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 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.
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 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
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
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
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.
Article from The Champaign Daily News of 10 April 1909
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
Opening night program courtesy of the Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library
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
Newspaper ad for the formal opening. From The Champaign Daily Gazette,
21 February 1908.
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
as she appeared
in the play Nancy Brown
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
Chatterton, Heiman, and Shubert
1908 - 1912
The parade of management at the Illinois Theatre began soon after the new theatre opened. Just weeks following the grand opening, an article in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 26 May 1908 announced that George W. Chatterton, who had signed a long-term lease before the house opened, had sub-let the Illinois to Marcus Heiman, who was the current lessee of the Walker Opera House. Mr. Heiman’s lease would take effect with the beginning of the theatrical season in the fall. Samuel Kahl, who had been the local manager of the Walker for the past two seasons, would become the local manager of the Illinois. 1
In mid-June 1908, George W. Chatterton was still actively planning for the Illinois. He had signed a 5-year contract with William Jones for baggage handling. Local manager, E. E. Rea, had received a letter from Mr. Chatterton on the 15th that informed him that the season would open August 31, with a repertoire company for fair week. 2
The management change had been denied by Mr. Chatterton when reported in May by the Gazette. It was formally announced to the public in a story in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 28 August 1908, that officially confirmed that Marcus Heiman had leased the Illinois Theatre and Samuel Kahl was now resident manager of the Illinois. This story also reported that Allen J. Duncan, stage manager at the Walker since Marcus Heiman had taken control, would then become stage manager at the Illinois. 3
Local manager Samuel Kahl and stage manager Allen Duncan were hard at work with final preparations in the days leading up to the Morris-Thurston company’s week-long stay at the Illinois which began August 31, coinciding with fair week. 4
The stockholders of the Illinois Theatre Company held their annual meeting on Monday, 1 March 1909, in Busey’s bank according to a Champaign Daily Gazette story. More than 300 of the 360 outstanding shares were represented and they were all quite pleased with their investment. They decided to pay a dividend of a little more than 6 per cent. Directors elected were George M. Bennett, C. N. Clark (who would serve as president), T. B. Thornburn (vice-resident), M. W. Busey (secretary), and George W. Busey (treasurer). 5
The Champaign Daily Gazette reported on Wednesday, July 28, 1909, that Marcus Heiman, who had leased the Illinois the prior year, and was the current lessee of the Walker and the Crescent theatres, was down from Chicago conferring with his local manager, Samuel Kahl. Mr. Heiman said "we are going to get ready to give Champaign the best … theatrical attractions the coming season the city has ever enjoyed, regardless of the cost. We are going to completely rebuild the Crescent and change its name to the Orpheum. We will take out the seating now used there and replace it with all opera chairs. We are also going to remove the boxes which were put in last season, will redecorate the house, make the ventilation complete, put in retiring rooms for both sexes, equip the stage with an entirely new outfit of scenery and in fact do the dozens of things which are necessary to be done to make this one of the best vaudeville houses in the state." 6
A story in The Champaign Daily Gazette of 20 September 1909, filled in the public on what was happening at the Illinois that season by announcing that the Shubert Brothers had leased all the houses controlled by George W. Chatterton and would take over management of them beginning October 4. That included opera houses in Springfield, Danville, Urbana, Bloomington, and Lincoln. They would all be under the direct supervision of Herbert E. Duce, manager of the Garrick theatre, Chicago, who had charge of the Schubert’s western interests. 7
C. N. Clark, representing The Illinois Theatre Company, on October 19, 1909, distributed a total of nearly $1,000 in dividends to the various stockholders. The rapidly growing financial strength of the company was noted. 8
From the 24 March 1910 issue of The Urbana Daily Courier: “Harry Chapelle, until recently the manager of “The Honeymoon Trail” company, will take the management of the Illinois theater in this city and the Grand theatre in Danville next season. J. Earl Moor will be retained as local manager of the Illinois and will also have charge of the bookings in Danville. A letter from H.C. Duce, manager of the Garrick theatre in Chicago, who has charge of all western Schubert houses, assures Mr. Moor that no local changes will be made.” Fifty big attractions were to be at the Illinois during the winter and Manager Moor thought prospects for the next season were bright. 9
