 12

Plot of Marrying Mary

as told in The Champaign Daily Gazette 13

Marie Cahill plays Mary Montgomery, “a thoughtless, jolly creature, with three living husbands, and is the principal in many complications in securing the fourth, during which the three cast-offs appear at frequent intervals.” “Ormaby Kulpepper, a young spendthrift, faithfully portrayed by Sam B. Hardy, desires to be the fourth husband, but has strong objections to a divorced woman on account of having one mother and three stepmothers as the result of the fickleness of his father, Col. Henry Clay Kulpepper.  The father, Eugeno Cowles, comes to the rescue of the son and tries to prevent his marriage, himself falling in love with the much marrying Mary.  Finally, cupids dart overcomes sentiment and Ormsby Culpepper becomes No. 4, and they were still happy.” 13

Comments from the Marrying Mary company

as reported by The Champaign Daily Gazette

Miss Cahill said "The Illinois was undoubtedly the finest theatre in the state outside of Chicago, and the largest in every respect in the Chatterton circuit.  It is simply a dream, and I am delighted with my stay in Urbana, and will certainly come back every chance I get.  Seldom has an actress the pleasure of playing to so expensive an audience and it breaks all records for me." 

Mr. Cowles was surprised at seeing so fine a play house in such a small city, and said he could see no place on the large stage where an improvement could be made.

Miss Lynch said: "It is delightful to play in such a dainty place and the dressing rooms are certainly a revelation.  I had not the least fear of fire." 

Mr. Clifton said: "The management has certainly looked after the interests of the stage folk as well as the audience in regard to safety, and I know of no other opera house where a fire wall separates the stage from the dressing rooms.  That is certainly great." 14

The next few years including Vaudeville, Boxing, and Wrestling

The Zenith Amusement Company

The local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a big meeting at the Illinois Theatre Tuesday evening,  30 January 1923, at 7:30.  The Urbana Daily Courier reported that only the Klan members were privy to the exact nature of the gathering, but the tickets they handed out to the press and a limited number of outsiders read: “If you desire to learn the true principles of the Ku Klux Klan you are invited to attend a lecture at the Illinois Theatre, Urbana, Ill., Thursday evening, January 30, at 7:30 p.m.  Not transferable.” 1

The next day, The Champaign News-Gazette reported that more than 1,000 had attended the lecture and were greeted by local Klansmen in full regalia.  The evening’s speaker was Rev. James F. McMahon, pastor of the First Church of Christ of Mattoon.  He “outlined the principles of the Klan and stated no man should feel ashamed of being a member as it is a Christian organization.”  Membership applications were distributed after the talk.  The News-Gazette noted that this was the first meeting of its kind ever held in the Twin Cities. 2

Jumping ahead to September, 1923, The Urbana Daily Courier reports that the Illinois Theatre has been for sale for some time, but now there are rumors of two possible buyers.  One is that the Illinois Traction System is considering it for a station and office building.  The other rumored interested party is the Ku Klux Klan as it is the only available building large enough for a Klan convention hall. 3

Quoting the Courier: “If there is anything to these stories, M.W. Busey, owner of the theatre, does not know anything about it.  The only thing he does know in regard to the matter is that a man approached him recently and asked if he would give him an option on the property.  Mr. Busey does not know what organization, if any, this man represents.  The option was not given or has it been, as yet.  The theatre building has been on the market for a long time but the incident mentioned is so indefinite that the owner does not consider it a prospect.” 4

Not that many weeks later, The Champaign News-Gazette, on 21 October 1923, published the following report: “Charles A Bongart, Urbana, announced Saturday that a company known as the Zenith Company, lately organized, had negotiated the purchase of the Illinois Theatre.  Rumors to the effect that the Ku Klux Klan had negotiated the purchase were denied Saturday by a business man of Champaign who professed to be identified with the company.  Mr. Bongart stated that the name of the Klan was not mentioned in connection with the details of the sale.” 5

Then on 23 October, 1923, The Champaign News-Gazette announced that Articles of Incorporation had been issued by the Secretary of State to The Zenith Amusement Company.  The Company had reported 2,000 stockholders from Champaign County, and listed its officers as president, W.E. Wheeling; secretary, J. Reynolds; and treasurer, Charles Bongart, and additional directors A.W. Slater and Fred Munson. 6

They must have been satisfied based on their meeting in the Illinois back at the end of January that the theatre could serve their needs, because, to quote the News-Gazette article: “This company has purchased the Illinois Theatre building in Urbana for $35,000 to be used for general and amusement purposes.  Zenith Klan No. 56, Realm of Illinois, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, have leased the building for their headquarters.” 7

The article continued by stating: “the new owners are planning expensive programs for the winter months consisting of theatricals, minstrel shows, boxing, wrestling, etc.  They promise to bring here some of the best shows in the country and to furnish entertainment and amusement of the highest order at popular prices.  The building will be renovated and redecorated.” 8

