Live shows offer alternatives

Tedd Anderson

Tedd Anderson

By Sabrina Willmer

With the advent of the multiplex, live performance retreated from center stage, but not completely – a couple unique theaters still remain in Champaign as an alternative to a routine Friday night movie.

“We had a ton of theaters downtown at one point,” said T.J. Blakeman, city planner, who recalls at least eight during one period. The Orpheum Theatre, the Rialto Theatre, the Walker Opera House, the Illini Theater and a couple vaudeville stages disappeared from the theatrical scene when companies realized they could earn more money in the multiplex, Blakeman said. The surviving Champaign theaters include the Parkland College Theatre, Boardman Art Theatre and Virginia Theatre.

The Parkland College Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., a proscenium theater with 315 seats, offers performances by Parkland theatrical, choral and instrumental groups.

“The community theater welcomes all artists in the community, including University students,” said Randy Hard, Parkland artistic director.

Parkland presents about five shows per season, which include plays and musicals, he said. The theater is open to the community for rent, offering a number of other events, he added. Agatha Christie’s, “The Mousetrap” will be the next play produced by Parkland, showing in late-February.

Mitch Vaughn, manager of the Art Theatre, said the Boardman Art Theatre, 126 W. Church St., was built in 1913 as a park theater and eventually was acquired by Greg Boardman, who opened it to the public in summer 2003. Boardman invested in a number of renovations, which involved redoing the lobby and installing “the best sound system available on the market,” Vaughn said. The theater boasts itself as the “only independently owned theater in this town,” showing foreign and independent films, he said.

“Our mission is to only show good movies,” Vaughn said.

The theater also allows people to rent out its space, he said. Adopting the European reservation technique, the theater allows people to reserve their seats online, he added.

The concession stand offers pizzas, stuffed pretzels and free refills on popcorn and drinks, he said. Last weekend the Art began showing “Brokeback Mountain,” which sold out multiple shows, Vaughn said.

Built in 1921 as a vaudeville theatre, the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., belonged to various private organizations until sold to the Champaign Park District in 2000, said Bobbie Herakovich, executive director of the Champaign Park District. The city of Champaign negotiated the monetary exchange, believing ownership by a taxing agency would provide a steady income, Herakovich said. Since its acquisition, the park district has spent about $2 million in structural and aesthetic renovations. It plans on spending up to $6 million on future renovation, she said. As part of the effort to allow people to leave a legacy, the park district recently created the Champaign Park Foundation. Its first project involves raising funds to renovate the east lobby of the Virginia, which will be used for meetings and events, Herkovich said. The foundation already received two $10,000 gifts, she said. The goal of the Park District is to “get as many people through the theater as possible so they can experience theater, dance, music and movies and see the importance of the renovation of the theater and rich cultural history,” she said.

The theater, which seats 1525, offers a number of production genres, including film, dance, comedy, theater and music. Its size distinguishes it from other theaters, allowing the company to use casts of 100 to 120, said John Stuff, company manager of the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company. The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company was developed in 1991 to help save the Virginia Theatre and provide the community with a theatrical experience, Stuff said. Each season the company produces three major musicals. This year it has expanded its performance calendar to a regional student production of “Les Miserables,” a small non-musical called “Love Letters” and a Christmas magical dinner and concert, Stuff said. The musicals for this season include “The King and I,” “Oliver” and “Barnum.”

“It is a totally different thing when you go to a live performance than a movie,” said Stuff. “It is fun too when you know your next door neighbor is up on stage dressed as who knows what and dancing,” he said.