Historic Structures

New Orpheum Theatre, Champaign Illinois

Date added: September 12, 2022 Categories: Illinois Theater

Opened October 19, 1914, the New Orpheum Theatre provided vaudeville and moving picture entertainment almost without interruption into the 1980s. The theatre was closed briefly in the summer of 1932 due to the Depression. Although the Orpheum was forced to reduce prices in half throughout the Depression, as were many other theatres, the 1940s brought an increased attendance which reflected a wartime desire for both news (newsreels) and escape (the films). The Orpheum continued to operate as a movie theatre until spring, 1986.

The New Orpheum represents an intermediate time period in theatre design, when vaudeville was still in its heyday, but moving pictures were quickly developing. The turn of the century brought the construction of "nickelodeons," the name being derived from "odeon," the Greek word for theatre, and nickel being the price of admission. These "theatres" were generally plain-faced buildings containing a few rows of chairs set up in long, narrow halls; decoration was minimal, at the most. The earliest films were generally 10-minute silent melodramas or comedies, but by the early 1910s, film makers had begun to produce photoplays, more developed narratives on celluloid. During this phase, the phase in which the New Orpheum was built, the moving picture graduated from the cramped nickelodeons to established larger theaters with seats for hundreds of people. With movies not quite mature enough to go out on their own, they were supplemented by vaudeville acts.

Rapp and Rapp had already designed several theaters for the F. and H. Amusement Company when they were commissioned to design the New Orpheum Theatre in 1914. Their earliest known theatre is the Majestic in Dubuque, Iowa. Dating to 1910, the Majestic is a Second Empire design executed in brick and terra cotta, with a rich Beaux Arts interior featuring gilded boxes and a steep upper balcony.

The Rapps' trip to Europe in 1911 and 1912 obviously had an influence on their future designs. Their plan for the New Orpheum in Champaign was a one-third scale model of La Salle de Spectacle, the opera hall at Versailles. The New Orpheum featured a 28 foot high inner lobby area encircled with an oval mezzanine level balcony, and a 36 foot high auditorium space, containing no balcony, but instead ringed with a horseshoe of seventeen loge boxes at the mezzanine level. The 32'-4" by 60' stage area, measuring 50' tall, was designed to be large enough for any type of vaudeville act.

In the auditorium, massive Corinthian columns, painted gold at the capitals and on the lower third of the shaft, supported a heavy ornate golden entablature, and dominated the interior. Frieze panels at the column level were decorated with ornate French Renaissance and Baroque details. Egg-and-dart moldings and dentils merged with shells, laurels, rosettes, and acanthus leaves to "vie for attention." Green and gold wallpaper covered the back walls of the mezzanine. The first loge to the left of the stage was framed by an arch, while its opposite across the auditorium was a blind loge, backed by a shell-patterned organ screen which hid the organ pipes.

Rapp and Rapp evidently decided this was a successful formula; in 1915, they designed the Al Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, Wisconsin, using almost the exact floor plan and design elements. The Al Ringling, commissioned by the circus mogul, had a much greater budget which allowed for additional elaboration, however the New Orpheum in Champaign obviously served as the model. Both theatres featured Luca della Robbia friezes in the entrance foyer. Both auditorium spaces are dominated by massive Corinthian columns which were painted in identical color schemes. However, the Al Ringling featured two "royal boxes" (the Ringling boxes) which were framed by huge brolien pediments above the entablature. The proscenium arch featured additional ornamentation and twenty murals adorned the dome.

The exterior of the New Orpheum was much more restrained than the more lavish interior. Darl reddish-brown brick with beige painted wood and limestone trim adorned the facade. Classical Revival in style, wooden Ionic columns divided the windows, contrasting with banded brick and stone piers framing the entrance. The cornice and balustrade reflected both Beaux-Arts and Georgian Revival influence.

Rapp and Rapp utilized many styles in their hundreds of theatres, but it was the French baroque treatment that they "worked to perfection," in the grand movie palaces built in the 1920s, when motion pictures had developed into a full force. The Chicago, 1921, Chicago; the Tivoli, 1921, Chattanooga, Tennessee; Shea's Buffalo, 1926, Buffalo, New York; the Palace, 1922, Cleveland; and Loew's St. Louis (Powell Symphony Hall), 1925; are among many Rapp and Rapp works which exhibit a full development of the Rapps' French stylistic use.

"Five high class" vaudeville acts, including Herman Timberg, a "versatile comedian of stellar honors," were greeted by standing ovations and cheering when the New Orpheum Theatre opened Monday, October 19, 1914. The capacity audience of 850 patrons had paid either fifteen cents for general admission or thirty cents to have a reserved seat on the main floor; the loge boxes were each equipped with six movable chairs at thirty-five cents apiece.