The first major Klan event at the Illinois Theatre was a two-day extravagant gathering of Klansmen of Champaign County Klan No. 56, realm of Illinois on Friday and Saturday, 23 and 24 November 1923.  Activities included:

Friday afternoon at 2:15:  Matinee at the Illinois Theatre for the wives of Klan members and their friends. 9

Friday evening at 6:  Dinner for Imperial Wizard Dr. H. W. Evans from National Headquarters at Atlanta, Georgia, his staff of Klan officials, and prominent Urbana citizens at the Inman Hotel. 10

The dinner began with Rev. McMahon of Mattoon saying grace.  A six-piece orchestra provided background music.  At the end of the meal, Grand Dragon Palmer, of Chicago, was introduced and he presented the various visiting officials, including dignitaries from nearby states.  Imperial Wizard Dr. H. W. Evans from the National Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, “then made a short talk, explaining to his guests that the mission of the Klan was peaceful and honorable, and that their chief aim was to make this country a better place in which to live.” 11

Friday evening at 7:30:  Program dedicating the Illinois Theatre for the use of the Klan.  For Klansmen only at the Illinois Theatre. 12

Saturday afternoon at 2: Big open meeting at Crystal Lake Park. Everyone welcome. 13

Saturday evening at 7:45: Klan wedding open to the public at the Illinois Theatre.

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This ad appeared in The Champaign News-Gazette of 21 November 1923

There were violin solos by Miss Cameron of Gibson City, vocal numbers by the St. Joseph girls’ quartet, musical numbers by Coldn’s Clown Band (formerly Brown Bros. saxophone sextette), the Melody Four, and Holt’s and a company of four performing a few great feats. 14

The identities of the principals were a closely held secret before the ceremony. 15  It was the first Klan wedding in the county.  The ceremony was performed by Rev. O.K. Doney of Urbana, who was a state officer. 16

The bride was Miss Helen Reynolds of Sidney, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Reynolds.  He was the head of the Klan in Champaign County. 17

The groom was Harry Lee of Homer, son of Squire Lee of Homer, and was a farmer.  The couple would make their home on one of the farms owned by the bride’s father south of Urbana. 18

Saturday evening at 9:15:  Naturalization ceremony in charge of the imperial wizard, Dr. H.W. Evans.  This is the initiation of 600 new members into the Klan. 19

The Illinois Theatre Fire

An early morning fire on Sunday, 3 April 1927 destroyed the Illinois Theatre, and transformed it into a burned-out shell.

Clarke H. Schooley began his story on the fire in the Champaign News-Gazette of Sunday, April 3, 1927, with this sentence: “After having colored skies for miles with a dull red glow, the old Illinois Theatre of Urbana, 312 West Railroad Street, was a mass of twisted ruins this morning.” 1

His story recounted how University of Illinois student Russell Williams smelled smoke while returning to his rooms at 1102 West Stoughton Street at 2:15 o'clock and immediately notified Urbana Night Police Captain Owen Wind, who sent Letty Childer to the fire station and returned to the theatre site.  Clifford Lakey and Harry Smith, living in north east Urbana, also noticed smoke pouring from the theatre building at about the same time and notified the fire department. 2

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The Urbana Daily Courier, front page 4 April 1927

The Urbana, Champaign, and University fire departments arrived quickly at roughly the same time as the smoldering wood burst into flame and quickly enveloped the building.  Quoting Schooley: “Finding efforts to save the building futile, firemen turned their nozzles upon the neighboring buildings, and attempted to save them.  The fire was brought under control about 4 o'clock.

The building, a three-story affair with the out-walls of brick, the interior of wood, reared itself as a veritable landmark.  It proved "ripe" material for the flames, and within a couple hours the interior of the building was only a mass of twisted timbers which quickly fell.  Live embers shot their ways high into the heavens. 

Shortly thereafter the upper walls began caving.  Part of the west wall fell onto the rear porch of the home tenanted by Mrs. Anna Kaiser.  Mrs. Kaiser, after considerable urging left her home - but not until she had recovered a large box.  She bore this in her arms, claiming it held numerous valuables.” 3

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J. J. Reynolds photo from an Elks Club program

The origin of the fire had not been established as of late Sunday morning.  Authorities thought it might have been spontaneous combustion of the wet lumber stored in the basement.  However, “J. J. Reynolds, secretary of the Zenith Amusement Company and the Zenith Mutual Benefit Association, and who admits is exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan for this county, believes it might be” arson as he and his stenographer had both received threatening calls Friday night. 4

He also reported that the last gathering in the theatre was a play produced by the Columbia Parent-Teacher association on Friday evening. 6

Schooley reported that the power company had arrived on scene and cut the power, light, and street car lines.  He also reported that gas pipes in the basement had exploded during the fire but that was later doubted although no other causes of loud noises were determined. 5

Reynolds had held regular "office-hours" Saturday morning with about 40 callers then had closed at noon.  He was certain no one had stayed in the building.  He said only three men had keys and one was out of town.  That man was William Ball, the building watchman, who had also left at noon Saturday to visit Indianapolis, leaving it unguarded that night. 7

