The "New" Orpheum Theatre
346 North Neil Street, Champaign, Illinois
originally 22 Hickory Street, then 346 North Hickory Street.
The New Orpheum Theatre in 1914
The New Orpheum Theatre was declared a local landmark by unanimous vote of the Champaign City Council on 17 March 1998. It was the first property to be so designated under the City of Champaign's new historic preservation ordinance.
The New Orpheum Theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 28 February 1991. It is a significant work of the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, representing their early use of the French inspired interiors which later became the signature style of their grand movie palaces of the 1920s. It is also significant for its many years as the premiere Vaudeville house in Champaign and Urbana.
The origins of the Orpheum Theatre in Champaign date back to a skating rink called the Coliseum on the northwest corner of Washington and Hickory Streets.
During the summer of 1905, it was transformed into a theatre. Opening night was Monday, 28 August 1905. The Coliseum bills included vaudeville, illustrated songs, and moving pictures.
The second season brought new management and with it a change of name. The Crescent Amusement Company was the new lessee.
This image of Hickory Street is from a postcard. The old Flatiron building is on the left. The Orpheum is the white barn-like building.
They did $1,500 worth of remodeling that included elevating the floor before formally opening on Monday 26 November 1906. The theatre closed after the Saturday 23 February 1907 well before the end of the season.
Sam Surazal, a pianist at the Crescent, was not ready to give up on the theatre and managed to have it back open for Monday’s performance. He made the Crescent a success and, for the 1907-08 season, began booking through the Western Vaudeville Manager’s Association who were affiliated with the Orpheum Circuit.
This image of the Orpheum is looking east from the intersection of Washington and Neil Streets.
Marcus Heiman, manager of the Walker Opera House, leased the Crescent beginning with the 1909-10 season. When the season opened on Monday, 13 September 1909, the theatre was now named the Orpheum. The Walker would present legitimate shows while the Orpheum would present vaudeville along with illustrated songs and moving pictures. The Orpheum had been elaborately decorated and extensively remodeled over the summer with the addition of all new seating, an upgraded ventilation system, new retiring rooms, and all new scenery.
The end of the theatre came in late May of 1912. The building was condemned and subsequently torn down leaving the Walker Opera House, also operated by Finn-Heiman, as the only live show house in Champaign. They would consolidate operations at the Walker, presenting legitimate shows the first half of the week and Vaudeville the second half, until they built a new theatre in 1914.
A drawing of the Orpheum from an Illio.
Marcus Heiman and company
Marcus Heiman began his long career in the theatre at the age of sixteen as a program boy in the Grand Opera House in his home town of Syracuse, New York.
He was a hard worker with a keen business sense and soon advanced to assistant treasurer and then treasurer of the Syracuse theatre. He made a good name for himself, was liked and trusted, and was promoted to supervising box office and other financial details for his employers’ (the Shuberts) chain of theatres.
At age twenty-two he went to Chicago to become treasurer of the Garrick Theatre. As a side venture, Heiman leased the Walker Opera House in Champaign which played road productions. This was so successful that he resigned his position at the Garrick and acquired another theatre, the Fuller Opera House in Madison, Wisconsin. Within a few months he had partnered with Joseph Finn, who brought additional capital, and organized the Finn & Heiman circuit, continuing to acquire additional theatres. 1
By August, 1913, Finn & Heiman had seventeen theatres. In addition to the Walker in Champaign, the number included a second local theatre, the Illinois Theatre in Urbana. 2
They came to operate and control more than twenty theatres in the Midwest, becoming the fourth largest vaudeville organization in the United States.
When the Finn & Heiman Circuit became a part of the Orpheum Circuit in 1920, Mr. Heiman was elected one of the vice-presidents. In 1923, at age thirty-nine, he was elected president of the 50-million-dollar Orpheum Circuit. 3
When Marcus Heiman leased the Walker, he brought some people to Champaign that he had worked with in Syracuse. Samuel Kahl was the local manager and Allen J. Duncan the stage manager. Heiman booked better quality shows at the Walker and the theatre prospered. In addition to the Walker, Heiman and Kahl leased the Crescent Theatre in 1909 and began calling it the Orpheum. 4
Allen J. "Al" Duncan
Kahl stayed about three years then left for Chicago to establish the Western Vaudeville Association whose business was booking acts for Heiman. 5
Over the course of several years, large mobs of students would invade downtown Champaign, at least once a year, intent on entering a theatre to see a show for free. It was up to the theatre staff to fight off the invading students, and it really was a fight with the theatre staff typically armed with clubs. 6
Once during Heiman’s tenure at the ‘old’ Orpheum – the building that had started life as a skating rink – someone in the mob thought of a stunt that would stop the show. Taking advantage of the open space between the original floor and the raised, sloped floor, the group procured a barrel of shavings, added some kerosene, set it alight, then rolled it under the audience. Al Duncan smelled the smoke and found the fire. He then rolled the still burning barrel out into the street with the performance continuing as though nothing was amiss. 7
This incident prompted Marcus Heiman to build the only theatre he would ever actually own. Wanting to do what he could to prevent a similar incident, he thought that while he was in the theatrical business, he really ought to own a theatre. 8
When the “Old” Orpheum was condemned and closed in May 1912, Finn and Heiman consolidated operations at the Walker and began planning to build a new Orpheum Theatre.
