The Virginia Theatre

2/10 Wurlitzer

203 West Park Avenue
Champaign, Illinois 61820

December 31, 2011

April, 2013. Entire organ installed house right

Console restored, March 2012

Wurlitzer opus 490 was installed in the Virginia Theatre shortly before the theatre opened on December 28, 1921. Originally a Style 185 2/7, it was upgraded by Wurlitzer in June 1924 to a Style 185 Special with the addition of the 8' Tibia Clausa. A 16' relay addition was made in 1928.

David Junchen worked on this organ beginning in October 1963 while an Electrical Engineering student at the University of Illinois, bringing it to life after 18 years. A short article appeared in the Summer 1966 issue of Theatre Organ magazine, and excerpts from letters written to Henry Przybylski in 1967 were published in the July-August 2022 issue.

The organ again fell silent after Junchen's graduation but was reawakened 20 years later by Warren York and a varying crew of volunteers. During the 1990's, various minor additions were made, including the addition of effects such as duck call, surf, and jazz/tap cymbal.

A special variety show on May 5, 1991 sold out the theatre, with the organ prominently featured. The Chorale sang the music of Stephen Foster, the audience participated in a sing-along using historic glass slides from the theatre's extensive collection, and Warren York gave a demonstration of the Wurlitzer. On December 31, 1991, a near-capacity audience attended the first annual News Year's Eve variety show, which followed closely the format of the May 5 program.

Until 2009, the organ was regularly played, primarily by Warren York, prior to and during intermissions for events. With the exception of 1995, Warren also provided pre-show, intermission, and sing-along accompaniment music for each annual New Year's Eve program until December 31, 2008, when a plaque was presented to honor him and future house organists. The plaque, and official knowledge of its existence, has disappeared. Due to declining health, Warren was unable to play the Virginia's Wurlitzer during 2009, and Michael Hammer, The Chorale's accompanist, took the console for the New Year's Eve program. Hammer played an electronic instrument brought in for the New Year's Eve programs in 2010 and 2011, returning to the refurbished Wurlitzer in 2013 and 2014.

John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders removed the Wurlitzer from the Virginia in December of 2010 for a complete rebuild. They began reinstallation of the organ on January 25, 2012 and, as a memorial to Warren York and his years of service as house organist at the Virginia Theatre, have enlarged it to a Style 216, with the addition of two additional Wurlitzer ranks (Orchestral Oboe and English Post Horn) as well as incorporating a 2' Tibia extension originally built by Douglas Cable & Associates (Long Beach, California) in 1998. A 2011 video can be seen here.

The Virginia was closed for renovation from May 2012 until early April 2013, reopening with a public Open House on April 13 and featuring Danville, Illinois' David Schroeder on the organ.

Those interested in volunteering to play the Wurlitzer should call the Virginia Theatre.

Rank List:

  • Open Diapason (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Viol d'Orchestre (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Viol Celeste (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Vox Humana (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Tuba Horn (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Concert Flute (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Clarinet (Wurlitzer, 1921)
  • Tibia Clausa (Wurlitzer, 1924; 2' Cable & Associates extension, 1998/2012)
  • English Post Horn (Wurlitzer, added 2012)
  • Orchestral Oboe (Wurlitzer, added 2012)

  • Chrysoglott (1921)
  • Chimes (1921)
  • Glockenspiel (1921)
  • Xylophone (1921)
  • Sleigh Bells (1921)
  • Assorted traps and percussions

    Tremulants: Main, Tibia Clausa, Vox Humana, Tuba Horn, English Horn

    A detailed stoplist can be seen at pages maintained by Buzard Pipe Organ Builders, ATOS and OHS.

    Milan Digital Audio has digitally sampled the instrument (prior to the Buzard rebuild) for Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ systems.

    Wurlitzer concerts and other notable uses:

    A program to rededicate the organ was held on March 31, 2012 at 7:00 PM, with Chris Gorsuch as the featured artist.