Schooley explained that Reynolds was inclined to believe the incendiarism as he had been receiving threatening anonymous letters and telephone calls for four years.  He wouldn’t disclose their nature of them, except to say “they were most threatening."  Just Friday evening, he had a phone call from “a man who ‘cussed’ him and ‘called him names’ - and then hung up.” 8

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These three photos after the fire

are courtesy of the

Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library

The Zenith Amusement Company had purchased the theatre building four years earlier for $35,000, when they determined they needed larger quarters, and has been using it “for plays and ritualizing work.”  Reynolds said that about three months earlier, they cut down the insurance on the building by about half to $17,000.  “The Klan stood to lose about $13,000, in addition to very valuable paraphernalia,” said Reynolds. 9

An Illinois Water Service Company box ad in The Champaign News-Gazette of April 10, 1927, opened with this statement: “After all big fires the question, "Was the water pressure good?" and "How much water do you suppose was used?" are always asked.” 10

It went on to quote Chief Martin of the Urbana Fire Department who said: "We had good pressure, maintaining 80 pounds pressure at the hydrant with the pumper delivering three streams of water.  We had all the water we wanted.  We can ask no more." 11

It continued to state that “Champaign had three leads from their pumper, and with one lead direct from the hydrant at Birch and Elm streets, totaled 7 streams playing on the fire.” And “Our master meter reveals the fact that 297,020 more gallons were pumped during the duration of the fire than is normally pumped at this time of the day.” 12

After the fire

Thousands of people flocked to the theatre ruins on Sunday to see the aftermath of the fire for themselves.  They were kept back a safe distance from the walls as the remaining top parts were not looking safe. 1

Monday after Sunday’s fire, The Champaign News-Gazette reported that they were already making plans to rebuild as a community hall as soon as the insurance settlement was finalized.  The 23-inches-thick lower walls were not compromised by the fire, so they would be shortened to make a one-story building.  There was a basement under the entire building, but a new roof and floor would need to be built.  The new hall could accommodate 1,000 diners at a banquet. 2

The Gazette story on Monday reported that J. J. Reynolds said, “All the records that were in the three safes the organization own are safe but numerous others in another part of the building were lost.”  He went on to say that “the Klan would have a new temporary home by Tuesday but it will be several days before definite plans can be announced.” 3

The community hall plan was never realized and the burned-out ruins continued to stand for many more months.

A New Building

Quoting The Champaign News-Gazette of Wednesday 9 January 1929: “Albert H. Flowers on Wednesday commenced foreclosure proceedings in the circuit court against the Zenith Amusement company, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, that owns the Illinois theater destroyed by fire more than a year ago.  The amount is $15,000.  A portion of the walls of the building are still standing and are in excellent shape.” 1 

The Champaign News-Gazette reported on 14 February, 1930, that the lot, along with the still standing wall containing an estimated half-million brick, was sold, under foreclosure proceedings by the master in chancery, to Henry B. Stein. 2

Plans to build the Tuscan Court, twelve units of townhouses in the remaining shell of the still-standing outer walls of the Illinois Theatre, were announced in The Champaign News-Gazette on 14 February 1930. 3 

To Start Building 12-Family Court.

New place will be constructed on historic grounds of famous Illinois Theatre.

With building operations to begin as soon as the ground thaws more, plans have been completed by Henry B. Stein, Champaign contractor, for construction of a new court to house 12 families at Railroad and Birch Streets, in Urbana, on the site formerly occupied by the old Illinois Theatre.

Each unit will be a five-room, two-story dwelling, completely fireproof and soundproof, with living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and with a winding staircase leading up to the second floor which will have two large bedrooms and a bath.

The court is to be known as Tuscan Court, the type of architecture being a modernized conception of the style found in the picturesque province of Tuscany in northern Italy, featuring an irregular roofline.

Walls of the structure will be built around a center court facing Railroad Street [now Springfield Avenue], will be 20 inches thick, designed to deaden street noises and to assist in maintaining even temperatures at all seasons of the year.  There will be a central heating plant using oil for fuel, and each home is to be equipped with stove and electric refrigeration in the kitchen.  A basement room will be finished off for laundry purposes.

Living rooms in the various apartments will have steel casement windows facing the landscape court.

The old Illinois theatre which burned about three years ago, after being known for many years as the home of good musical comedies and road shows, was later headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan, which owned the property when it was destroyed by fire.

The lot, together with a half-million brick in the walls still standing, was bought by Stein, when it was sold under foreclosure proceedings by the master in chancery.

Several of the units have already been leased, with occupancy to be taken on September 1.

The Champaign News-Gazette,

Friday 14 February 1930. page 2.

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Photo of Tuscan Court apartments circa 1968-70 courtesy Doug Houston.

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Tuscan Court

Photo by Perry C. Morris

The Tuscan Court stood for several decades and was eventually replaced by a more modern three-story apartment and office building.

Opera House Apartments

Photo by Perry C. Morris

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