A Brief History of the Art

by Perry C. MorrisLocal theater historian

For a more detailed history of the Art, you can now purchase The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years, written by Perry C. Morris, Joseph Muskin, & Audrey Wells.

The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years is a book that tells the history of the Art Theater. The book features many full-color photographs and tells an amazing story. The book is $25 and is available for purchase here.

Opening Day – 1913

When the Park Theatre (now known as the Art) opened 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 Neil Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre, Theatre Belvoir (later known as The Rialto), and the Virginia Theatre opened. Only The Art remains as an operating movie theater. The Crescent, the Crystal, the Lyric, the Neil, and the Walker Opera House are long gone: the auditorium of the Rialto exists as only a shell within the Russell Building; the Varsity became home to two churches and now is a night club, 51 Main; the Virginia houses live performances and movies; and the Orpheum is the home of a children’s science museum. The Park opened within a decade of the beginning of the movie industry in the United States, and, as the Art, is still in operation as a movie theater. Bravo!

The Park Theatre opened Wednesday, November 12, 1913. Three ushers seated the crowd of over 2,400 for the four seatings that evening, yet scores of people had to be turned away for lack of room. The opening night program included a world premiere and none of the other pictures had been shown more than five times. J.E. Myers operated the picture machine. Miss Hale, the Park organist, played the piano for the pictures and Frison’s orchestra furnished special music for the evening.

The organ was not ready until the following February. A two manual pipe organ specially manufactured for the Park by the Hinners Organ Company of Pekin was premiered on Thursday, February 19, 1914. Noted English cathedral organist Cyril Dadswell was brought in to inaugurate the new organ, accompanying the movie “The Last Days of Pompeii.”

The Architecture of the Park/Art

Park owner B.H. Cooper spent two months studying theaters in Chicago and elsewhere to get ideas for his new theater. He incorporated the best ideas into his design for the Park. The plans were drawn by Chicago architect Lewis E. Russell from Mr. Cooper’s designs. The construction, taking four months, was personally overseen by Mr. Cooper. Construction was financed by Isaac Kuhn who owned the building for many years.

The auditorium, a rectangle 100 feet long and forty-four feet wide, seated 600 when the theater opened. The addition of a storage area along the rear of the auditorium has shrunk its length by a few feet. That and other seating changes have resulted in a present seating capacity of 250. The auditorium floor is raked for better viewing of the screen. There is no balcony. Two aisles divide the seating area into three sections.

The front of the building has three stories. The ground floor contained two storefronts and the theater entrance. The second floor held the offices of Dr. Hugo Branyon and Dr. B.A. Smith, a dentist. Today, one of the storefronts is gone, the space incorporated into the lobby, and the second and third floors hold a total of four apartments.

The building, in the early twentieth century commercial style, is built of deep maroon brick. The decoration, in striking contrast, is all of glazed ivory colored tile. The second and third story facade is divided into thirds. The original ground floor facade probably reflected a similar arrangement. Each third consists of a grouping of three windows at both story levels with a horizontal box outlined in tile between the upper and lower window groupings. Each window grouping is outlined on the vertical edges with tile quoins that continue up from the tops of the lower grouping to connect with the upper grouping. The strong vertical of each third is topped with a scallop shaped tile cornice, a few more courses of brick, then a smaller scallop shaped tile cornice. Somewhat hidden by the marquee, a band of embossed tile runs the width of the building at the second story window sill level. Tile quoins run up both edges of the building. A tile tablet is located just below the entablature on either side of the center window column and each edge of the building. The strong vertical line of the three window columns and the intervening vertical fields of brick increase the building’s visual height beyond its’ physical height.

The auditorium has a plain concrete floor under the seats with carpet runners in the aisles. This was a fireproofing feature of the building used as a selling point to reassure the audiences. The walls have a simple art deco look. The original look of the walls is unknown. The walls are divided by pilasters. Large, heavily decorated beams stretch across the auditorium, connecting opposite pilasters. Art deco lighting sconces are positioned on each pilaster. A decorative cornice runs around the ceiling.

The theater was built specifically for movies. Therefore, the stage is very tiny and there was no need to include dressing rooms and a fly loft. The original screen was about two or three feet from the back wall. There was a curtain track directly in front of the screen. A carved plaster proscenium arch was part of the original decor. The screen has been moved out about three feet closer to the audience to allow for the installation of a wider screen to accommodate the wider format movies. This change eliminated the decorative proscenium arch. The organ and associated equipment has long since been removed.

