"New" Art Theatre

126 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820

Opened 12 February 1987.  Closed 13 February 2003

The sale of the Art Theatre to new owner, John Manley, 30, of Champaign closed on Thursday, 15 January 1987. Manley was not a film buff, but had long been interested in the historic theatre building at 126 West Church Street. He had come close to not getting the building as Olsen - Lytle Architects had made an offer that had been accepted.  That deal fell through on 15 December, the day scheduled for the closing.  Manley’s real estate agent offered a bid to Paul Somers, the seller’s realtor, on 22 December.  After much back and forth including a marathon telephone session on New Year’s Eve, a deal was finally reached on New Year’s Day.  Manley raised the $90,000 with help from his parents, Lois and Warren Manley, owners of Rantoul Motors, and a loan from Eagle Bank in Rantoul.

Manley then had the challenge of remaking the theatre best known as an adults only theatre into an art-house.  “The word Art has some prejudice against it in Champaign, but the reputation of the building is going to change pretty fast,” Manley vowed in The News-Gazette. The newspaper reported he’ll keep the Art name “because of the very expensive sign hanging on the marquee,” but will bill the theater as “The New Art” to emphasize its transformation from an X-rated movie theater.”

The policy of the newly re-opened theater was to show high quality foreign films on Friday, Saturday, and Sundays. Ron Epple of the Expanded Cinema Group would program the films. The News-Gazette quotes Epple as saying “a movie house devoted to foreign films is something that’s needed in Champaign. A town this size deserves its own art theater.”

Manley recruited his college roommate, Tom Angelica, to help with the much-needed repairs and running the theater.  A tremendous amount of work was necessary before the building could be opened to the public. The black painted auditorium was repainted in blue and white, carpet was laid, and the seats were scrubbed then scrubbed again.  A new screen was hung, both the auditorium and projection room were rewired, and the projection equipment had to be re-installed. Don Walraven, a 44-year veteran of Kerasotes Theaters provided much needed advice and guidance in preparing the theater for opening. Amusingly, a week before opening, the only film available for testing the equipment was a trailer for “Meatballs” leftover from the porn days. The lobby was painted and papered, but the concession stand would not be operational for the opening.

The opening had been planned for February 5, 1987, but city inspectors required additional changes including upgrades to life safety systems. The revised opening date then became the traditionally inauspicious Friday the 13th.

“For movies, we’re in pretty good shape. That’s all we’re worried about initially,” Manley said.

The New Art Theater quietly opened on Thursday November 12, 1987. The initial film was Turtle Diary, a British film starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson who turn in stellar performances as two people who meet at the London Zoo and slowly discover a mutual love for the turtles and a desire for them to be free.

The Essential Ron Epple

Epple’s interest in film went back to the 1960s, claiming to have done everything with films but make them.  Early in his career, Epple was editor of Aardvark magazine in Chicago, a humor magazine first founded at Roosevelt University that was sometimes involved with film presentation. Epple came to the University of Illinois as a graduate student in English.  He again became involved in film presentation, founding the Expanded Cinema Group that showed films around campus.  At the Channing Murray Foundation, YM-YWCA, and the McKinley Foundation, large crowds could be found at his screenings sitting on folding chairs or the floor, looking up at a portable screen, watching a great variety of 16mm short films, both live action and animation, projected from the noisy machine. From the astounding 1973 Academy Award-winning Frank Film by graphic artist Frank Mouris, to the 1968 comic parody of Ingmar Bergman films, de Duva, local audiences enjoyed access to a vast world of creative film. The Art Theatre Guild also offered such fare through the midnight series Mike Getz was distributing out of Los Angeles, but only occasionally. The mainstay of the Art at this time was adults-only material. Still, important to note is that Epple and Getz were a part of the same scene, and so it is fitting that Epple eventually brings his programming talents to the New Art.

Epple offered classes in experimental film at the University of Illinois through the Unit 1 program at the Allen Residence Hall, even bringing interested students to the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan in 1974, exposing them to cutting edge filmmakers such as the documentarian Frederick Wiseman.

epple choosing film.jpg

Ron Epple 

News-Gazette Photo

Ron Epple was founder Picture Start, a company that distributed short films. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, independent live action filmmakers and animators whose work did not enjoy theatrical release supported by studios relied on companies like Picture Start. Often, cable companies like HBO and Cinemax aired short films.  According to animation historian, Karl Cohen, Epple released his first catalog in 1981 and it contained dozens of animated films. Sally Cruikshank, creator of the 1975 Quasi at the Quackadero, an underground favorite in its day, gives credit on her blog to Ron Epple and Picture Start writing, “Without distribution, these 70's animations would never have been seen.”

