VARSITY THEATRE

Originally 30 Main Street, Champaign
then 53 Main Street, Champaign

At 30 Main Street...

The Champaign Daily Gazette announced on 22 October 1906 that Stimmel & Morris Amusement company would be operating a permanent picture show in Champaign.  Films had been shown periodically at the Walker Opera House and at the West End Park Casino, but now the building recently vacated by the Peck & Lothrop millinery company at 30 Main Street was being fitted up specifically to show films.  The company promised clean and wholesome entertainment.

The first performance was Saturday evening, 27 October 1906.  2,000 feet of film was shown.  The Champaign Daily Gazette reported on Monday that the new Varsity Theatre had had a good crowd at Saturday’s opening night.  There will be shows daily, afternoon and evening.  The program will change twice each week.

A Champaign Daily Gazette story on 1 February 1908 announced the formation of the Varsity Amusement Company of Champaign.  The principals were Samuel Kahl, resident manager of the Walker Opera House, Julius Levin, manager of the Varsity Theatre, and L.F. Wingard.  Mr. Levin was named president and Mr. Kahl was named secretary-treasurer and general manager.

The status of Stimmel & Morris at this point is unclear.  Also unclear, is how long Mr. Levin had been managing the Varsity.  In addition to the Champaign Varsity, the company opened a second Varsity in the Cantner building on Main Street in Urbana on 6 February 1908.

Postcard image showing the Varsity at 30 Main Street on the left.

At the end of May, the Varsity Amusement Company bought out the  

on Neil Street at the head of Main, and closed it down.  Over the next few weeks, into early June, the Varsity was making major improvements to their theatre.  They increased the seating capacity and brought in the seats from the Illinois.  They also brought in the picture machine from the Illinois.  They completely redid the façade, opening up the front of the building by taking out the plate glass window and replacing it with three archways.

The Varsity had continued to prosper over the years, largely due to Julius Levin’s leadership.  They leased the east half of the Gilmore Building [51 Main Street, Champaign] for a second theatre they named the College Theatre in honor of the University of Illinois.  The grand opening of the College Theatre occurred at 7 o’clock on the evening of Thursday, 9 April 1909.

The growth of the First National Bank, however, would cause changes for the theatre at the end of 1909.  The bank was located adjacent to the theatre at 30 Main Street and wanted to build a magnificent new 5-storey building on two lots, thus displacing the theatre.  The Varsity closed this location and consolidated operations at 53 Main Street.

At 53 Main Street...

The Varsity went through a series of owners over the years.  Not all were reported in the newspapers.

A.J. Peters sold the Varsity to George Laenhardt of Gilman in March, 1915.  Mr. Laenhardt intended to put the theatre in the best condition and make “it one of the most inviting picture theatres in the Twin Cities.”  He planned to completely re-decorate and brighten the front.  He said "nothing but the highest grade films will be offered on the screen at my theatre."

Charles C. Pyle, lessee of the Rialto Theatre, purchased the Varsity.  Charles H. Clark was the Rialto manager and would also manage the Varsity.  Mr. Pyle took charge of the Varsity on 31 March 1919, and his first show featured William Farnum in “Fighting Blood.”  There was also a comedy and the sixteenth chapter of a serial called “The Brass Bullet,” a total of nine reels of film.

This was also the premiere of the new $3,000 organ that previous owner Paul Kruse had purchased.   The  Champaign Daily Gazette believed Varsity patrons would “welcome this instrument with open arms as music is playing a very important fact in the presentations of the “silent drama” these days and a great deal of the success of the picture depends on its musical arrangement and the music at the Varsity will receive the same careful attention that is given the selection of the photo plays.”

The Champaign News-Gazette reported in July 1926, that a Decatur man, Clifford E. Morrow, purchased the Varsity from Mrs. Henry Mitchell, taking possession 15 July.  Mr. Morrow had fifteen years in show business and his new manager, R.A.Morrison, had twenty years experience.  The theatre had been newly redecorated.

The “Talkies” Come To The Varsity

A Champaign News-Gazette story on 28 September 1930 announced that sound pictures would debut at the Varsity theatre on Tuesday, 30 September.  The Varsity’s first sound picture was “Seven Keys to Baldpate” starring Richard Dix.  However, as a sort of preview, Al Jolson in “Mammy” was part of the Sunday evening show.

A representative from the Talking Picture Corporation in New York City had spent the prior week installing the DeForest Phonofilm equipment.  Frank R. Mellinger, manager, completely renovated the theatre interior as part of the installation of the sound equipment that included a new perforated screen.  The walls were painted light green, and several hundred square feet of matching absorbent cloth was hung in rectangles on the walls to improve the house acoustics.   Matinee showings had been suspended during the installation, but the evening shows continued normally.

Postcard image of the Varsity at 53 Main Street. 

A small ad in The News-Gazette of Sunday, 23 August 1942, announced that the Varsity would be closing due to sale of the building.  They hoped to be back in business soon and urged patrons to watch for further announcements.

By 1943, the Varsity had already had multiple owners and would now begin a series of name changes.