Virus fells Orpheum, shorts Avon


While retailers, restaurants, and attractions had their operational restrictions eased again as of last Friday, June 26, allowing for more flexibility to serve customers in person, there is no guarantee we will see an end to the pandemic soon even if our state is in better shape than others. Both the coronavirus information page kept by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and an animated map embedded on the response page from the Illinois government show that Champaign County has weathered more virus activity than its neighboring counties by far. Why is it the case? Maybe, contagious folks go directly from Chicagoland to Champaign-Urbana more often than other downstate cities. Maybe, our neighbors are more diligent in being tested, thereby increasing the total number of diagnosed cases. Maybe, we will never have enough contact tracing performed to determine the answers. All I know is I plan to wear the damn mask in public for the common good, follow social distancing guidelines until national health officials say otherwise, and adhere to the adjustments made by any establishment I visit.

Opening back up or expanding services under “Restore Illinois Phase 4” is also no guarantee that all businesses will truly be back in business, including theatrical exhibitors. Skim last week’s Calendar and you will see the area’s drive-ins are feasting on catalog titles while indoor screens remain dark. An exception is the Roxy Cinemas in Ottawa, which is within driving distance of MFHQ Remote but too far away from the C-U for a night out. What will it even look like once we’re allowed back in? The News-Gazette gave us an idea when they shared the revised rules; “Movie Theaters and Performing arts” etiquette involves the expected modifications to keep patrons and workers safe including spaced-out ticket lines and seating, lower maximum capacity per show, no refillable food or drink containers, and staggered entry and exit. I wonder how much total effort will be put into maintaining this barometer, especially at a multiplex. Not helping consumer confidence, AMC Theaters recently let it slip they would allow mask wearing to slide before walking back the policy due to criticism from all corners.

The largest movie theater chain in the United States also keeps backpedaling on when they will reopen worldwide, recently resetting that date as July 30 due to various circumstances. Rapid-fire change is suddenly the norm. That makes it interesting, right? In a world where the studio juggernauts are actively leapfrogging over one another for future release dates to space their preordained hits once a sizeable amount of screens are available… In a world where a 27-year-old dinosaur blockbuster tops the box office charts again through drive-in play… In a world where a no-budget, 30-minute chiller filmed in socially distant conditions can be four-walled in a single traditional movie house and gross the highest amount in the country on its one-day run… anything is possible and nothing is completely predictable. Well, that’s not exactly true. What is predictable is the smaller houses in our communities are being forced to innovate as they struggle to float themselves in a downturn that keeps elongating due to coronavirus fears. It seems like what can go wrong will go wrong before anyone can right the ship.



The owners of two familiar institutions have adopted tactics to help ease their finances while both audiences and new Hollywood releases stay out of reach. Snacks and viewing choices are available from the Virginia Theatre of Champaign, closed for renovations that were planned well before the pandemic, and one should watch their website and Facebook carefully for the changing details. On most Fridays and Saturdays from now until the end of August, with the exception of the Fourth of July weekend, the Virginia is offering “Curbside Concessions” of fresh popcorn, drinks, and candy that can be ordered same day between 3 and 6 p.m. and then picked up between 4 and 7 p.m. Curated streaming rentals are offered through an event page and may change every Friday; last week’s menu included documentaries on Roger Ebert (LIFE ITSELF) and The Band (ONCE WERE BROTHERS).

In Decatur, the family-operated Avon Theater is working through a trying stretch after being closed since the spring. Intending to reopen last Friday in concert with Phase 4, the Avon had already lit up their marquee with TROLLS WORLD TOUR, IRRESISTIBLE, and THE GOONIES before discovering at the last minute an electrical problem that rendered all their digital projectors unusable. Technicians from Chicago will help them sort it out and install what’s needed to resume shows, according to their Facebook feed, but it means clientele isn’t being entertained and the theater isn’t covering expenses like usual. The setback came less than a week after the Hustons launched a GoFundMe campaign with a $30,000 goal to make up for revenue lost while shut down. We hope that combined support from Avonians everywhere will erase the deficit in quick order and restore good cheer on North Water Street.

A third establishment housed in a century-old venue will not open again. Three weeks ago, the board of directors at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum of Champaign, established in 1994, announced it would cease operations and put up for sale its building, the former Orpheum Theatre first opened in 1914. They provided a lively and educational outlet for our youth to learn about the world around them via rotating exhibits, colorful presentations, and special events; it is clear from Facebook how much care had been poured into their efforts. However, when compared to similar hands-on offerings in other cities, the confined Orpheum floor plan and a budget collected through admissions, grants, donations, rentals, and fundraisers did not allow for breadth and building maintenance. Old discussion was revived by Smile Politely recently about the possible benefit of separating the museum from the theater so both could prosper, echoed by Orpheum friend Perry C. Morris in a News-Gazette commentary run on Sunday, but the pandemic has apparently tapped out their resources. It is a big loss despite the compromises.

Luckily, the Orpheum and Art theaters are registered historic places that can’t be demolished or greatly altered, but what is their best use going forward? We should first help the surviving businesses to regain strength and then evaluate. The motion picture industry as defined by American practices could be substantially changed when the masks and gloves come off, so to speak. It may well be time for broad improvements in how the industry workforce is treated, as argued by television editor Zack Arnold (COBRA KAI, BURN NOTICE), which reconciles everything from impossible work schedules to ingrained issues of sexism, racism, and ageism. It may also open up opportunity, The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard suggests, to envision new kinds of distribution divorced from the major chains that actually favor diverse storytelling and original voices. It would be refreshing for waves of conviction, imagination, and dedication to trickle down to all the laborers, managers, and entrepreneurs among us to give the local movie milieu a fresh kick in the ass. Buck up, C-U. We’re overdue to get a move on.

~ Jason Pankoke


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