    Ebertfest preludes with Mark Noller:
    April 25, 2012
    April 17, 2013, with a sing-along of "Those Were the Days", with lyrics written by Roger and accompanied by Mark on the Wurlitzer.
    April 23, 2014
    April 15, 2015
    April 13 & 16, 2016
    April 19, 2017
    Dave Schroeder, the Virginia's house organist, played the Wurlitzer for Ebertfest 2018, 2019, and 2022.

    On October 5, 2013, Mark Herman, ATOS' 2012 Organist of the Year and 2004 winner of the ATOS Young Theatre Organist competition, presented an excellent program honoring the late Warren York, who maintained the Wurlitzer for nearly 20 years before his death in 2011.

    On September 13, 2014, Mark Gifford entertained us with a variety of music and accompanied Buster Keaton's One Week (1920).

    Mark Gifford returned on March 18, 2016, accompanying The King of Kings (1927) and again on March 25, 2017, with Buster Keaton's The General (1926).

    On September 9, 2017, Richard Hills, ATOS' 2010 Organist of the Year and 1995 winner of the ATOS Young Theatre Organist competition, performed a variety of popular selections and accompanied two short Keaton films, One Week (1920) and The High Sign (1921).

    To celebrate the Virginia's 100th Anniversary in 2021 (season brochure), an Open House event was held on September 25, 2021, with a variety of artists, including Chicago's Jay Warren, playing the Wurlitzer to Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

    On May 21, 2022, Steven Ball, Director of Sacred Music at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in St Louis, Missouri, accompanied Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923). He returned on October 15, 2022, with Nosferatu (1922).

    Jay Warren returned on May 25, 2024 with Lon Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

    Warren York


    Melissa Merli's tribute to Warren in Champaign's News-Gazette.

    Management and Operation since 1992:

    During the first half of the 1990's, the number of area movie screens more than doubled, from 17 to 44, resulting in the Virginia's final showing of a first-run film on February 13, 1992 (Father of the Bride). Local gospel singer David Wyper leased the theatre from GKC Theatres and operated the facility as a live performance house, featuring local community theatre, touring Broadway productions, country, rock, band, Christian, gospel, and classical concerts. Wyper and a number of other community members formed the Virginia Theatre Group to purchase, renovate, and use the theatre as a place for the Champaign-Urbana community to come and enjoy high quality entertainment. The building was sold to the VTG in December 1995, with the assistance of a loan by the City of Champaign. A new Managing Director, John Eby, was hired in the summer of 1996. In 1998, a public fundraising campaign began, and the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company merged with the Virginia Theatre Group to form a new organization, CUTC at the Virginia, to operate and manage the historic facility.

    In January 2000, the Champaign Park District became owner-operator of the Virginia Theatre, with Managing Director Barbara Edfors (March 2000 to May 2001), Interim Director Anne Scouffas (Summer 2001), Managing Director Rebecca Cain (September 2001 to Summer 2004), Jameel Jones, Manager (Summer 2004 to January 2011), and Director Steven Bentz (present).


    A State of Illinois grant of $900,000, as well as forgiveness of loans, enabled many needed behind-the-scenes repairs and upgrades to the building, overseen by the Cleveland firm Westlake Reed Leskosky (then called van Dijk Pace Westlake Architects, later acquired in 2018 by DLR Group), whose portfolio includes the restorations of Indianapolis' Circle Theatre and Rockford's Coronado Theatre. Decorative restoration of selected lobby panels was begun by Evergreene Painting Studios (now known as EverGreene Architectural Arts, Inc.) in April 2000, to provide an idea of how the theatre would look after restoration. Additionally, extensive work was begun in order to provide new lobby and restroom facilities, as well as to upgrade those remaining from 1921.