A New Owner – 1931

Alger Brothers bought the Park (and Princess, now later known as the Urbana Cinema) in 1931. Alger did $15,000.00 worth of remodeling between July 16 and August 29, 1936. The remodeling included enlarging the lobby to twice its former size and moving the box office from within the theater to the front. Lobby remodeling also entailed locating lounges on either side of the entrance and moving the manager’s office from the left to the right of the entrance. The front of the theater was covered with structural glass with chromium fixtures, adding a touch of art deco. In the auditorium, the walls were covered with an acoustical material, and new sound equipment was installed.

Alger air conditioned the building in the spring of 1937. Ten years later in July, 1947, it was updated from water cooling to mechanical refrigeration.

A new marquee costing $2,067.00 was installed October 22, 1950. The contractor was C. Bendsen of Decatur.

The Park Becomes the Art – 1958

The Park permanently closed on Monday July 21, 1958. At the same time, Alger closed the Princess in Urbana, but continued to operate the Coed in Champaign’s Campustown. The Art Theatre Guild bought the Park and the Illini on September 25, 1958. The Park’s name was changed, and the Art opened on Friday, October 3, 1958. The opening film was The Red and the Black, based on the Stendhal classic,Rouge et Noir. Among those present at the opening were Champaign Mayor Virgil F. Lafferty, who cut the ribbon; Louis Sher, Columbus, Ohio, president of the Art Theatre Guild; Richard Packer, manager of the Art and formerly manager with the Art Theatre Guild in Denver, Colorado; and Andrew Moraetes, manager of the Illini Theatre. The Art Theatre Guild had done some remodeling, including the revamping of the lobby and rest rooms, some new flooring, plumbing and wiring, and recovering of the seats. They must have also done at least minor changes to the marquee to change the name of the theater. The Art Theatre Guild included extra touches such as free coffee and Coke and art exhibits in the lobby.

The Sordid Part – 1971

In 1971, the Art switched from art to “adult” movies. When the larger theatre chains began to invade owner Louis Sher’s market niche by showing art films, he switched to a new niche and began showing “adult” films.

In September, 1986, owner Louis Sher, who had since moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, closed the Art and put the building up for sale. The Art was the last “adults-only” theater in Champaign-Urbana.

A New Beginning – 1987

John Manley purchased the building for $90,000.00 on January 15, 1987 because he liked the building. He repainted the auditorium, painted and papered the lobby, scrubbed the seats, relaid carpet, rewired the theatre and projection room, and hung a new screen. On Thursday, February 12, 1987, the New Art opened. The film shown was “Turtle Diary” starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson. The Art was once again showing true art films. In the beginning, films were shown on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. The films were programmed by Ron Epple of the Expanded Cinema Group. The schedule was later expanded to seven-days-a-week.

After John Manley’s passing in 1991, his partner, Tom Angelica, operated the Art until 2003, making improvements such as installing new seats in 1998. David Kraft purchased the building in 2001, and continues to own it.

Greg Boardman installed state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment, then operated the theater as Boardman’s Art Theatre from 2003 to 2009. He developed a devoted following of movie-goers by programming high quality films, film festivals, and hosting special events.

In January, 2010, Sanford Hess took over operations at the Art Theater. Pledging to carry on the tradition of great films, he has kept the Art’s focus while adding new features such as alcohol, healthier concessions options, and Late Night Films.

The loyal and devoted patrons of the Art Theater depend on it to fill a niche the large chain theaters do not fill. The Art Theater shows films with limited distribution—primarily art and foreign films. New audience members are always welcome to visit the Art to enjoy the films unavailable elsewhere, to enjoy the atmosphere and architecture, or both. Support by the public is vital to encourage and continue the useful lives of our historic buildings.

Currently – 2012 – present

In 2012, a co-operative comprising 1,400+ members of the CU community purchased the business from Sanford Hess to become the Art Theater Co-op. This experimental model arose in response to the need to change to digital projection, an industry mandate costing up to $100k per screen. The community raised the capital for the digital projection transition, elected its first Board of Directors, and hired CU-based artist, organizer, and educator Austin McCann as the inaugural General Manager of the Co-op. Since then, the Art has seen its community profile grow by leaps and bounds. In addition to our first-run programming and various special events, we run the following film series: Late Nights at the Art, Essential Cinema, Women On Top, and Brilliant Corners. In 2017 the cooperative owners of the Art voted to merge with The Art Film Foundation (AFF), a local non-profit dedicated promoting culture and education through cinema. As a result of the merger, the Art dissolved cooperative ownership. As a program of the AFF, the Art Theater is now a functioning tax-deductible charitable organization.

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