Architects of the Champaign Orpheum Theatre
George Leslie Rapp (left) and Cornelius Ward Rapp (right) principals in the firm Rapp and Rapp. The Orpheum was one of their early theatre designs. They designed over 400 theatres during their career.
19 October 1914.
The evening's performance began with the New Orpheum orchestra, under the leadership of Larry J. Powers, 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, who had appeared a few weeks earlier at Chicago's Palace Theatre.
The evening closed with moving pictures.
Newspaper ad for the grand opening.
On the bill:
Versatile comedian and former star of "School Days",
Lucas & Fields The real movie queen,
Little Lord Roberts Diminutive entertainer,
Laughlin's Dogs, and
In the summer of 1916, Herr E.T. Behr painted murals in the lower panels around the auditorium ceiling. From the Champaign Daily Gazette, 16 August 1916:
New Orpheum Opens Monday
“The crowning glory of the decoration, however, is the completion of twenty-two panels, painted by a famous mural decorator, Herr E.T. Behr. The subject of these panels is taken from Winston Churchill’s novel, Richard Carvel, and depicts “Dorothy Manners’ Garden Party,” on that memorable afternoon when she bade Dick Carvel and her friends adieu and left for London and her amorous conquests there. Richard Carvel and “Dolly” Manners are depicted in the left hand panel over the proscenium. The figures are garbed in Colonial costumes with powdered wigs and all the beauties of that quaint period. An indirect lighting effect illuminates these paintings. A finer subject matter could not have been found for the decoration of this exquisite little theatre, for the soft colorings and costumings harmonize splendidly with the ivory and old rose color scheme of the house.”
There are no photos of the Orpheum murals, but this sample of Ernest Theodore Behr's work was uncovered in the Illinois state capitol building.
The picture is an Associated Press photo from The News-Gazette, 12 September 2000.
Since opening in 1914, the vaudeville acts and silent films were accompanied by a piano and a small orchestra. Perhaps influenced by the recent opening of the Virginia Theatre (December 1921) with it's mighty Wurlitzer, the Orpheum installed its own organ.
A two manual, four rank Kimbell Orchestral Unit Organ, opus 6667 was installed in the summer of 1922. One of the loge boxes was converted to an organ loft and additional redecorating was done. A new screen and projection equipment were installed.
The new organ was premiered on Labor Day, 1922. The feature film was 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, where it was incorporated into the existing organ.
The crew from Dickinson High School who removed the organ left this note on the wall of the organ loft.
Cover of a magazine that tells the story of the organ at the John Dickinson High School. The organ pictured is not the organ from the Orpheum.
Quite a bit of redecoration was done in the summer of 1935.
The auditorium was washed from top to bottom before being repainted in grey and ivory. This is apparently when the ceiling murals were lost.
The Orpheum roof sign can be seen over Uncle Sam's shoulder in this 1942 parade promoting war bond sales. Joe Mego is portraying Uncle Sam and Nancy Nicoll is a Minute Girl.
The seats were reconditioned and new seats installed in the loge boxes.
800 yards of new carpet in a rust and black pattern was laid and all the curtains were cleaned. The lobby was redecorated in antique ivory. The ladies’ rest room was refinished in ivory and orchid.
All the props were reconditioned and the dressing rooms were repainted.
Outside, a new sign was installed on the roof.
A New Marquee
This marquee was installed by RKO in late 1936 or January 1937 according to a story in The News-Gazette of 10 February 1937. It was describing installation of a new marquee at the Virginia and noted that a similar, but smaller, marquee had recently been installed at the other local RKO house, the Orpheum.
Target Earth was a science fiction film released 7 November 1954 and Unchained was released 19 January 1955. However they played the Orpheum 21-24 September 1955.
This picture was taken in conjunction with a fire at the neighboring Alexander Lumber Company on Friday night 23 September 1955, probably by a News-Gazette photographer covering the fire.