    Other changes to the facility during the summer of 2000 included the replacement of the huge (22' 4.5" x 54') curved movie screen with a slightly smaller (22' x 46') flat screen which can be flown off of the stage. The theatre re-opened without completed restrooms, but CUTC's production of "Once Upon a Mattress" was successfully presented October 19-22, 2000. The stage footlights were removed on December 28. Accessible restrooms on the main floor were completed in May 2001. The much-needed women's restroom facility in the basement opened on November 1, 2001. Work began to enlarge and remodel the box office in February 2002 and was completed later in the year. Backstage, dressing room remodeling began during summer 2003, and new carpeting was installed throughout the theatre the week of December 14, 2003. It was announced at the 2003 New Year's Eve celebration that the Virginia had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ongoing work in the basement and backstage since 2003 include star dressing rooms, laundry, kitchen, and shower facilities. June 2005: the orchestra pit has been lowered and the stage modified to be extendable over the pit. Tuckpointing of the stage tower was done during summer 2005 and more exterior emergency exit doors replaced. January 2006: the ceiling (in front of the house, above the proscenium) plaster has been repaired and repainted. Remodeling of the east lobby began in January 2007, with window replacement in September and completion by the end of the year. A new traveling curtain was installed in December 2007. The Virginia suspended operations in June 2010 to enable renovation of the lobby areas, both upstairs and downstairs. Replacement of windows, doors, the concession area, and carpeting continued through mid-November, and the removal of the neon marquee, which was installed in February 1937, according to the February 10, 1937 News-Gazette, occurred on November 16, 2010. The new marquee was installed August 31, 2011. Upstairs restroom renovation began in 2011, with the men's room finished by December. No additional facilities have been created, but the windows overlooking Randolph Street remain. The upstairs women's restroom was enlarged and reopened in March 2012.

    The Virginia closed in May 2012 for final stages of renovation, including elevators, stage lighting, and the much-anticipated redecoration of the auditorium (see Broeren-Russo's photos), re-opening with a sneak preview on April 11, 2013 and a public Open House on April 13. The Virginia again closed for several weeks in 2013 for further renovation, which included replacement of the decorative roof above the projection booth. In 2019, funding for the 2015 Illinois Public Museum Capital Grants Programs Award of $750,000 to design, engineer and install house stage lighting, catwalk, light boxes and sound equipment was restored.

    During the 2020/21 Covid-19 pandemic closure, new sound and air handling systems were installed, and decorative plaster repairs were made to areas throughout the building. The east fire escape was refurbished in 2022.

    Another brief closure to replace/upgrade the computer-controlled backstage fly system, as well as periodic paint/plaster and equipment maintenance, is scheduled for January into April 2025.


    Champaign-Urbana's local alternative weekly newspaper, then known as The Octopus, ran a feature article on the Wurlitzer in the issue for the week of December 8-14, 2000. Renamed CU Cityview, then reborn as The Paper, and later renamed The Hub, it featured the theatre and Ebertfest extensively in its April 26-May 2, 2002 issue. The Champaign News-Gazette announced the start of the Virginia's fund-raising drive in May 2002, and has also sponsored a successful annual film series since Fall 2000. They have also contributed over $50,000 to upgrade the projection booth with a second 35mm/70mm projector (which joins the existing veteran of over 30 years), as well as other equipment. A front page article appeared in the March 31, 2012 News-Gazette, and photos can be seen here and here.

    Local Public Radio station WILL AM-580 ran a six-minute spot as a part of their weekly program Sidetrack on June 6 and 9, 2001. It included an interview with and a demonstration of the organ by Warren York. This file contains the segment, which is no longer available at WILL's site. Video and audio links documenting the Wurlitzer restoration project are here.

    Dreamscape Cinema shot portions of their film Act Your Age at the Virginia on June 26, 2005, because of its similarity to a Broadway theatre. The film was premiered at the Virginia on November 14, 2007.

    Roger Ebert's Cyberfest and Ebertfest:

    March 1997's sold out presentation of a beautiful 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey was part of Cyberfest, the University of Illinois' celebration of HAL's birth in Urbana, Illinois, and was hosted by Urbana native Roger Ebert. It was the precursor to the first Overlooked Film Festival, which was held at the Virginia April 22-24, 1999. Ebert hosted lectures, panel discussions, and introduced each film.

