Old theaters appear in C-U books

A year and a half ago, C-U Blogfidential intended to direct your attention towards a brand new book that incorporated a few ephemeral photographs of interest. We managed to bring it up in the first issue of our CineMicroGraph news-zine but that’s where our efforts ended, considering how minor the point in the grand scheme of things. Well, the passage of time not only figures into the book in question but has also put a positive spin on our procrastination, for we now can report on a “sequel” of sorts at the same time.

Released on Monday, September 14, Urbana by Ilona Matkovszki and Dennis Roberts joins Champaign by Raymond Bial, which first became available in April 2008 the week of “Ebertfest,” in the extensive “Images of America” book series from Arcadia Publishing of Mount Pleasant, SC. You can easily identify these in the “local history” section of your favorite bookstore with their sepia-tone covers and picture-laden interiors; the apparent conceit is that regional Arcadia editors work with knowledgeable authors to develop niche titles which lean on their subject’s “early years” for nostalgic appeal.

Both Urbana and Champaign cover the establishment and growth of their respective cities from the mid-Nineteenth Century to today, although the copy for both mostly concerns pre-1950 milestones and nearly all images have been culled from the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library. Amazingly, very little overlaps between the books, although a handful of pictures and anecdotes do repeat, and we couldn’t help but notice the individualized writing affects – meaning, Arcadia resists modifying the manuscripts so they all read alike.

Veteran photographer and author Bial, who adapted Champaign from its out-of-print predecessor Champaign: A Pictorial History (G. Bradley Publishing, 1993) uses a conversational tone to dramatize his topics, such as with the following caption to a picture of a locomotive:

“The first locomotive pulled into West Urbana [what is now Champaign] on July 24, 1854. It featured a towering smokestack and prominent, bristling cowcatcher, similar to this engine photographed in 1858. From the beginning, the arrival and departure of steam engines became a regular occurrence in the community for more than a century, before diesel engines replaced the old locomotives.” (p.8)

Matkovszki, a preservationist and member of the Urbana Public Arts Commission, brings a journalistic prose to Urbana. It’s unclear how much influence book designer Roberts had on the project, since the “Images of America” series mostly follows a two-pictures-per-page template, although layout flourishes are present along with original maps and photographs made specifically for the book. To wit, the same locomotive makes an encore here, about which the authors say:

“Urbana’s urbanization was initiated by the Illinois Central Railroad, chartered in 1850. The railroad was to connect Chicago in northeastern Illinois to Cairo in the southern tip of the state. The route between Urbana and Chicago was finished in 1854, and the first locomotive, which very likely looked like the one on this photograph, rolled into the Urbana depot on July 24.” (p.18)

Regardless, the books provide a compact window into the C-U yesteryear despite the heavy reliance on architectural images and wide-angle street scenes for illustration. So what should come with the territory, dear readers, but pictures of movie houses past!

Champaign takes the cake in this regard. The Art Theatre’s distinctive brick-painted sign and marquee can be seen on p.97, bottom, across Church Street from the former Rialto Theater immediately east of the Robeson building. Film fans can easily date the Orpheum and Virginia theatre photos on p.117 based on their main attractions. The Illini Theater in downtown Champaign is pictured in both mainstream (p.124, bottom) and adult (p.73, top) eras, while its earlier incarnation as the Varsity can be seen on p.33, top, if one looks carefully for the sign directly above the horse and buggy. (Click for more)

Urbana goes out of its way to connect the former Princess Theater (p.119, top) with former patron Roger Ebert, who was honored with a commemorative plaque placed on the sidewalk in front of his boyhood home on Washington Street (p.126, top) earlier this year. (Click for more)

Of course, your humble editor would love to find out what else hides away from CUBlog within the Urbana Free Library … and one is never too old for a field trip, yes?

~ Jason Pankoke

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