A capacity crowd was in attendance at the Orpheum on the night of the Alexander Lumber fire. The theatre's power was cut leaving the audience in darkness. Someone opened an exit door and flames could be seen. A panic was averted by an Orpheum employee shouting out that nothing was wrong; the fire was at Alexander's, not the Orpheum.
This photo, taken in the RKO Orpheum Theatre foyer, appeared in The News-Gazette on Wednesday 20 September 1944. It accompanied a story announcing the reopening of the theatre for the season. The story described some of the $9,000 in redecorating that had been done since the theatre closed in June. The seats had been varnished and recovered, the draperies all cleaned, new carpet laid, and the entire theatre repainted. The fish pool with sculpture and live plants is shown in front of one of the ten new hand-painted “futuristic flower panels” by the Hans Teichart company. Two usherettes, Laura J. Keeler (L) and Jean Stogdell (R), are shown flanking the pool. Photo courtesy of the University Of Illinois Archives (002704).
This photo is undated, but Zulu was released in June 1964.
This night-view shows the newly installed aluminum covering on the front (west) facade. This "modernization" was part of a trend to update downtown buildings.
Unfortunately, this installation destroyed much of the original details making restoration (not yet done) considerably more expensive.
The 1967 Remodel
RKO did a major remodel of the Orpheum in 1967. On the exterior, they added blue aluminum siding to modernize the original classical revival styling. New glass entry doors were installed along with an exterior box office.
Full-page newspaper ad
The north and east walls were painted featuring a huge mural with the theatre's name on the east (rear) facade of the building. The removal of buildings on the block fronting Fremont, Washington, and Walnut Streets made the east facade quite visible to traffic on the one-way north-bound Walnut Street.
Inside, the lobby got new paneling and lighting and the grand foyer got new paint, lighting, and a large concession stand. New carpeting was installed throughout. The restrooms were remodeled.
The auditorium was repainted and featured dark blue and gray accents. New gold curtains were hung on the stage.
A new screen and projection equipment were installed and the sound system upgraded. The air conditioning system was improved.
The evening's celebration began with a banquet for RKO and local dignitaries at the Ramada Inn that included a short speech by the Mayor complementing RKO's faith in the downtown.
The festivities continued at the Orpheum for the ribbon cutting and downstate premiere of the new James Bond film "You Only Live Twice." Searchlights and a brass band added to the Hollywood feel of the evening.
Mayor Lafferty is seated by "Bond Girl" Paulette Alcorn.
RKO officials, Champaign Mayor, and local Orpheum manager cut the ribbon opening the remodeled RKO Orpheum Theatre. Left to right, Marty Perlberg, Tom Crehn, Mayor Virgil Wikoff, Milt Samuels, and local manager James Flavin.
Kerasotes Theatres, based in Springfield, Illinois, bought the Orpheum, taking control on 25 May 1971.
A frame from a trailer played before the feature film.
Other Kerasotes theatres in Champaign - Urbana were the Virginia, Coed I and II, the Cinema, Twin City Drive In and the Widescreen Drive In.
That left five theatres not operated by Kerasotes: the Rialto, the Fox, the Thunderbird, the Art, and the Illini. Kerasotes eventually leased the Rialto and the Thunderbird. They added the Fox after it had been bought by Mann and made a four-plex in the north wing of the Country Fair mall.
In 1985, the company split, with GKC Theatres retaining the Champaign and Urbana houses.
At one time, there were rumors that Kerasotes had plans to "twin" the Orpheum by adding a second auditorium in the adjacent warehouse building.
Bob and Gail Perry
Bob and Gail Perry leased the Orpheum in 1982 and ran it as a revival - art house for about 13 months.
GKC continued that policy from April 1983 to late 1984 before reverting to first and second run films.
The last movies
GKC Theatres (Kerasotes) closed the Orpheum after the last showing of April Fool's Day on 3 April 1986.
This photo shows the building with a For Sale sign. Alber's Barber Shop continued to operate for a time as the last business in the three storefronts.
Saving the Orpheum
In 1989 the City of Champaign was looking to add parking downtown and took out an option on the Orpheum and adjacent warehouse.
The Preservation and Conservation Association (PACA) called a public meeting to gage interest in saving the Orpheum. It was well attended and results were encouraging.
The purchase of the theatre and warehouse from GKC Theatres (Kerasotes) was completed in January 1990. PACA continued to lobby the city to preserve the theatre. The City agreed to maintain minimal heat in the building to prevent further damage.