There were more management issues reported in September 1910. George W. Chatterton sub-leased the Illinois to The Comstock Amusement Company of New York, which were acting on behalf of the Shuberts, and notified local manager J. Earl Moor to turn the house over to the Comstocks. He was to turn over his books to the manager of the Grand Opera House at Danville, the nearest representative of the Comstocks. In effect, the Shuberts surrendered their lease on the Illinois that was to have run until July 13, 1913. 10
Here’s the backstory: Chatterton had gone to New York some time ago and persuaded the Shuberts to take over leases on his theatres in Urbana, Danville, Bloomington, and Springfield. He had tried to convince them to also take his house in Lincoln, but they declined as it wasn’t making any money. Soon after the deal had been struck, the Grand Opera House in Bloomington was destroyed by fire. Chatterton didn’t have the money to rebuild so he could make good on his contract with them. He was able to get a little help from the Shuberts, but did get the financing he needed from a syndicate, and Chatterton turned over the new house to them under a separate contract. The Shuberts then unsuccessfully sued for possession of the new theatre. The Shuberts claim Chatterton violated his contract and canceled their contract on the Illinois. 11
“The Comstock company is backed by the Shubert Booking Co. of New York. As soon as Manager Moor was apprised of the cancellation of the lease, he wired the Shubert Booking Co. asking advice regarding his leasing the Illinois theatre in his own name. He received a wire stating that there would be no change in the season’s bookings and that the company would book other first-class productions here.” In response to inquiries from managers of companies about their bookings, Mr. Moor advised them to send in their contract to be signed. 12
The Champaign Daily Gazette reported on a lawsuit in its December 1, 1911 edition: “Through its attorney, H.I. Green, the Illinois Theatre company has commenced suit against George W. Chatterton, et al for $10,000, in a suit just filed in the circuit court for the January term of court. Only the praecipe for summons has been filed. It is understood the stockholders are holding Chatterton for about $4,600 rent due. The affair is a mix-up between the Shuberts and Chatterton, their troubles now being aired in the district court in Springfield. The Shuberts claim Chatterton "double crossed" them in leasing the house to other parties and Chatterton claims he was double crossed because the Shuberts did not retain he and his son as managers of his properties.” 13
The Urbana Daily Courier updated readers on the lawsuit on January 6, 1912: “In The $10,000 assumpsit suit of the Illinois Theatre company against Geo. W. Chatterton, sr., George W. Chatterton, jr., Margaret L. Chatterton, the Sam S. Shubert Booking Agency and the Comstock Amusement Co., Judge Philbrick, in circuit court, late Friday afternoon, set aside the order allowing a petition for removal to a federal court, filed by the S.S. Shubert Co., and the suit was dismissed to that corporation.” 14
“A trial by jury followed and a verdict was returned assessing the theatre company’s damages at $6,016.48. Judgement nil dieit against the Comstock Amusement Co. and the Chattertons was rendered, all having defaulted. This case is not to be confused with that of the Chattertons against Shubert and Comstock companies, which on Thursday was removed to the federal court.” 15
The Champaign Daily Gazette reported that the board of directors of the Illinois Theatre Company, at its meeting on 3 February 1912, decided to end their relationship with the Comstock Amusement company of New York, as managers and booking agent for the Illinois Theatre. Going forward, the board would manage the business of the playhouse themselves. “The directors were dissatisfied with the way the New York firm had been managing the Illinois. The Comstock company is in arrears to the owners for two years rent, judgement for the sum of $6,000 having been rendered against it. The company is also obligated to pay G.W. Chatterton of Springfield $1,900 for back rent. There are also three lawsuits pending against the Comstocks.” 1
The current president of the Illinois Theatre Company was C. N. Clark and the secretary/treasurer was M. W. Busey. The directors retained the present local manager, J. Earle Moor, as manager and booker for the Illinois. Mr. Moor soon sold his shoe shop in Urbana to devote all his time to theatrical bookings. 2 Mr. Moor, who had just returned from Chicago, reported that the chances of booking any legitimate shows for the remainder of the season were very poor. it was then suggested that the Illinois would present vaudeville exclusively for the remainder of the season. 3 Mr. Moor then immediately went to Chicago to book acts for the Illinois. One of his visits was to the Chicago offices of the Sullivan and Considine vaudeville circuit where he hit paydirt. 4
The Urbana Daily Courier ran a story on Monday, 9 February 1912, headlined “Illinois Booked On Best Circuit.” It could likely be argued then, as now, whether the Sullivan and Considine Circuit was “better” than the Orpheum circuit, but S&C definitely booked high quality acts as did the Orpheum circuit. At this time, vaudeville acts were playing in Champaign at the local Orpheum Theatre, booked through the Western Vaudeville Manager’s Association, which, for all practical purposes, was a division of the Orpheum Circuit.
