The Virginia Theatre continues impacting C-U community

At night, The Virginia Theatre is lit by the dim lights recessed on the walls. The children on stage rehearsing for “A Christmas Story” present a far different scene from the vaudeville shows of yesteryear. The big names haven’t stopped coming to the theater, but even the smaller names still get their nights under the spotlights.

The Champaign Park District envisioned this scene when it purchased The Virginia Theatre 14 years ago. Now, it has turned into a community space as much as a historic fixture.

“It’s a facility that no other group can offer youth, because our youth theater group is the resident theater group, so we can offer kids a huge, beautiful stage with a very professional setting that nobody else in town really can,” said Patty Dudley, the Virginia’s youth theater director.

After passing through the hands of several owners, including RKO Pictures and GKC Theaters, the CPD acquired the landmark Virginia Theatre in 1999 with the intention of opening up the space not only to well-renowned acts, but to the local community as well. 

“It was in pretty bad shape,” said Steven Bentz, director of the Virginia Theatre. “Everything needed to be addressed.”

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    According to Bentz, the theater’s walls that were once covered in gold leaf had somewhere along the way been painted yellow. The ceiling, which once boasted intricate, ornamental canvas designs, had been covered in a layer of brown, vinyl paint. The walls were water damaged, plaster chunks were missing and its original Spanish renaissance-style pillars were covered in plastic wrap. Bentz even recalled a time when Alice Cooper played a show at the theater, and the set’s sound blew big chunks of plaster off the ceiling, free-falling on the stage like a winter snowfall.

    Since the CPD acquired the theater, it has been working to restore the Virginia back to its original state and 1921 opulence with modern amenities. The remodeling began in 2000, and everything from the paint on the railings to the carpet and the plasterwork had to be redone.

    The renovation has been done in three stages — each phase focusing on a separate section of the theater. The latest phase, the main hall, was finished in 2013 and cost a total of five million dollars. Now with work coming to an end within the coming years, the Virginia is ushering in a new era.

    Bentz now leads guided tours, detailing the renovations of the building every Wednesday to educate visitors about its history. 

    The days of all-day programming are well and gone. The theater’s organist plays no more, and the sand bags of the theater’s old pin-rail system are no longer relevant, Bentz said.

    The man to set the stage

    But long before the ceiling began to peel and the walls turned mustard yellow, before the original movie screen warped and the ceiling became discolored by smoke tar, the Virginia was a place of glory with Leonard Doyle as the self-proclaimed loyal jack of all trades. Theater was Doyle’s life. Involved in productions throughout high school, Doyle was hired as an usher by The Virginia Theatre in 1947 and quit his job as a ticket taker at the now disestablished Princess Theatre. It came with a quarter raise.

    “Fifty cents an hour – 50 cents an hour!” Doyle said, brimming a smile through his black spectacles. “I was getting a quarter over there and you could buy a pack of chewing gum with a nickel.”

    From janitor to projections to usher and eventually manager, Doyle was at The Virginia Theatre at a time when the Virginia was the artistic and cultural anchor of Central Illinois, Doyle said.

    In the days when the Virginia attracted names like Dick Van Dyke, The Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and others, one could expect to be greeted by smiling doormen, armed in long red coattails, striped blue pants and crisp white gloves, Doyle said. Ushers stood in each isle, opening doors and lighting cigars for theatergoers in search of entertainment.

    Doyle’s daughter, Margaret, has herself been around the theater since her childhood. She remembers serving buttered popcorn to Donny Osmond as a 15-year-old girl and feeling “tickled to death.” It’s been the community she’s grown up around as well.

    “You feel comfortable there, the people are friendly,” Margaret said, hesitant to call theatergoers customers. “I wouldn’t say customers but the ones that go there to see a movie or a play, they’re all just like family.”

    To Doyle, the Virginia is the ‘central beauty in Central Illinois,’ and it’s no wonder he wouldn’t let it go.

    When the red, velvet curtains of the Virginia threatened to close for the final time 23 years ago, Doyle found ground to work with. He helped turn The Virginia Theatre into the home of the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company, an organization that Doyle still runs to this day. 

    “I said no way – no way they’re going to tear this beautiful building down. There were too many big stars that went through the Virginia,” Doyle said.

    Since CPD’s takeover of the theater, Doyle has been an advisor for the venue. 

    On Oct. 14, he received a key to the city from Champaign Mayor, Don Gerard, for his “years of service and contributions to (the) community.” He has a case full of trophies, pictures, old movie posters and city honors. 

    And while he may be one day from turning 86, diabetic and in need of a walker, Doyle remains restless.

    “I can’t keep up with him,” said Margaret. For Leonard, there’s no use of going to Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis to watch a show. Having seen the Virginia’s best days, he still dares to dream of seeing the Virginia and the CU theatre scene back to where it was, and even bigger than in the past. The days of unscripted entertainment by the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton are gone, but those are days Doyle misses.  

    “There are no real entertainers today in my opinion. They’re not true entertainers,” Doyle said. “I want to put on one big heck of a production … theater is work; a lot of work, a lot of stress, but when you stand on a stage and someone stands up and applauds and says, ‘Thank you,’ is that work? It’s appreciation. You’re giving something to someone.”

    Eliseo can be reached at [email protected].