CU CITYVIEW / April 26, 2002

In Honor of Virginia Restoring a Classic
By Jenny Southlynn


Saved from ruin in 1999 when Governor George H. Ryan announced that $900,000 of Illinois FIRST funding was dedicated for its renovation, the historic Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, a beloved piece of CU history, has been reclaimed. The venue, while still undergoing a facelift, is looking better than ever this year.
Efforts began in earnest in January 2000 when the Champaign Park District, under the leadership of former General Manager Robert Toalson, took over operation and management of The Virginia. Thanks to the state grant and forgiveness of loans, many needed repairs and upgrades to the building are underway. The project, overseen by the Cleveland firm of van Dijk Pace Westlake Architects, whose portfolio also includes the restorations of Indianapolis’ Circle Theater and Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater, continues under The Virginia’s Managing Director Rebecca Cain.

Cain said that Bob Toalson spearheaded the Friends of The Virginia, an eclectic group of 23 citizens who have stepped up to the plate to save the theater. The group, co-chaired by Susan Lobdell and Barb Kuhl, planned a membership drive that kicked off in February. The Friends set up an annual fund strictly for restoration efforts, as well as an endowment, explained Cain. "The Capital Campaign will start in May, and is looking to raise $1.5 million to continue phase two of the renovations, and also a matching $1.5 million for an endowment for operations." The money will come from grants and from individual donors. "We want to equal it out with a lot of gifts from people who just want to give to an endowment. More of an in-perpetuity kind of gift," Cain said.
Local donations have already helped, including a $50,000 contribution from The News-Gazette that facilitated upgrades of the projection booth. The two Norelco AA-II projectors, now owned by The Virginia, are original Todd-AO projectors. (Todd AO is a 70mm format that was used for classic musicals such as Oklahoma, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey). One projector was left behind by GKC Cinemas. The donation allowed the district to rebuild that original and purchase an exact duplicate from James Bond of Chicago (as opposed to 007 of the U.K.), one of Roger Ebert’s favorite projectionists.

There’s also a $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Champaign County to kick off the capital campaign, as well as a $3,000 grant from Illinois Power to restore the marquee.

Rich History
The Virginia was commissioned in 1920 by A.W. Stoolman, a prominent local contractor, and designed by theater architects C. Howard Crane and H. Kenneth Franzheim assisted by local architect George Ramey. Stoolman named the theater after his daughter Elizabeth Virginia. The Virginia Theatre opened its doors in 1921 with a live stage show of the hit mystery The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. With seating for 1,900, The Virginia offered entertainment as a vaudeville house, legitimate theater and movie house as well.
The first films shown at The Virginia were silent, accompanied by the Hope-Jones Orchestral Organ played by George May. The two-manual, eight-rank Wurlitzer cost $50,000 when purchased in 1921. [However, the cost of this style instrument was $16,000 in a March 1920 Wurlitzer Company price list. -ca] The organ is in working condition after having been silent for years. Its restoration is an ongoing project in the capable hands of Warren York, who also plays. York picked up restoration of the organ back in 1988.

In 1929 the first talking picture-The Last Warning, starring Laura LaPlante-was shown. By 1992, after almost 65 years of showing moving pictures, The Virginia closed as a commercial venue for film. From ‘92 to ‘96, David and Sharon Wyper managed it, booking live music and many nationally known Christian artists, along with touring companies of Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line and Grease. In 1992 The Champaign-Urbana Theater Company (CUTC) was formed specifically to present shows there. And finally, the Champaign Park District bought it from the city of Champaign in July 1999.

Work in Progress
Immediately following Roger Ebert’s Second Annual Overlooked Film Festival, extensive work began to provide new lobby and restroom facilities, as well as upgrade those that remain from 1921. Other changes to the facility included the replacement of the huge curved movie screen with a slightly smaller (22 x 52 feet) flat screen, which can be flown off the stage.