The theatre situation in Champaign in 1912 played a part in the decision to bring vaudeville to the Illinois. The ‘old’ Orpheum theatre in Champaign at the north-west corner of Hickory and Washington Streets in Champaign was being forced to close due to a city ordinance requiring any building used for theatrical purposes be of brick construction. 5
The first line of the Courier article was both news and a call to civic boosterism for Urbana residents: “The Illinois Theatre will become a vaudeville house on the Sullivan – Considine Circuit Monday, February 19, and in the meantime, it will be the duty of every resident of this city to advertise the fact in every way he can.” 6 Quoting the Courier article: “This decision was made at a meeting of stockholders, held in the Elk’s club rooms at 4:30 o’clock Thursday [8 February 1912] afternoon. Manager Earl Moor, having just returned from Chicago, reported that the Sullivan – Considine agency was desirous of securing the Illinois and the meeting had hardly adjourned before a telegram was on its way to the Chicago offices of that arm, notifying them to include this site on their circuit. No better recommendation for the class of bills is needed, for everyone who knows anything about theatricals knows of Sullivan and Considine. The University will be canvassed and there is little doubt that the name of the booking agency will work like magic among the students.” 7
The stockholders calculated that it would take $510 a week to run the theatre. They realized the new vaudeville plan might lose money early on. In order to cover expenses while building the audience, the stockholders established a reserve fund of $750 that they would contribute to based on the number of shares they owned. 8 The directors knew the Orpheum in Champaign was clearing $10,000 annually. This fact increased their confidence that vaudeville at the Illinois, a larger, nicer, and better equipped theatre would be successful. 9 The article said the prime interest of the men heading the vaudeville movement was giving Urbana citizens a place to go for amusement. They would be satisfied If the plan at least broke even. 10
The Sullivan and Considine Circuit was desperate to increase their business outside of the east coast and had become aggressive in their fight with the Western Vaudeville Association who were entrenched in the Midwest and west. “During Manager Moor’s conference with their Chicago agent, the latter agreed to give bills that will kill local competition. They book no cheap acts. A five-act bill will be furnished three times a day, matinee and two evening performances, at the Illinois. Illustrated songs will be omitted and one reel of moving pictures, containing two subjects, will be shown at each performance. Price of admission will be 10 and 20 cents.” The acts booked for Urbana would split the week with Decatur. 11 The Champaign Daily Gazette reported that “it will be necessary to have an audience of 500 people at both evening performances or 750 all day in order to make the venture a paying one. 12
The Illinois Theatre began its run as a vaudeville house with the matinee on Monday, February 19, 1912. The Champaign Daily Gazette reported: “A capacity audience witnessed the performance which was creditable from start to finish, much care and diligence has been exercised by the management of the Illinois in presenting a first bill which is of sterling merit and also a drawing card. The management has succeeded admirably. The bill for the first part of this week features the Models de Luxe, which are fine beyond any shade of criticism. The light effects produced on the models are not only an innovation in their line but enhance the beauty of the pictures wonderfully. 13
Newspaper ad for first S&C vaudeville. Scan from The Champaign Daily Gazette, 16 February 1912.