    Every Ebertfest has included at least one silent film, although only one has featured the Wurlitzer.
    1999 Battleship Potemkin (1925) was accompanied by Concrete Orchestra
    2000 The Last Laugh (1924) and Un Chien Andalou (1929), also accompanied by Concrete Orchestra
    2001 Nosferatu (1922) and short film Dragonflies, the Baby Cries (2002), with Cambridge, Massachusetts' Alloy Orchestra, which disbanded in 2021
    2002 Metropolis (1927), Alloy Orchestra
    2003 Featured three silent film events:
    * The Black Pirate (1926) in two-strip Technicolor, Alloy Orchestra
    * Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theatre's presentation of The Golden Age of Silent Comedy, with Dean Mora on the Wurlitzer and piano
    * The Grey Automobile, with possibly the strangest form of silent film accompaniment, Mexican-Japanese Benshi
    2004 The General (1926), Alloy Orchestra
    2005 The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Alloy Orchestra
    2006 The Eagle (1925), Alloy Orchestra
    2007 Sadie Thompson (1928) with The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra
    2008 Underworld (1927), Alloy Orchestra
    2009 The Last Command (1928), Alloy Orchestra
    2010 Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Alloy Orchestra
    2011 Metropolis (1927), with additional restored footage, Alloy Orchestra
    2012 Wild AND Weird: The Alloy Orchestra Plays 10 Fascinating and Innovative Films 1906-1926, Alloy Orchestra
    2013 Blancanieves (2012), Alloy Orchestra
    2014 He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Alloy Orchestra
    2015 Son of the Sheik (1926), Alloy Orchestra
    2016 featured two silent films:
    * L’Inhumaine (1924), Alloy Orchestra
    * Body and Soul (1925), with Renee Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project
    2017 Varieté (1925), Alloy Orchestra
    2018 A Page of Madness (1926), Alloy Orchestra
    2019 Coeur fidèle / The Faithful Heart (1923), Alloy Orchestra
    2020-2021 Ebertfest was not held, due to the Covid-19 pandemic
    2022 Renee Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project returned to accompany Siren of the Tropics (1927)
    2023 The Alloy Orchestra became the Anvil Orchestra, who brought their sound to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
    2024 The Anvil Orchestra returned to accompany Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929)

    At the 15th Ebertfest (2013), Shatterglass Studios released an iPad app containing festival programs, links to the films, panel discussion videos, and more. However, it was not updated beyond the 16th (2014) festival and has been removed from the App Store.
    Shatterglass has also produced annual documentary films on the festival since 2011:
    Ebertfest 2011 Retrospective Doc
    Ebertfest 2012 Retrospective Doc
    15th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival
    Ebertfest 2014
    Ebertfest 2015
    Ebertfest 2016 Retrospective
    Roger Ebert’s 19th Annual Film Festival // A Retrospective Documentary
    Ebertfest 2018 Retrospective Doc
    Ebertfest 2019 // A Retrospective
    Ebertfest 2022 Retrospective

    The block of Park Avenue in front of the theatre was given the name Honorary Roger Ebert Boulevard in 2002 by the City of Champaign.

    Photos from Ebertfest:

    Warren York at the console, 2005.
    Again, at the console in 2005, copied from the now-defunct
    Another shot at the console, 2005.
    Another photograph from 2005, with Roger. This and the previous photo were copied from Roger Ebert's site before they disappeared.
    Warren York at the console, 2007.
    A shot of Warren with his red socks at Roger Ebert's site from 2007, near the bottom of the page.

    Other organ-related and silent film events:

    Warren York played pre-show, intermission, and incidental music, in addition to providing sound effects with the Wurlitzer for the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company's production of "You Can't Take It With You" on September 10-12, 1999.

    To mark Halloween 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2005, Warren York accompanied Phantom of the Opera (1925) on the Wurlitzer.

    For the weekend of February 9, 2003, The Alloy Orchestra came to the Virginia to accompany Harold Lloyd's Speedy (1928) and several short films starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

    On April 1, 2005, members and guests of the St. Louis Theatre Organ Society visited the Virginia, and Warren York presented a short program on the Wurlitzer as part of the group's SLTOS Extravaganza.

    For further information on theatre pipe organs and the American Theatre Organ Society, please see the Theatre Organ Home Page and ATOS.
    Central Illinois Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society contact information can be found at ATOS' Chapter List.

    modified 27 may 2024 by chris anderson

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