The New Orpheum Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a City of Champaign Landmark.
BUILDING: The architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, consisting of brothers George and Cornelius, designed the Orpheum as a scale model of the opera house at Versailles. The Orpheum interior style is French renaissance and Baroque and the exterior is Classical Revival. There were 754 seats and 18 loge boxes. The general ontractor was Wiley Brothers of Chicago, with a contract price of $65,000 - $70,000. Work began in late May of 1914. Mandel Brothers of Chicago had the contract for the draperies and other interior decorations. The scenery was done by Sosman & Landis of Chicago.
OPENING NIGHT: Owners Joseph M. Finn and Marcus Heiman held the grand opening on 19 October 1914. The evening began with Larry J. Powers leading the New Orpheum orchestra playing the "Illinois Loyalty," followed by "America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Mayor Oliver B. Dobbins gave a short speech complimenting the management for its elaborate and expensive effort to provide such an elegant theatre. Five high class vaudeville acts were presented, headlined by singer and comedian Herman Timberg. The evening closed with moving pictures.
ORGAN: A two manual, four rank Kimbell Orchestral Unit Organ, opus 6667 was installed in the summer of 1922. A loge box was converted to an organ loft. Additional redecorating was done and a new screen and projection equipment were installed. The new organ premiered with the feature film Slim Shoulders starring Irene Castle. Admission price was 22¢ plus tax for adults and 10¢ for children.
After years of no use, the organ was last played in the Orpheum on 28 July 1969. It was then dismantled and taken to its new home at the John Dickinson High School, Wilmington, Delaware.
RKO: RKO, which stands for Radio – Keith – Orpheum, took over operations of the Orpheum in 1930. They also operated the Virginia Theatre. RKO eventually installed the Orpheum's first concession stand in the curve of the grand staircase leading to the balcony.
12 March 1939 marked the last of the regular schedule of vaudeville and stage shows at the Orpheum. Live performances would continue to periodically appear on the bill such as the WLS National Barn Dance on 30 January 1952 and Good Night Ladies by Avery Hopwood on 11 & 12 February 1952.
A natural ventilation system was part of the original construction, but the Orpheum would close over the summer. Air conditioning was first installed in July 1948.
MODERNIZATION: C.A. Petry and Sons of Champaign were contractors for the $50,000 - $60,000 project that included covering the façade with blue aluminum siding, installing a new outdoor box office, and new glass front doors. Inside, the lobby was remodeled, with a new concession stand in the grand foyer. New carpeting was installed throughout and the restrooms and air conditioning improved. The auditorium was painted featuring dark blue with gray accents and new gold curtains. A new screen, projection equipment, and improved sound system were installed. The refurbished theatre reopened in grand style with Sean Connery as James Bond in You Only Live Twice on 27 June 1967.
KERASOTES: The George G. Kerasotes Corporation purchased the Orpheum in May 1971 and began operating it as part of their regional chain. The corporation later split and the Orpheum became part of GKC Theatres. There were rumors in 1976 that Kerasotes would add a 'twin' in the adjacent building.
Bob and Gail Perry ran the Orpheum as a revival-art house for 13 months beginning in 1982 with Kerasotes continuing the art house policy from April 1983 to late 1984 when they returned to first run films. The last movie was a horror film, April Fool’s Day, shown on 3 April 1986.
MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES: As the main vaudeville stop in Champaign and Urbana, and a member of the famed Orpheum Circuit, the Orpheum played host to many famous vaudevillians, including Trixie Friganza, Red Skelton, Harry Houdini, Chic Sale, Virginia Sale, Will Rogers (1915), the Marx Brothers (1918), Bill Robinson (1921), Jack Benny (1922), Bob Hope (1928), and Burns & Allen (1929). A few of the now classic films shown during the Orpheum’s long history include Birth of A Nation (1916), Intolerance (1917), City Lights (1931), Gone With the Wind (1940 and 1968), Dumbo (1941), A Streetcar Named Desire (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and A Hard Days Night (1964).
ORPHEUM PRESERVATION CAMPAIGN: The Preservation and Conservation Association (PACA) took the initial steps to preserve the Orpheum in August 1989 when it became know that the City of Champaign was interested in the Orpheum and adjacent building as a site for a possible parking deck. The sale of the Orpheum to the city was completed in January, 1990. The city allowed PACA volunteers to spend Saturday 7 July 1990 removing the aluminum façade to reveal the original look of the building and assess damage. That same month, theatre consultant Michael Hardy suggested a children’s museum as a possible use for the building. The cities did not have a children’s museum and there were already several successful performing arts facilities in the area.
CHILDREN’S MUSEUM: The Discovery Place, Inc. held its first board meeting on 5 February 1992 and then bought the Orpheum building from the city on 7 July 1992. Planning, publicity, and fundraising was in full swing throughout 1992 including the first annual Kids Building Fair in June and a fine arts and antiques auction fundraiser in November.
The grand opening of the new children’s science museum in the storefront spaces occurred on 27 December 1994. 280 people attended the first day and over 1500 visited during the first week of operation. 1994 was the 80th anniversary year of Champaign’s New Orpheum Theatre. Architectural Spectrum was the project architect and Michael Markstahler was the general contractor.
ORPHEUM CHILDREN’S SCIENCE MUSEUM: The museum name was changed in April 1997 to “The Orpheum Children’s Science Museum” to better reflect the heritage of the building.
Phase II remodeling was completed in October 2000. The entrance lobby, grand foyer and mezzanine were restored for use as exhibit spaces. Architect: Architectural Spectrum. General Contractor: New Prairie Construction. An Illinois First grant from the State of Illinois provided $60,000 toward the cost of the remodeling. A grant from the United States Geological Survey provided money for the suite of new exhibits called Waterworks.
Phase III remodeling consisted of major restoration work in the auditorium. Deteriorating plasterwork was recast and installed. The room was painted in a multi-color scheme that is reminiscent of the original colors. Architect: Architectural Spectrum. General Contractor: New Prairie Construction. Funding was provided by a $250,000 grant administered by the National Park Service and matching funds that included a substantial legacy from the estate of Bruce C. Creamer. The completed project was inaugurated with a wine gala fundraiser in October, 2009.
Compiled by Perry C. Morris, Copyright © 2017