Virginia Theatre

203 West Park Avenue, Champaign, Illinois 
Opened 28 December 1921
This page is under construction.  More of the Virginia's story is being added.
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Photo by Kenneth Eugene Frederick.  Posted to the Champaign Urbana History Facebook page by Amanda Dickerman Van Ness 1 August 2014

The Beginnings

The Virginia Theatre was the brain-child of Charles C. “Charlie” Pyle More than two years before the Virginia opened, he was thinking about building a large modern theatre in downtown Champaign.

  

A story in the Sunday, 4 January 1920 Champaign News-Gazette announced that Pyle, manager of the Rialto Theatre, along with Henry L. Jones and T.E. Hughes, were partnering in the promotion of a combination hotel and theatre building to be erected on property owned by E.M. Burr on North Hickory Street.1

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The building was planned by C. Howard Crane, an architect from Detroit, Michigan, with experience in both hotel and theatre design.  Crane’s plan for the 160 by 160 foot, twelve-story building calls for an arcade running through the block from entrances on both Hickory and Fremont Streets.2

The two principal features of the building would be a hotel with 330 rooms, all with baths, and a 2,200-seat theatre.3  There were to be seats for 1,200 persons on the main floor and 1,000 in the balcony.4  Every aspect of the theatre was planned to be thoroughly modern including a stage large enough to accommodate any production on the road.  The theatre’s mezzanine floor would have a large lounge room and men’s and women’s rest rooms. Music would be provided by a large pipe organ and a symphony orchestra. 6  Theatre and hotel lobbies and exterior-facing store rooms would be on the ground floor, with a dining room and women’s waiting room on the second floor, and a ball room large enough to accommodate 650 on the third floor.  A barber shop and a coffee shop, and perhaps a bowling alley, would be located in the basement.  “The ventilation is to be taken care of by the refrigerator system.” 7

A banquet was held at the Beardsley hotel the following evening to fully present the plans and to rally support for the project.  Both The Daily Illini on 6 January 1920 and The Champaign News-Gazette on 7 January 1920, covered the banquet/meeting.  Lantern slides of a rendering of the building’s exterior and other features were shown and explained. 8

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Rendering of Pyle's proposed combination hotel and theatre building designed by C. Howard Crane.

Daily Illini 6 January 1920

The Champaign News-Gazette’s coverage outlined the dire need for more hotel rooms in Champaign.  It cited the combined hotel accommodations as less than 300 rooms with the hotels full every night and noted that traveling men arrange their sales trips such that they spend the night in nearby cities because they are never sure of getting a room in Champaign.  During Homecoming and big football games the Illinois Central and Big Four place many sleeping cars on sidetracks and dozens of private residences open to meet the demands.  The article also notes that Champaign is losing out on potential convention business due to lack of rooms and that is why the proposed building will include a large ball room.9

Professor J.M. White, University supervising architect, and president of the Chamber of Commerce, represented the University district at the meeting,10  said student numbers are increasing every year.11  He also cited the inadequacy of the movie house facilities for a city the size of Champaign and said “the development of the movie rests with greater facilities and many road shows are forced to pass up Champaign because there is no stage in Champaign large enough for the attraction.”12  The large stage of this modern theatre would make it possible for better plays to be brought to town.  Professor White, citing the great increase of students at the University, was convinced the theatre would be a success.13  He felt the business furnished by University people and the summer tourist trade would contribute to the project’s success.  He said he felt strongly that this beautiful structure would  “increase the value of all other downtown property and will be a source of pride to every Champaign citizen.”14

E.B. Smith, president of the Champaign Rotary club, G.L. Moore, a travelling salesman and resident of Champaign, 15 Manfred Savage, L.B. King, F.L. Moor, and News-Gazette publisher D.W. Stevick all spoke strongly in favor of the project.16  Rev. R.F. Flynn, pastor of St. Mary’s church said it pleased him to see things grow and believed the war was bringing more and more people to the University every year and was strongly in sympathy with the new hotel.17

The hotel would be leased to an operator for an annual rental of $120,000 guaranteed by $200,000 invested in furniture by the lessee.  The lease must be secured for the project to move forward.18

Mr. Pyle calculates the total cost of the project will be $1,065,000.19  He expects to borrow $800,000 and would like to raise the remaining $265,000 locally, $50,000 of which has been committed.  Pyle was optimistic that the money would be raised within a week.  The money needed to be raised quickly as the option on the Burr site was set to expire on February 15.20

We do not know the reasons the project did not come to fruition.  

