203 West Park Avenue, Champaign, Illinois
Compiled by Perry C. Morris © 2018
Opening night was Wednesday evening, 28 December 1921. The first performance was a live stage show of the hit mystery The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood.
The following three nights began the regular program of silent films. The feature film was Tol’able David starring Richard Barthelmess. The program also included a Pathe Revue, The Virginia Symphony Orchestra (H.M. Weber, conductor), International News Weekly, George May playing the Hope-Jones Orchestral Organ, songs by Genevieve Cadle and Clinton Brown, and a short film, The Boat, starring Buster Keaton.
The architects were nationally known theatre specialists C. Howard Crane and Kenneth Franzheim out of Detroit. They were assisted by local architect George Ramey.
The stage is 36 feet deep with some floor traps. The metal gridiron is 56 feet above the stage floor and the proscenium is 56 feet wide by 28 feet high. Dressing rooms are located both backstage and under the stage. A sunken orchestra pit containing the organ console is directly in front of the stage.
The exterior was designed to resemble an old Italian pavilion. The architect called for yellow and red striped awnings and trailing vines planted on the storefront roofs to heighten the effect.
The interior is in the Spanish renaissance style. The plasterwork includes designs of shields and heraldic symbols featuring busts of the Spanish adventurers Cortez, Hernandez, and Alvarado, and the Christian arms of Ferdinand and Isabella. The ceiling dome was originally finished in silver leaf.
An extensive remodel project in 1939 enclosed the openings in the walls between the lobby and the auditorium for better sound quality. The transition from outer lobby to inner lobby was changed which required casting plaster reliefs to match existing ones. The outer lobby ceiling, inner lobby walls and ceiling, and the auditorium ceiling were all repainted. 1800 new seats were installed.
In August 1955, the entrance and lobby were remodeled at a cost of $20,000. The work included new doors and ticket booth. James J. Murno was the architect and the contractor was C.A. Petry and Sons.
An extensive lobby renovation was done in 2010 using a gift from Michael Caragher in honor of his mother.
A 2012-13 major renovation project made many repairs, cleaned and restored plasterwork and the long-forgotten ceiling murals, brought back the paint scheme, restored or replaced light fixtures, and many other improvements. Accessibility was improved including adding elevators. All new seating was installed bringing the capacity to 1463.
A two manual, eight rank Wurlitzer Hope-Jones orchestral organ was installed during original construction at a cost (likely exaggerated by C.C. Pyle) of $50,000. George May was the first staff organist. There were upgrades in 1924 and 1928.
After several years of no use, some restoration work was done by David Junchen and Larry Chace in 1966. They added stops and replaced the blower, giving the organ additional windpower.
Warren York began ongoing restoration work in 1988. J.D. Divilbiss, Dave Lammers, Chris Anderson, and Bill Streeter have worked with Mr. York who became the unofficial house organist for many years.
John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders removed the organ in December 2010 to begin a major rebuild. The Wurlitzer Opus 490 was enlarged from a Style 185 Special to a Style 216. This included the addition of 122 new pipes. The rededication concert was held 31 March 2012. Multiple donors including a $1,000,000 lead gift from Jill Knappenberger paid for the project.
Selected historic movies and live performances
The Last Warning (March 1929, Starred Laura LaPlante and was the first talking picture at the Virginia. It used the RCA Photophone system that cost $20,000 to install.)
The Robe (Tuesday 24 November 1953, the first CINEMASCOPE film at the Virginia)
A few of the live performers include Otis Skinner, dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Ethel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead in The Little Foxes, Will Rogers, and Jack Dempsey.
Owners and Operators
The Virginia was the brainchild of C.C. “Charlie” Pyle. When he ran out of money, he partnered with contractor A.W. Stoolman. A stock company was formed to raise additional capital. Mr. Pyle ran the Virginia until moving on to other ventures.
RKO began a long-term lease of the Virginia on Sunday 25 May 1930. The first picture shown was Lovin’ The Ladies starring Richard Dix. Also on the program were three acts of RKO Orpheum vaudeville.
The Julian Family (A.W. Stoolman’s daughter Elizabeth Virginia) took control of the Virginia on 1 June 1967, and hired Grant Martin as manager. RKO relinquished control to the Virginia Theatre Company on 30 June.
Kerasotes bought the Virginia Theatre on 1 August 1968. It became the 62nd theatre in their chain and their 6th in Champaign-Urbana. The price was rumored to be $25,000 down and $1,000 per month for 10 years. The first movie shown by Kerasotes was For Love of Ivy starring Sidney Poitier.
On 13 February 1992 Kerasotes, then known as GKC, closed the Virginia as a regular commercial venue for movies. The last movie shown was Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin.
David and Sharon Wyper managed the Virginia from 1992 to 1996. They booked many popular acts proving “there’s life in the old girl yet!” These acts included Alison Krauss, Theodore Bikel, Mark Roberts, the Sinfonia da Camera, Ollie Watts Davis and the University of Illinois Black Chorus, many nationally known Christian artists, and touring companies of Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line, and Grease.
The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company was formed in 1992 specifically to present shows at the Virginia. Their first production was Music Man on 4-7 June. The company is still producing shows.
The Virginia Theatre Group formed in 1995 to own and operate the theatre. This non-profit group bought the Virginia in December.
The Champaign Park District took ownership of the Virginia Theatre in 2000. They have steadily made improvements to the building and increased programming.
Principal sources: News-Gazette and Courier articles, Chris Anderson, Steven Bentz, Leonard Doyle, Paul Wills, and the Champaign County Historical Archives.