203 W. Park Avenue,
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The Virginia Theatre opened December 28, 1921 with a stage production of “The Bat”. The following day it screened its first movie, the silent “Tol'able David” starring Richard Barthelmess. It was designed by noted theater architect C. Howard Crane, for local businessman A. W. Stoolman. The theater was named after Stoolman’s daughter.
Built in the Italian Renaissance style on its outside, to resemble a Florentine palazzo, the theater’s interior was designed in the Spanish Renaissance style, to look like a courtyard of Old Castille. This included arms of Spanish royalty, Baroque plasterwork, and statuary, including busts of Ferdinand and Isabella. The auditorium ceiling dome was once covered in silver leaf.
The Virginia Theatre originally showcased both live stage shows, as well as silent films, accompanied by a house orchestra or a Hope-Grand Orchestral organ. Among the stars to appear at the Virginia Theatre in those days were the Marx Brothers (who also appeared at the nearby Orpheum Theatre as well), W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and Red Skelton. In 1929, the theater was wired for sound, the same year the Virginia Theatre was purchased by RKO. Throughout the 1930’s and well into the 1940’s, the Virginia Theatre continued to feature RKO Orpheum vaudeville acts, in addition to the stars on the big-screen.
In 1953, CinemaScope came to the Virginia Theatre with “The Robe” and the following year, Vincent Price’s “House of Wax” became the first 3D film to be screened at the theater. In 1955, the theater was substantially remodeled, including a new ticket booth, front doors, and a modernized lobby. The auditorium remained mostly untouched.
The Kerasotes chain bought the Virginia Theatre in 1968 and in addition to movies, additional stage productions were mounted, such as the controversial “Oh, Calcutta!”. Kerasotes showed its final film, Steve Martin’s “Father of the Bride”, in 1992.
Shortly after the theater closed, the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company was formed to present productions at the Virginia Theatre, including touring companies of “Grease”, “Phantom of the Opera”, and “A Chorus Line”. Artists such as Alison Krauss and the Sinfonia de Camera also appeared on the stage during this time.
Since 1999, the theater has also been host to Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival which takes place every April. (Ebert is a native of Champaign and frequented both the Virginia Theatre and Orpheum Theatre as a child.)
In 2000, the Champaign Park District acquired the Virginia Theatre and began a four-phase restoration program to bring the theater back to its 1920’s glory. Work began with a restoration of the marquee and facade. In addition to screening both current and classic movies and the Overlooked Film Festival, the Virginia Theatre is host to live performances, as well as special events. It was closed in May 2012 to continue renovations, and reopened early-2014.
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