Walker Opera House
By Perry C. Morris
The Walker Opera House was the first free-standing opera house in Champaign and Urbana. The previous ones (Barrett's, Busey's, Eichberg's, and Tiernan's) were all upstairs above other enterprises. The Walker was first known as the Armory. It was the home of Company D, the local militia, and a veteran's organization, Colonel Nodine post, G.A.R., also used the Armory.
The Armory was a brick building on the northwest corner of Neil and Park Streets in downtown Champaign. The building had been built with multiple uses in mind - a fully equipped stage was built at the end of the drill hall on the main floor and a gallery wrapped around the other three sides of the hall. Seating capacity was over 1,500. Common chairs provided the original seating. Completely movable, they were in sections of six or eight chairs attached by wooden strips screwed underneath the seats. Some small storefronts faced Neil Street. The ground floor was leased by George W. Davidson for his carriage and related supplies business. His show room was 60 x 120 feet and could hold 150 carriages. He also had a stock exchange on the ground floor where horses could be bought and sold.
The first performance at Armory hall was Monday, May 18, 1885, consisting of an exhibition drill by Company D and music by the Ninth Regiment Band. That Friday and Saturday, a May Festival of local musical talent was presented under the direction of Mrs. L. C. Garwood. Road shows soon followed beginning with the Kennedy comedy company in July.
After a few years, the old Armory became known as The Walker Opera House. Walker and Mulliken (undertakers and furniture dealers) operated the opera house. In 1889 the Walker Opera House company was incorporated with a total capital of $10,000. The President was F. W. Walker, Vice President was Charles Fenton Hamilton, Secretary was J. W. Mulliken, and the Treasurer was J. Hamilton. The manager was S. L. Nelson. Senator W. B. McKinley was a stockholder at one time.
The opera house building underwent many changes in its lifetime. The floor was originally level and the small storefronts were raised from basement level to street level. Before the Australian ballot came in use, these rooms were often used for election purposes. For many years, Miss Ray L. Bowman operated a jewelry store in these rooms.
Dances were frequently held at the Walker in the early days. Any type of activity would not have been unusual; including flower shows, band concerts, political speakers, temperance lectures, hypnotists, mind readers, plays, musical comedies, or a collection of vaudeville acts. After about 1905, a moving picture, and perhaps some illustrated songs would have been included. Many school commencements were held in the opera house. Some of the stars that appeared over the years at the Walker include: The Marx Brothers, Sara Bernhardt, Enrico Carouso, Eddie Foy, Will Rogers, and boxing champ John L. Sullivan.
Beginning on Monday evening, June 10, 1907, the Walker tried something new. The plan was to remain open all summer for the first time in its history, showing moving pictures each evening except Sunday. The people in Champaign and Urbana, as well as all over the country were "moving picture mad". At the time, there was little opportunity to see moving pictures in first class theatres with comfortable chairs, electric fans, and ample room, with no obstructions, between the spectator and the screen. The Walker management decided to give its patrons the opportunity.
The management had purchased the very latest motion picture machine on the market, (and the highest priced). A fine group of films were secured for the opening night, none of them having been shown in Champaign before. In addition to the motion picture, there were illustrated songs sung by popular local vocalists. The admission prices were 5 and 10 cents, and on the opening night of the venture, all ladies were admitted free.
The opening night brought spectacular success. The first show was given at 8:00 and it was necessary to give four more showings before all the patrons could be accommodated. More than 2,300 people passed through the doors of the Walker that evening.
Despite good crowds, or because of it, the Walker summer motion picture show ended after two weeks. Matt Kusell, manager of West End Park, purchased the machine and moved it to the park.
1907 saw a change in management at the Walker. Klaw & Erlanger, of New York City, leased the Walker beginning with the opening of the season September First. Klaw & Erlanger was a very powerful firm in the theatrical world, controlling most of the big theatrical companies and opera houses in the United States - there was not a big attraction on the road in which Klaw & Erlanger did not have an interest. Champaign was now assured of getting the very best of the dramatic and musical productions on the road.
The Klaw & Erlanger lease foreshadowed future theatrical development in Champaign. Marcus Heiman, treasurer of the Garrick theatre in Chicago, was the Klaw & Erlanger agent for the Walker. He became familiar with Champaign as a result of this association. Mr. Heiman would later become a principal in the F. & H. Amusement company which would build and operate the Orpheum Theatre.
In fact, Mr. Heiman would not be the only person associated with the Walker to affect theatrical development in Champaign. Charles Fenton Hamilton would build the Theatre Belvoir (later known as the Rialto) in 1915 and Samuel Kahl, one of the Walker managers, would be a principal with the Varsity Theatre to open in 1907.
A major renovation took place over the summer of 1912 - just two years before the Walker would close. All new stage equipment was installed and the theatre was re-lighted throughout. The house was redecorated with the floor being elevated, the orchestra enlarged, and new theatre seats and other furnishings installed.
The Walker's 1912-13 season opened Monday night, September 9, with high class vaudeville. The bill included: a Marimba Band; Harry Thompson; a skit by Wolf and Zadella; La Belle Clark and her wonderful dancing horse; Walkerscope - latest motion views. There were two complete showings every night at 7:30 and 9:00. Admission was 25 cents for the lower floor and 15 cents for a seat in the balcony. Daily matinees were at 3:00, prices were 10 cents and 15 cents. There were no performances on Sundays.
The Walker Opera House closed at the end of the season in 1914. The last vaudeville performance at the Walker was given on Saturday evening, April 25. The newspaper ads for the last week's performances advised theatregoers to watch for the opening of the "New Orpheum" when the new season opened in September.
The opera house building was razed, and the Hamilton Hotel built in its place. It eventually became a hotel for transients and the ground floor housed a Walgreen's Drug store until the building was destroyed by arson in 1977.
The remains of the ground floor were turned into a one-story office building. It housed Chicago Title for many years. It has been thoroughly remodeled and now houses Hamilton Walker’s restaurant, a name that pays homage to the building’s history.