The Gazette story continued: “It is the intention to play vaudeville at the house only, changing the bill bi-weekly, Mondays and Thursday. If a certain number of people attend each performance the venture will be a success and when once the “Illinois habit” is formed, it will undoubtedly prove a good habit. The theatre is owned by Urbana business men who are determined to make the vaudeville try-out a “sure go.” With the closing of the Champaign Orpheum in June this will leave but one vaudeville house in the Twin Cities and it is the intention to keep the Illinois open throughout the summer months.” 14
Scan from The Champaign Daily Gazette, 20 February 1912
The Champaign Daily Gazette reported in its Saturday, June 8, 1912, edition that Illinois Theatre manager J. Earle Moor, had left that day on the Big Four bound for New York, the ideal place to book the best vaudeville acts and road shows possible. He planned to spend a week to ten days booking attractions to appear at the Illinois in the next season that would include both vaudeville and legitimate shows. 15 Not a full month later, The Champaign Daily Gazette ran a story on 5 July 1912, that announced Marcus Heiman, current lessee of the Walker Opera House, had closed a contract to lease the Illinois Theatre for a term of three years to begin immediately. Mr. Heiman had leased the Illinois for a single season some years earlier. J. Earle Moor, Illinois manager, was offered the opportunity to continue in the position. 16 Heiman’s plan was to book the road shows in the Illinois while the Walker would have the vaudeville attractions. 17
The Walker Opera House closed permanently in spring 1914 at the end of the 1913-14 Vaudeville season. It was razed and the Hamilton Hotel built on the lot. Marcus Heiman’s new Orpheum Theatre became the local home for vaudeville when it opened on October 19, 1914.
Boxing, Wrestling, and Road Shows
A few entrepreneurs had experimented with opening storefront movie theatres in both Champaign and Urbana prior to the opening of the Illinois. In Champaign, the Varsity opened in 1906 and became quite successful. A couple other storefront theatres in Champaign, the Illinois Vaudeville and the College, were short-lived and were soon purchased by the Varsity. Other early moving picture theatres in Urbana included the Novelty (1906), Theatorium, and Urbana Varsity. None of these lasted very long. In Champaign, the Crystal (Neil) opened in 1910, and the much more successful Lyric opened in 1911 and lasted until 1921.
Larger theatres were opened in the teens. In Champaign, the Park was a purpose-built, freestanding moving picture theatre that opened in 1913. Just across Church Street, the Belvoir (later renamed the Rialto) was a very large theatre for road shows and movies that was built into most of the ground-floor space in the adjacent Russell and Mayfield buildings in 1915. The New Orpheum was built in 1914. It specialized in vaudeville, but also showed films, typically a one-reeler after the live vaudeville acts. In Urbana, the Colonial was another purpose-built, freestanding moving picture theatre that opened within weeks of the Park in 1913. It had good success for a few years then waned. The Princess, for moving pictures, was created out of two storefronts in the Busey Block. It opened in 1915 and was quite successful for decades. All these were competing with the Illinois for patrons. Then at the end of 1921, the Virginia, booking both road shows and moving pictures, opened as a major competitor.
A series of management changes began at the end of 1914. Marcus Heiman had opened the Champaign Orpheum, so did not renew his lease of the Illinois. At that point, Joseph F. Kuechler was the Illinois Theater manager. He moved to the Empress Theatre in Decatur. 1
One of the earliest times a wrestling match was held at the Illinois was September 2, 1915. Many more were held many times over the next years. They were almost all promoted by University of Illinois wrestling coach Paul Prehn who was even a contestant in some. This continued after the Zenith Amusement Company took over the Illinois in November 1923. At that time, Prehn & Brown (his wrestling promotor partner) had a contract to stage eight boxing matches and Zenith would honor those contracts. A new contract was entered into the following year despite opposition by some board members. It was different though in January 1925. The election of a new board changed the majority to those opposed, so the contract was not renewed. 2
(from 1929 Illio)
Wrestling ad scanned from Champaign News-Gazette, 31 August 1915
Wrestling ad scanned from Champaign News-Gazette, 1 December 1920
Captain Sidney N. Cohen was a member of a musically talented family. He was the eldest son of Nat and Addie Cohen and brother to Sol and Julius Cohen.
