346 N. Neil Street,
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One of the most beloved landmarks of the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, the Orpheum Theatre has a long history.
The first Orpheum Theatre was built in 1904 as a vaudeville venue, and taken over by Marcus Heiman in 1909. In 1912, it was torn down with the promise that Heiman would erect a new and much larger theater.
The New Orpheum Theatre, as it was originally called, opened in 1914. Designed by the firm of Rapp & Rapp, the theater was based upon the Salle de la Spectacle at Versailles. It had a 30 foot high main lobby, a 40 foot high auditorium ringed with 24 corinthian columns, and highly ornamented loge boxes at the mezzanine level. The stage was large enough for any vaudeville act, and included a screen for moving pictures.
The Orpheum Theatre was originally a vaudeville house. Among the stars to grace its stage in its early days were Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and the Marx Brothers.
In the 1920’s, RKO began operating the Orpheum Theatre, with films now the primary form of entertaiment at the theater. To lure audiences to the Orpheum Theatre as attendance began sinking in the 1950’s, RKO started to screen films in such new formats as Sensurround, CinemaScope, and 3D. The theater’s facade received a garish aluminum covering and its interior was updated in a 1967 remodeling.
By the 1970’s it had become part of the Kerasotes chain. An attempt in the early-1980’s to recast the theatre as an art film house was unsuccessful, and its last few years included a return to first-run films, the last being a slasher film, “April Fool’s Day”, in 1986.
In 1991, the Orpheum Theatre was saved from a plan by the City of Champaign to be demolished for a parking lot. Between 1993 and 1994, the exterior was restored to its pre-1967 appearance, and the inside was converted into the Discovery Place, a children’s museum.
The museum is currently restoring the lobby and mezzanine areas to their original 1914 appearance.
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