Citizens were tantalized by a February newspaper article which announced on column one, page one, that the F. and H. Amusement Company was planning to build a new Champaign theatre that would cost $65,000 and seat one thousand people; little other information had leaked out before the theatre actually opened. Marcus Heiman, Joseph M. Finn, and Mattie R. Finn were the co-owners of the F. and H. Amusement Company. Information on the "old" Orpheum Theatre is lacking; as early as December 15, 1911, an article appeared in the Champaign Daily News announcing that the "present" Orpheum must be vacated June 1 [1912] "as per ordinance." The article also announced that a new vaudeville house, able to seat two to three times the audience of the "present" theatre, was expected.

The New Orpheum was indeed impressive. The Champaign Daily Gazette reported the day after opening night, that the New Orpheum "so far surpasses anything ever undertaken in this part of the state that its full beauty cannot be wholly described." Theatre patrons where not only able to enjoy the fabulous theatre interior, but also shows which were part of the "high class vaudeville circuit," coming straight from the F. and H. Amusement Company Palace Theatre in Chicago. A typical evening in late 1914 would begin with an overture played by the New Orpheum Theatre Orchestra. A photoplay such as "Jaunts and Journeys, an Educational Foreign Travel Photo-Play" would show next, with live acts following: "Carletta the Human Dragon, World's Greatest Contortionist," "Duncan and Holt, Blackface Comedians," "Miss Dorothy De Shelle and Company in a comedy entitled Crookology," and "Oklahoma's Phenomenal Song Bird, Bob Allbright." "The Three Dusty Roads, in a Feat or Two, with a Laugh or Two, on a Bar or Two" would be the closing act. Written programs advertised local businesses, with products ranging from diamonds to sponges; patrons were encouraged to return to the Orpheum with notice of upcoming acts such as the January 7, 1915 performance of "The Oklahoma Boy," Will Rogers.

F. and H. Amusement Company sold the Orpheum to the Champaign Orpheum Company in 1919, but the theatre continued to operate within the Orpheum Circuit of Vaudeville Theaters. By 1925, the Champaign Orpheum was one of twenty-seven theatres in the circuit, which reached from Los Angeles to Chicago, and New Orleans to Vancouver. An Orpheum Circuit Program dating to 1925 announced that it was "the constant aim of the management of the Orpheum Circuit to present Vaudeville without the use of a single offensive word, phrase, or situation.

The rising popularity of motion pictures produced economic changes within the theatrical circuits and many of the vaudeville chains being taken over by larger corporations by the end of the 1920s. RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) was formed when RCA (Radio Corporation of America) took over the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. This merger was announced in Champaign when the "RKO Orpheum" appeared in a daily advertisement, October 14, 1919. RKO's association with the Champaign Orpheum lasted until 1971, when the George Kerasotes Corporation of Springfield, Illinois purchased the theatre.

In 1932 the Orpheum Closed for the entire summer, due to the effects of the Depression; it was the first time the theatre had closed since a 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic forced all local theatres to close for three weeks. Most local theatres, including the Orpheum, were forced to reduce their prices in half throughout the Depression.

The desire for news and escape during wartime in the 1940s brought an increased theatre attendance. RKO was booking first-run feature films at the Orpheum by 1950. In 1953, the Orpheum presented a new technical marvel, a three-dimensional film entitled "Bwana Devil." Cinemascope, stereophonic sound, and a "vinyl plastic silver wide-screen, extending the entire width of the stage" were installed in 1954. By 1956, motion picture technology finally won; the final vaudeville act played at the RKO Orpheum.

The Orpheum was one of eighteen theatres which were built in Champaign-Urbana by 1920; of these eighteen, eleven had been closed. Many of these earlier "theatres" were the smaller nickelodeons, the earliest phase of theatres which were more storefront-like in character. Of the seven operating theatres, four were in Champaign and three were in Urbana. The Illinois Theatre, built in 1908, was the main attraction in Urbana, with 1,432 seats. Burned in 1927, this theatre catered mainly to live performances, and was more auditorium like in character. The Princess Theatre, later the Cinema, graced Main Street in Urbana before 1920; the theatre has experienced several remodeling efforts, including a splitting of the interior space.

In 1915, the Belvoir (later the Rialto) was built, just one year after the Orpheum, and only one block away. This theatre was remodeled in 1938, with an upper balcony being lost. With over 900 seats, the Belvoir was larger than the Orpheum, but not as ornate. The Belvoir was incorporated into the Robeson Department Store complex, and has been altered. Across Church Street from the Belvoir is the Park Theatre (later the Art), built in 1903. Smaller in scale than the Orpheum and lacking the grand interior, this building remains substantially intact, operating as an art and foreign film theatre. The Varsity Theatre, 33 Main St., is the closest theatre to the train station, being less than a block away. Later known as the Iilini Theatre, the building has been substantially altered and is now a church.

The Virginia Theatre, built in 1921, became Champaign-Urbana's largest indoor theatre. The Virginia has a handsome long terra cotta facade, Mediterranean in style, and includes space for small businesses in front, as does the Orpheum. The interiors of these two theatres differ substantially in their plan; the Orpheum is more elliptical in shape with loge boxes, while the Virginia is a broader, more shallow space with a balcony.