In its 5 January 1916 edition, The Urbana Daily Courier reported that the Illinois Theatre Company had named Captain Cohen as manager of the theatre. Cohen, along with Garrett H. Baker, Illinois treasurer, had gone to Chicago to book attractions for the remainder of the season. They were looking to bring several first-class stock companies to the Illinois. Captain Cohen would manage the Illinois as a side-line, continuing to operate his real estate and insurance business. 3
Sidney N. Cohen
(scan from Elk's program, 1910)
The Illinois Theatre’s 1918-19 season opened Saturday night, 23 November 1918 with “Over There.” J. Byron McCormick who had managed the theatre in 1915 was back as manager. A story in The Champaign Daily News announced that an entirely new heating plant had been installed. Automobile parking would be available on the ground between the theatre and the Flatiron Building and the street car line managers have assured Mr. McCormick that plenty of cars would be available for Champaign patrons. 4
The story included eight other attractions Mr. McCormick had booked for the season including Maude Adams in “A Kiss For Cinderella,” and Otis Skinner in his latest play. 5
“That the Illinois Theatre is assured of the best there is in the way of attractions next year.” is how The Urbana Daily Courier began their story on 5 June 1919, in which they reported the announcement that the Illinois had contracted with Klaw & Ehrlinger and Shubert to book the theatre for the upcoming season. 6
In late August, The Champaign Daily Gazette reported that the Illinois would open for the season on Monday September 1, 1919. The Illinois was now managed by the K.M.W. Amusement Co., with A.F. Blasé as local manager. Edward J. Morgan, the secretary and vice president of the company, had been in town helping Mr. Blasé supervise the work of preparing the theatre for the season including redecorating and relighting. The Gazette reported that he had “just come here from Chicago where for some time he has been connected with the Riviera theater. He has been in the theater business all his life and comes well equipped to give Urbana and Champaign a thoroughly up-to-date amusement house.” 7
Scan of Over There ad from The Urbana Daily Courier, 22 November 1918.
Scan from The Urbana Daily Courier, 19 November 1918 showing a scene from Over There.
The policy for the season called for no dark nights, as “an excellent program of the best motion pictures is to be provided” on evenings without a road show. The article listed twenty-three shows already booked including “Maytime,” and some of the well-known performers included Maude Adams, Mrs. Fiske, May Robinson, Ruth Chatterton, Nora Bates, and the Dolly Sisters. 8
A new amenity for patrons wishing to drive their automobile to the theatre was that parking would be available in the large vacant lot between the theatre and the Flat Iron building. The lot entrance was on Main Street, and a watchman would be on duty during performances. 9
Alan J. Duncan of Champaign leased the Illinois Theatre according to a story in The Urbana Daily Courier of 15 January 1920. Duncan had once been stage manager of the Walker Opera House and, for the past 12 years, was stage manager of the Orpheum Theatre. His plan was to open February 10 with the popular New York production of “Maytime.” Duncan said: “From now on there will be nothing but the best offered at the Illinois. Everything that savors of cheapness will be eliminated. The Twin City people are to be given absolutely the best in dramatics and I believe they will appreciate the fact. All my bookings will be first class – not some good and some otherwise, as formerly.” 10
The Urbana Daily Courier reported in its April 22, 1920, edition that “M. W. Busey, at a master’s sale this morning purchased the Illinois Theater for $18,733.66, to take a decree of foreclosure for $10,365.31 and judgement for $7,488.30, both held by Busey’s bank.” Mr. Busey was the only bidder and he planned to lease the Illinois for theatrical purposes. The Illinois Theatre company had the right to redeem the property within 15 months. 11
Allen J. Duncan
(scan from newspaper microfilm)
Maytime ad scanned from The Urbana Daily Courier, 6 February 1920.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Photo of Tuscan Court apartments circa 1968-70 courtesy Doug Houston.
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 in 1999.
Opera House Apartments
Photo by Perry C. Morris