Princess Theatre article

From August 20, 2007:

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Article in Champaign daily The News-Gazette about Mike and Gail Hanafin, owners of the Princess Theatre in LeRoy, IL, taking over management duties after allowing former operator Ben Slotky to back out of his lease agreement. (Remember that the direct link to this article will expire after Sunday, August 26.)


Editor’s note: With this development, Ben Slotky’s theatrical exhibition career in downstate Illinois is most likely over. Since I reported that Slotky had shuttered his beloved Castle Theatre in downtown Bloomington (see item, one last time: 1/5/07), the hyperbole-prone entrepreneur declared bankruptcy in April after amassing more than $2 million in liabilities and then watched Heartland Bank purchase the building for $250,000 during a sheriff’s foreclosure sale in June. He even received a restraining order barring him from setting foot on the Castle property during the brief cohabitation of ClearView Church and the Funny Bone comedy club. Talk about a tough room…

I finally filled in these blanks upon searching through the Pantagraph‘s on-line archives and, thanks to the traditional device of top-loading news articles with information, I learned more than enough from the search results without having to pay to read every single word. (Oops! Did I bring up that issue again?) I found the sheer number of reports on the subject pretty disheartening. At the same time, I wonder why the Graph has yet to file a story about Slotky’s (self-imposed?) withdrawal from the Princess, since LeRoy is geographically closer to Bloomington-Normal than Champaign-Urbana. Maybe it’s simply a faint asterisk compared to all the prior exclamation points.

Should we feel sorry for Slotky? Chances are pretty good that his inexperience managing an upscale movie theater doomed his efforts from the start; since he’s perennially unavailable for comment as of late, who knows when we’ll learn the honest truth about what happened. I’m not sure that he necessarily owes the general public an explanation, but I suspect he will eventually offer up his own spin on the situation once the sting wears off. Expect a Pantagraph reporter to be first in line to quote him about it.

Personally, I’ve never met the guy or talked to him over the phone. I think he only ever answered one of my various “Dear Castle” e-mails, briefly and cryptically. I even attempted to help them recruit entries for an independent film festival that never materialized. Despite this relatively one-sided connection, I do feel that Slotky accomplished something qualitative behind the marquee overlooking Washington Street, although many others can surely tell you better than I whether this unfortunate denoument could have been avoided.

It’s pretty obvious that Slotky saw the end coming when he announced late last year that he was going to spend some quality time in LeRoy, helping the Hanafin family relaunch the Princess after taking it over from Sue and Kris Spaulding and David Kraft. This occured mere weeks before the Castle closing. It’s less obvious as to why Mike Hanafin seems relatively unfazed in his News-Gazette interview; you’d think the guy would’ve been breathing major sighs of relief, unless Slotky did a pretty good job keeping the Castle-centric drama far away from the friendly confines of sleepy lil’ LeRoy.

That, of course, would have required the man to keep his mouth shut out of deference to the Hanafins and respect for the Princess’ customers. I remember reading a couple of years ago about Slotky’s pitch to take over operations of the Normal Theater, an arguably brash overture met with passive derision by the Normal City Council. He apparently jumped on the opportunity to voice his opinion after Pantagraph reports detailed the Art Deco palace’s operating losses; I’m sure this was not the first or last time that the showman’s braggadocio rubbed people the wrong way. By the same token, one wonders how Slotky managed to land (and retain) the lease of the Princess. Only the Hanafins know.

Moving forward, should we now bite our fingernails over the fate of the Castle? Not one, but two Pantagraph articles (!) cite the interest of Funny Bone operator Don Bassford in purchasing the property, hopefuly insuring that the auditorium structure would remain intact. Worse, the Castle could be gutted and transformed into a space completely ill-suited for performance of any kind, and I wouldn’t even dare invoke the word “demolition” if not for the recent additions of a mini-coliseum and mega-church in downtown Bloomington. You think One Main and Two Main in downtown Champaign are reworking our skyline? Over yonder, entire blocks have been razed in the business districts that look absolutely cavernous by comparison.

Let’s just cross our fingers that whomever becomes the next king of the Castle can apply better business sense to its livelihood, especially if it involves firing up the projector once again.

~ Jason Pankoke

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