Meanwhile, PACA continued grass-roots organizing to get the word out that the building was worth saving. They hired theatre consultant Michael Hardy to do a feasibility study of the Orpheum. Hardy had spent several years in town as director of the Krannert Center For The Performing Arts. His suggestion was that it could be an ideal place to start a children's museum. An amenity lacking in the cities and there were already several successful performing arts facilities in the area.
The City allowed 45 PACA volunteers to remove the blue aluminum facade on Saturday 7 July 1990 to reveal the original look of the building and assess damage
The Orpheum and adjacent warehouse after the aluminum was removed.
Another thing PACA did was research the history of the Champaign Orpheum Theatre and submitted a nomination to the National Park Service for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It was listed on 28 February 1991..
The City of Champaign razed the adjacent warehouse building in February 1991. In the fall of 1991, the theatre façade was cleaned and painted and the marquee given cosmetic repairs by PACA. A trompe l’oeil cornice reminiscent of the original was painted above the theatre entrance.
The Discovery Place
The Discovery Place, Inc. held its first board meeting on 5 February 1992.
The first Discovery Place fundraising/publicity event – a Kids Building Fair – was held on 20 June 1992 in the parking lot in front of the Orpheum. The Kids Building Fair continued as an annual event co-sponsored by PACA and the children’s museum for about twenty years. Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois
awarded the 1994 Richard H. Driehaus Educational Program Award to the Kid’s Building Fair co-sponsors.
Flyer for the 13th annual Building Fair
The first major fundraising event – “Bids For Kids” – a fine arts and antiques auction was held in the Robeson Building on 20 November 1992.
The Champaign City Council voted to approve the sales contract of the Orpheum Theatre building to The Discovery Place, Inc. on 7 July 1992.
The new museum would start small with the exhibits in the three storefront spaces and office/rental space on the second floor. Since 1994 was the 80th anniversary year of Champaign’s New Orpheum Theatre, it became the goal to open the museum before the year ended.
Architectural Spectrum was the project architect and Michael Markstahler was the general contractor.
Work began, utilizing a lot of volunteer labor, especially for demolition work. The store fronts and upstairs boarding house had little of historic value outside of doors and trim. None of the old lathe and plaster was usable and all the wiring and plumbing needed to be replaced. The old wooden floors upstairs were saved when possible. The upstairs double-hung windows and the downstairs show windows were saved. However, most of the multi-paned transom windows and all the exterior doors had to be re-milled.
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. Pictured is the line outside waiting for the doors to open for the first time.
The Orpheum Children's Science Museum
While having a form of the word discover in the name to reflect the science focus, hand-on learning, and exploration intended by the founders, it wasn't necessarily intended to be permanent.
The name of the museum was changed in April 1997 to not only differentiate the museum from others using the word discover, but to better celebrate the heritage of the building as a part of the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit.
Carolyn Baxley with two members of the Rapp family, descendants of the Orpheum architects.
Phase II remodeling was completed in October 2000. The entrance lobby, grand foyer and mezzanine were restored for use as exhibit spaces.
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 funded the suite of new exhibits called Waterworks.
Pictured: The restored grand foyer showing some of the exhibits in the Orpheum Children's Science Museum.
A lot of restoration work in the auditorium was able to be completed thanks to a matching earmark facilitated by Senator Richard Durbin.
Work included shoring up some framing, plaster repairs that included a lot of recasting the missing/deteriorated molded work, and a beautiful new paint job in colors reminiscent of the era.
Two photos of the wine gala that was the first event in the refurbished auditorium.
The auditorium set up for a wedding. Wedding set-ups were determined by the bridal planners and varied considerably.
Final curtain for the Orpheum Children's Science Museum
The Orpheum Children's Science Museum depended heavily on admissions income and closed early in the COVID 19 pandemic.
The theatre building was sold in 2021 to preservation architect Christopher Enck. He soon began refurbishing work on the building.
A new life
Work continues in the Orpheum. The second floor space, originally a boarding house and later offices for the Children's Museum, now has refinished floors and fresh paint. It houses the offices of Clanin Marketing.
Downstairs, the worn carpeting has been removed and some of the walls repainted. The auditorium is being refitted as an event space including some platforming to level out the sloped floor. A theatrical curtain has been hung to close off the proscenium arch.
The space is available for rentals for weddings and other events. An open house on 28 February 2023 showcased the space to potential renters (and anyone curious about the recent changes).
The Orpheum as it looked on Friday evening 24 February 2023, while the local arts organization, 40 North 88 West, held its annual fundraiser 'Untitled' in the Orpheum.
The marquee had just had fresh lamps installed.
Photo by Cary Frye from his Facebook page. Cary has taken thousands of photos documenting the ever-changing face of Champaign, Urbana, and the University of Illinois.