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Park Theatre

126 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois

The Park opened 12 November 1913 and closed in 1958.  It reopened shortly thereafter under new ownership as the Art Theatre.

A partnership of Bert Cooper and Isaac Kuhn resulted in the first purpose-built movie theater in Champaign, the Park.

Perhaps it was the magic of the image on the screen, maybe the lure of the movie business, or the possibility of making money, but something inspired Bert Cooper to open a new moving picture theater in Champaign.

Bert Cooper was born 7 November 1872 in Watson, Illinois, the son of Frank and Luro Cooper. His brother Mark was the proprietor of Cooper’s Cafeteria at 63 North Neil Street. It was located between two moving picture theaters, the Lyric at 57 North Neil and the Crystal at 69 North Neil.  The cafeteria later moved to Hickory Street.

Isaac Kuhn always advocated for the growth and prosperity of the city of Champaign.  Kuhn’s family owned the Joseph Kuhn and Company department store.  It was Kuhn who financed the construction of the theater on property he had recently purchased in the expanding business district on West Church Street.  Kuhn would later build the Lincoln Building on Main Street across from the department store.

Cooper traveled the Midwest studying theatres looking for an ideal design.  He worked with architect Lewis E. Russell of Chicago to design the theatre incorporating many of the ideas Cooper had found in his travels.  Russell is known as one of the designers of the White Castle prototype shop.  He designed houses and apartments.  His largest building was the 1923, Beaux Arts style Wedgewood Hotel, an 11-story flatiron building at Woodlawn and 64th Street, Chicago. The Wedgewood has since been demolished.

The Park Theatre opened the evening of 12 November 1913. One of the local bands, Frison’s Orchestra, furnished the music. One of the pictures had never played in any motion picture theatre. None of the others had played more than five times. The Champaign Daily Gazette said “this is indicative of the general high class and freshness of the pictures that will be shown at the Park.”

The Champaign Daily News reported the names of the films: a two-reel civil war drama, The Veteran, two comedies, Two Men and a Mule and A Small Town Act, and an educational film, The Milk We Drink.  Bert Cooper had hired John Meyer, an expert picture operator from Chicago.

The theatre held six hundred patrons plus standees. There were four screenings on opening night, yet scores were turned away. The Gazette said patrons “were delighted both with the general attractiveness and comfort of the new theatre and with the high class entertainment given”.

The Champaign Daily News reported many details on the design, decoration, and construction of the new theater building in downtown Champaign, highlighting its safety features.

“Precaution against fire was taken with the installation of a panic bolt on rear door, which is the principal fire escape. The only latch holding the door is one that will give way with the pressure, such as crowding against it, so that a jam at the door is impossible. A sirocco fan operated in the stage end of the house forces 10,000 cubic feet of air into the theatre every minute. Through ducts the air is forced along the aisles, and is emitted at frequent openings. Twenty-four ventilating ducts in the ceiling insure fresh air.”

“White and gold is the finishing of the interior. The 600 seats are of mahogany, and are the only wood in the construction of this fire-proof house. The rows of seats are 32 inches apart. The operating room is of reinforced concrete and steel.”

 “Two lavatories, one for men and one for women, have been placed in the inside lobby, which will be finished in white and gold, to correspond with the auditorium. The outer lobby will be finished in imported tile, and a glass canopy, lighted at night by green lights, will extend for twelve feet in front of the theatre, and to the edge of the sidewalk.”

“A fountain light that will be run constantly at night, will tell of the location of the photoplay house.  Admission for the entire house will be ten cents. The erection of the house has not only been at considerable expense, but has been after months of careful investigation.”

“Two rooms in the front of the building will be used for commercial purposes. The front of the second floor will be used for office rooms, and the third floor will be fitted for apartments.”

A pipe organ had been planned for the theater, but was not yet operational when the Park opened in November.  A special celebration was held Thursday, 19 February 1914, for the premier of the organ.  The Last Days of Pompeii was the feature film. English cathedral organist Cyril Dadswell played especially composed music for the occasion.

The pipe organ was located near the ceiling, on the front wall, for better acoustic properties. The console was located in the “pit” in front of the stage. The two-manual organ manufactured by the Hinners Organ Company of Pekin, Illinois, cost $3500.

Bert Cooper had hired Miss Louise Hale of St. Louis through the Dickson School of music to be the permanent organist.

A “fountain” light on the roof, marking the location of the theater had been in operation since the beginning. During the summer of 1914 an additional huge electric sign was installed.  It was designed by F. H. Gillingham, the display manager for Joseph Kuhn & Company. PARK, in script letters, jutted out some 12 feet over the sidewalk. The P and the K were ten feet high and the A and R were six feet. A total of 153 5-watt tungsten lamps illuminated the letters.  The frame and sign weighed about one ton.

The Park Theatre announces that it had secured the Champaign County franchise for Paramount Pictures. This included such stars as Mary Pickford, Dustin Farnum, Hobart Bosworth, Edna Goodrich, Jas. K. Harkett, Blanche Walsh…Margaret Anglin…John Barrymore…and others.  The policy also changed to the Paramount pictures running for two me.

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In early 1917, the theater business was sold to Dr. H. C. Kariher and Clarence Walton.  C. L. Hunter, manager of the Lyric Theatre, 57 North Neil, in a building owned by Dr. Kariher,  succeeded Mr. Cooper as manager.

The 1920 Federal Census shows Bert Cooper married to Ethel W. and living in Peoria, Illinois.  They moved to Los Angeles, California, where Bert engaged in the real estate business.  Bert died 29 April 1944 in Hollywood, and is buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Champaign, Illinois, next to his parents, brother Mark, and Mark’s wife.

G. H. Meyers, manager of the Park Theatre since June 17, 1918, bought the business from Dr. Kariher and Mr. Walton on 23 January 1922. Meyers had worked at the Park since it opened. Isaac Kuhn continued to own the building.

Gayle H. Meyers was a charter member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators Local 482, having joined on 15 August 1917.  Mrs. Bertha Belle Meyers had passed away from pneumonia in 1922.  Their son Edwin “Eddie” Meyers became a projectionist, joining the union in 1943.  He died 3 December 2012.

Charles C. Pyle and Harry McNevin owned the Rialto Theatre company. The Rialto Company managed the Rialto Theatre (owned by the Russell Family) and the Virginia Theatre. Pyle had been the driving force behind the establishment and construction of the Virginia Theatre in 1921.

Pyle and McNevin purchased the Park Theatre business from Meyers and took possession on Monday 22 October 1923. Miss Frances Lemmon, former cashier at the Virginia, took charge of the Park box office. Pyle and McNevin continued the Park policy of showing high grade pictures.

Much more content to come

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