Pyle Revised His Plans

Charlie Pyle certainly didn’t give up on his idea for a large, grand theatre for Champaign.  He did revise his plans though.  He continued working with C. Howard Crane who designed a smaller building with just a theatre.  Pyle also partnered with Richard Porter, another manager of the Rialto theatre.  Articles on Sunday, 5 December 1920, in both the Daily Illini and The Champaign News-Gazette announced the location they chose for the new theatre.

 

From The Champaign News-Gazette: “Charles C. Pyle and Richard A. Porter, who have been so successful in Champaign as lessees and managers of the Rialto theatre have purchased two lots at the southwest corner of Park and Randolph streets.”  “This corner gives them 132 feet by 132 feet.”  “With their knowledge of the motion picture business and their ability to obtain the best pictures, they have made the Rialto one of the leading picture theatres of Champaign and, no doubt, the citizens of this city will welcome the opening of their new theatre.”1

Construction was expected to start in the spring and be completed in the fall.  Seating capacity would be 1,800 with no balcony.  The fully equipped stage would be the largest in Champaign and Urbana making it possible to accommodate the larger traveling productions which could not be booked in the existing theatres.  Moving pictures were to run on a regular basis.  All the road shows which had been booked in the Rialto Theatre would be presented in the new theatre.2

Construction Begins

Architect C. Howard Crane of Detroit and George Ramey, Champaign architect providing local supervision, presented the plans of the new theatre to the contractors for bid preparation Thursday, 14 April 1921.1  Work was slated to begin May 16.2

The $400,000 contract to construct the new theatre building was awarded to A.W. Stoolman of Champaign on Friday, 29 April 1921.3

The theatre is a new theatrical enterprise of Charles C. Pyle and Richard A. Porter, lessees and managers of the Rialto Theatre. They will continue to manage the Rialto when the new theatre begins operation.4

The Urbana Daily Courier reported in the 7 June 1921 edition that a petition signed by 48 property owners and nearby residents objecting to the erection of the theatre’s heating plant was filed with the Champaign city council.  Theatre management explained to the council that precautions were being taken to prevent the smoke being a nuisance.  A smokeless boiler was to be installed and the 60 foot smoke stack would be set well back from the street.  The council took no action on the petition.5

A story in the 30 July, 1921, edition of the Urbana Daily Courier reported that contractor A.W. Stoolman has purchased R.A. Porter’s interest in the new theatre building.  Mr. Stoolman, in addition to being the general contractor, then became Mr. Pyle’s partner in the venture.6

A load of steel was being delivered that day and workers were completing the cement work of the foundation.  It was hoped the theatre would be open by Thanksgiving day.7 

 

Mr. Pyle was to remain as operator of the theatre under the new management.8

The newly formed Stoolman-Pyle Corporation announced in the Thursday, 4 August, 1921, edition of The Champaign News-Gazette that all remaining contracts for construction of the theatre had now been let.9  Excavation work and erecting the steel beams forming the superstructure had been rushed pending awarding the final contracts.10

Mr. Pyle stated that he would shortly be announcing a list of stage and screen attractions he had booked for the new theatre.11  Mr. Pyle, who would continue as manager of the Rialto, went on to say that the principal reason he chose to build a new theatre was because the Rialto could not accommodate the theatre-going crowds, especially the weekend crowds.  Another factor was the anticipated increase in the number of University students.12

 

The second load of terra cotta arrived at the construction site Thursday 25 August 1921, and would soon be installed, giving the public their first opportunity to see the architectural style of the building.13

A.W. Stoolman

General Contractor and Owner

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Almond Whitfield Stoolman was born September 14, 1876, at Paxton and the family moved to Champaign when he was still young.  He graduated from Champaign High then from the UI in 1897.  He was a General Contractor with offices at 21 E Armory.