Ron Epple died in Chicago in October 1993.

(From Chapter 6, The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years.) 

One Year In

The News-Gazette ran an article by Paul Wood updating the theatre’s progress a year after the New Art opened.  Movies were now on a seven-day schedule increased from the initial four.  Recalling a time earlier in the eighties when the Orpheum Theatre tried showing art house movies, Wood says “The reason the New Art draws audiences when the Orpheum couldn’t, seems to be the programming skills of Ron Epple, who for nearly two decades has scheduled sometimes-exotic movies just off the University of Illinois campus.”  Epple has found that “Art need not be subtitled; of the 65 films shown in 52 weeks, 41 had been in English.”

Change at the New Art Theatre

The theatre was thriving heading into the 1990s, but sadly suffered major losses. John Manley, only four years after purchasing the building and business, died on December 6, 1991.

Ron Epple went on to other adventures in the film business.  He died in Chicago in October 1993.

Tom Angelica, the remaining partner in the New Art venture was now running the theater. He had been brought into the business by his friend John Manley to help restore the theater, he developed a deep appreciation for art house cinema and kept the Art going on his own for another twelve years. Ownership of the building passed to Manley’s parents in July 1993, but Angelica programmed the films and operated the theater.

Tom Angelica in the New Art Theatre auditorium.

News-Gazette photo. 

New Seats

The film programming at the New Art may have been high quality, but the seats were not.  They were worn out and uncomfortable because they did not match the pitch of the floor. The seats reportedly came from the Urbana Cinema when it was twinned and remodeled.

The Friends of the New Art Theatre formed with the mission of raising funds to improve the seating.  The group included oncologist Dr. David Graham, film student Craig Fischer, Betsy Hendrick of Hendrick House, UIUC College of Communications’ Nancy Casey, Krannert Art Museum’s Maarten van de Guchte, and Elizabeth Delacruz, sister of John Manley. Together, in 1995, they enlisted the help of Roger Ebert and held a $40.00 a ticket fundraiser that yielded $14,000.00.

The event began with hors d’oeuvres and conversation in the Link Gallery between the Krannert Art Museum and the Art and Design Building on the University of Illinois campus. It continued with the premiere of Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite at the New Art. Bravo cable channel and Time-Warner Cable provided the film.  Roger Ebert gave a presentation after the film and was quoted in the News-Gazette:

“In 1958, I saw Citizen Kane at the Art Theatre, and it changed my life by demonstrating to me that film was an art as well as an entertainment. Then I saw movies at the Art by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, the British ‘angry young men’ and the American ‘new wave.’ As a film critic, it all sort of started for me there, and I guess I’m coming back to say ‘thanks.’”

A second fundraising event was held in September 1996.  Bravo and Time-Warner again provided films: The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera, a documentary about filmmaker Sam Fuller with Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch talking about Fuller’s influence on their careers.  The event included a screening of Fuller’s 1959 The Crimson Kimono, a story of two detectives investigating the murder of a stripper.  As a bonus, audience members were entered in drawing to win a leather jacket.

After three years of effort, the Friends of the New Art Theatre raised enough money to install new seats in January 1998.

The New Art Theatre Ends

Lois Manley, John Manley’s mother and still champion of the New Art, passed away.  Three years later, with that tie gone, the family sold the building to David Kraft in 2001. Tom Angelica still operated the business but no longer had the emotional connection that perhaps reduced the necessity for the New Art to generate large profits.  Attendance at the Art had been in decline for a year as GKC’s Beverly Cinemas and Goodrich’s Savoy 16 had been regularly programming art and independent films.  A financial dispute between David Kraft, the building owner, and Tom Angelica, the theatre operator, had been going on for at least a month. Eventually the distributors would no longer do business with the Art.  Miramax would not ship the long-promised Chicago that had been scheduled to open on February 14th.  The end for the New Art came on Thursday, February 13, 2003.