The project’s goals are twofold: to bring the facility back to its original glory and bring it in compliance with modern building codes. It includes work on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, a new roof, restoring the lighting and sound system, stage rigging and the projection booth and movie screen. In addition, there will be general restoration of the stage, dressing rooms, lobby and concession area and the marquee. New furnishings for the theater are also included in the project.

There are four phases planned, with stage two well under way. Phase one included restroom, projection booth, roof and safety upgrades as well as demolition work in preparation for phase two. Phase three completes the renovation with restoration of the main theater gallery. Phase four includes the long-range dream of extending the stage area.

"In the second phase," said Cain, "we’re attacking the backstage arbor system, we’re going to replace the way we currently fly the scenery and go to a double-purchase arbor system." Backstage is a working piece of theatrical history with the fly system-pin rail, sandbags, hemp rope and all. The stage is a 28-feet deep-trapped floor with a metal gridiron 46 feet above the floor. The proscenium opening is 56 feet wide by 26 feet high. Although it is 28 feet to the back wall, there are 26 feet of usable stage. Dressing rooms are located both backstage and under the stage.

Most of the issues faced now were caused by maintenance problems according to Jim Spencer, Director of Operations for the park district. For example, stains on the proscenium ceiling were for years believed to be caused by a roof leak. "Everybody pointed up there and said ‘there’s a roof leak, there’s a roof leak.’ There wasn’t a roof leak," stated Spencer. "The air handler system for the building is up there on the roof." Evaporation from the rooftop heating and cooling mechanicals was collected in a large pan. When full, the pan is supposed to drain through a pipe off the back roof. "It was clogged because no one had cleaned it in years. So it leaked. And it leaked for decades," Spencer said. "They kept seeing it and saying, ‘Oh well, it must be a roof leak, but we don’t have money to fix the roof now.’ We went up there, opened it up, cleaned it out." In fact, algae had simply clogged the drain and the problem was corrected. "They are working on the area now with an architect, investigating it structurally, repairing it and examining the finishes to do an ‘interpretation’ of them," said Spencer.

There are also plans to finish the east lobby, which will be redesigned to house a concession stand that can be stowed away. That space, according to Cain, will be completed at the same level of quality that the ladies restrooms are downstairs, and used for rental space. Those restrooms "set the standard for how we are going to approach the building," said Spencer. Those areas are sparkling with shiny new fixtures, and painstaking detail that evokes a step back in time.

Cain said plaster work in the main floor lobby, which has crumbled around the stairwells and fire exits, will be fixed and upstairs both men’s and women’s restrooms will be reconfigured to include storage space, possibly office space. "There is a lot of room up there that needs to be reconfigured to the best advantage," remarked Cain. Spencer pointed out that the front of the balcony has never been repainted. "Its never been cleaned and paint changes over time due to all sorts of things. Straight oxygen will change it," Spencer explained. Also, smoking in the auditorium for 50 years had taken a toll. One section has been cleaned by Evergreen Studios, a firm that is doing research on the original finishes. Gleaming gold, the cleaned section stands out from all the rest. The original paint was brighter and had more depth, Spencer noted. The original work consisted of a base coat covered in glazes, producing an effect that will be difficult to replicate. Examining a couple of panels in a corner, Spencer explained: "There are actually four colors of blue, two different kinds of gold, two different kinds of red and it’s because they all have the same base color, but the way the glaze was dealt with, each of those is different." What the restoration achieves are "interpretations" of the original finishes, said Spencer.

The Virginia Theatre is available to organizations and individuals wishing to produce or present a performing arts event, schedule a meeting, conference or reception. Rental rate is determined by day(s) of the week and type of usage (e.g., performance or rehearsal). Additional charges include technical assistance, provided by the stagehands’ union (I.A.T.S.E. Local #482), and equipment rental (lighting and audio). Contact The Virginia Theatre’s business office at (217) 356-9053 or by e-mail: events@thevirginia.org to receive a rental information packet. Estimates on total rental costs can be provided by the theater’s management.

Originally published in CU Cityview, April 26, 2002, and copyright 2002 Saga Communications. Minor typographical corrections and clarification of original cost made by Chris Anderson, January 2012

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