His company built at least 54 out-of-town buildings and 51 in Champaign-Urbana.

A few of the local buildings are:

Champaign Masonic Temple now known as the Lodge-On-Hill

University Baptist, McKinley Presbyterian, and Emanual Memorial Episcopal churches.

Smith Memorial Music Hall

Urbana Lincoln Hotel

Urbana Free Library

Willis Department Store – later JC Penney and most recently The News-Gazette.

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Charles Howard Crane
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H. Kenneth Franzheim
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George Ramey

The Architects

C. Howard Crane was born in 1885 in Hartford, Connecticut.  He is likely one of the least formally educated architects of his time.  He dropped out of high school after two years.  A year later, in Detroit in 1904, he bluffed his way to a job as a draftsman at the architectural firm of Albert Kahn.  By late 1908 Crane had opened his own firm.

He designed numerous office buildings but specialized in theatres, designing more than 50 theatres in Metro Detroit and 250 nationwide.  Crane designed Detroit’s Fox Theatre, opening in 1928, for William Fox, founder of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.  He also commissioned Crane to design the Brooklyn Fox in 1927 and the St. Louis Fox in 1929.

Commissions dried up with the Great Depression in 1929 so Crane moved to London and designed many small theatres throughout Britain.  He maintained offices in Detroit, returning once or twice a year until WW II. He died in London in 1952.

H Kenneth Franzheim was born 28 October 1890 in Wheeling West Virginia.  He earned a BA from MIT in 1913 then worked for Boston architect Welles Bosworth until 1917.  He then served two years in the US Army Corps at Ellington Field outside Houston, Texas, as a first flight lieutenant.  Franzheim became a partner of C. Howard Crane in 1920, working for him in Chicago, then in Boston.  He began independent practice in 1925 in New York, specializing in designing large commercial buildings and airports.  Franzheim first worked in Houston on a 1928 collaboration with Alfred C. Finn on the design of the thirty-seven-story Gulf Building.

Franzheim practiced in New York and Washington, D.C.  He returned to Houston in 1944.  He became Houston’s foremost commercial architect, mostly in a modernistic style, until his death in March 1959 in Mexico City where he had also established an office.

George Ramey earned his Architecture degree from the University of Illinois in 1912.

Some of Ramey's buildings include: Champaign City Building, Robeson Department Store, Newman Hall, and 134 W Church built as a Piggly Wiggly and was used by Parkland College and has been various restaurants for many years.

Ramey was the local Supervising Architect on the Virginia project.

Opening Week

The Virginia Theatre opened on Wednesday, 28 December 1921.

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A special 16-page souvenir program covering the entire week was given out.  The cover is shown here courtesy of the Champaign County History Museum. 

"VIRGINIA THEATRE" IS UNUSUAL NAME

 

"The management did not announce the name until a few days ago.  It was its desire to get away from the usual names given to the large theatres now being built, and hope that the name "Virginia" will immediately become popular.  It assures you that it will always stand for high class, clean, moral entertainment.

The beautiful Virginia Theatre opens Wednesday, December 28th.  This play house will be the pride of every person in the Twin Cities."

That is a brief article from The Champaign News-Gazette special supplement of 25 December 1921.

What it doesn't include is that A.W. Stoolman's daughter was named Virginia as was his mother.

The Champaign News-Gazette had run an 8-page supplement on 25 December.

The First
Stage Show
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Photo from the Broadway production of The Bat.

The First Motion Picture Program
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1939 Remodel

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Kerasotes

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