Illinois Pioneers

Champaign Theatres


Theater historian Perry Morris joins WILL-TV’s John Paul to look back at the days when downtown Champaign was filled with theaters. Morris and Paul look at photos of the grand dames of the Champaign theater district and bright neon marquees lighting up downtown streets.

The show examines the days of the opera houses, when Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, Houdini, Frederick Douglass, Sarah Bernhardt and Susan B. Anthony came to town to speak or perform. “The first opera house was Barrett’s-Swannell’s where Jim Gould’s restaurant is now at the corner of Neil and Main. It operated above Swannell’s drug store and opened the same year Lincoln was shot, 1865,” Paul said.

“We gathered some great photos showing some of the 15 different locations of downtown Champaign theaters and their marquees,” Paul said. The names changed often for many of the locations, he said. The Varsity, which opened in 1906, became the Rex, the Illini, the Encore and then the Illini again, he said. One theater still remaining is the Art, which opened as the Park Theatre in downtown Champaign in 1913; it joined the Crescent Theatre, the Crystal Theatre, the Lyric Theatre, the Varsity Theatre, and the Walker Opera House.

Over the next few years, the Orpheum Theatre, Theatre Belvoir (later known as The Rialto), and the Virginia Theatre opened. The Art still operates as a movie theater, the Virginia houses live performances and movies, and the Orpheum provides a home for a children’s science museum. “But most of the theaters have disappeared,” Paul said.

Paul and Morris also talk to Leonard Doyle, a former usher and manager at the Virginia, who has been associated with Champaign theaters for the past 40 years.