August and everything NAFFter


Fall is a new season, right? I sure as hell hope so, dearest readers, for once again I need a refresher to get past the creeping ennui with a bad habit of stunting my efforts to continue C-U Blogfidential from afar. Unlike the last time I lit a literary fire under my rear, which also happened to picture a group of dusty and metaphoric theater seats, I’m not going to promise any specific actions or tease about what content is in the works and when it might arrive. You’ll simply have to practice due diligence if you are a friend of the site and visit Facebook to see what’s new. Please follow any links of interest right back here and, as always, I hope our posts live up to the standards you expect from CUBlog. With that squared away, here is my latest attempt to resume our unconventional coverage of the film culture du C-U…

Next image you’ll see below is from the inside of the shuttered Art Theater, snapped and shared recently by building owner David Kraft of Kraft Properties in a bid to engineer sales of those seats. Press coverage has confirmed that his broader attempts to attract another renter or unload the property itself for a princely sum has not elicited any serious offers, so he’s clearly ready to depart with what he can; the incoming board of the Lincoln Square Theater in Decatur announced last month they had acquired the Art’s digital projector, sound system, and popcorn machine, for instance. Kraft can’t do much of anything at the location without a money-making tenant (or even the limited money-making of a TENET), so he’s stuck paying bills however he can on an architectural shell designated a landmark by the city of Champaign. It’s his responsibility until further notice, and all the community can do is watch and wonder.

Personally, I’m more than tired of thinking about the Art difficulties past and present. I also don’t have the disposable income to spend on Art bric-a-brac or space at the Secret MICRO-FILM Headquarters to store it properly. I would love to see a small amount of ephemera make it to good homes and maybe receive a respectable display to keep its history alive. After that, I’m taking the “que sera, sera” approach to the situation and will pay renewed attention if a positive turn of events were to develop at 126 West Church Street. The forlorn furniture, then, is not meant as a cue to wring more sentiment over the Art’s fate or to fashionably demonize Kraft on top of the predictable social media criticism sent his way. It merely reflects an emptiness I’ve experienced lately, often when contemplating the state of cinema in the C-U.



Some version of our scene will emerge in full view once the pandemic is corralled. Of course, I see the evidence that operational theaters and headstrong promoters are bringing movies back to our community. I also witness through my personal connections that creators are meeting and workshopping via Zoom while some have already stepped back onto the set for commercials, shorts, and features. Clubs and classes held through the University of Illinois and other school settings are continuing in modified fashion. This is a solid awakening for all involved, just as long as we respect the tactics for keeping the COVID-19 coronavirus at bay, but pretty much all I can do is watch and wonder. A large part of my malaise is due to being away from my central Illinois habitat for so long and detached from my circle.

I might have to admit I don’t know how much longer I will be keeping up with all the Confidential things and wrangling them into Confidential form. A somewhat new life requires my attention, even if it is not meant to last, and the movies of Champaign, Urbana, and the cities beyond share no common ground with it other than through my willingness to investigate and be excited about what I learn through mostly impersonal means. If I can promise anything to the portion of the C-Universe still taking stock in what I do, it’s that I’ll be spotty in productiveness from now into the immediate future and I plan to eventually bring an agreeable close to our adventure. This wish stands even if I am fortunate enough to rejoin my lovely friends and neighbors as a full-time resident again in Champaign County.

As part of what could happen between now and then, I want to make an increased effort to have some of our favorite writers, artists, thinkers, and filmmakers along for the remaining ride. It’s too bad the cinematic landscape in Champaign-Urbana is a bizarre vista to lay our eyes upon, increasingly marked by remnants instead of living, breathing monuments to the movies. In my most recent, less-than-24-hour-long visit to the C-U in August, I captured the following photos for histrionic purposes as well as relevant documentation. Their emptiness only pronounces the sad feeling I can’t shake for reasons to be elaborated upon in essays not yet composed. I want to believe it will improve.

~ Jason Pankoke

p.s. Yes, I kicked off the post with a partial rouse. I really have nothing to report about the New Art Film Festival. When I can make a statement, I’ll share. I also didn’t want to waste a good headline, so…


Orpheum Theater, 346 N. Neil St., Champaign, IL

The Children’s Science Museum did not look shut down when I walked up to the building during my quickie Tour de Closures on Monday, August 22. Outdoor dining down the block had already begun to fill in that day, and nobody would cross my path at this end except for a mother-daughter duo. All the exhibits to be seen through the Orpheum windows seemed in order as did the “dinosaur digs” area outside. The only indication of the board of directors’ June decision was the blunt “Orpheum Closed” message on the marquee. In August, Smile Politely reported the Orpheum had finally been listed for sale for $449,000 through Champaign County Realty, while a follow-up article tells us how the group will attempt to stay relevant in the short term. Whomever might purchase it will be limited or liberated on how to repurpose the 1914 structure, depending on their business approach. The small oval plaque pictured below hangs on the façade and earmarks the Orpheum as having landmark status according to the city of Champaign, just like the one that had been sitting inside the Art on the unused ticket table. It cannot be drastically altered or torn down thanks to the protection. However, long-term vacancy is bad.


Art Theater, 126 W. Church St., Champaign, IL

Late on Friday, September 4, I caught the News-Gazette notice that David Kraft had planned a “garage sale” at the Art the following morning. I was not surprised. The going price for the Art is now $1.59 million through the McDonald Group, down from the original asking price of almost $2 million, and I’m presuming it’s discounted because Kraft is now selling the former assets of the Art Film Foundation separately. Needless to say, it carves out a deep pit in the stomach to gaze upon the Art in person these days. It and the Orpheum are just two of several major vacancies to hit downtown Champaign in the last year or so. Vacancy is bad, but multiple empty storefronts in close proximity are worse.


Mann Fox Theatre, 303 S. Mattis Ave., Champaign, IL

I’m not sure what to make of this lonely monolith. Motorists probably weren’t sure why someone would want to amble about the parking lot and take a close look at it. Somehow, my coworker Jorge Cazares realized it was me and honked the car horn in approval while passing by. Nice timing! The Fox Country Fair building was constructed in 1966 and opened in early 1967. A decade later, Chase Bank moved in and remodeled it for their needs. That branch relocated to a brand-new Mattis Avenue facility in December of last year, and Champaign city planner Bruce Knight claimed the former Fox location would be torn down and replaced by a CVS drug store as told to the News-Gazette at the time. However, the Weiner Companies is currently attempting to lease it as well as our final stop on the tour.


GKC Country Fair Cinemas, 113 S. Mattis Ave., Champaign, IL

This may have been the first theater I attended in Champaign-Urbana since my first apartment was very close to the Country Fair Shopping Center. I remember seeing THE LION KING there in 1994 with my roommate Brian and made occasional trips to Springfield and Mattis avenues so I could catch discount flicks with my friends after finding a new place near downtown Champaign. As remembered by Champaign Urbana Theater History, the second operators of the Fox Theatre (renamed from the Fox Country Fair Theatre) moved into the north end of the shopping center in 1976. The Fox became the Country Fair 4, giving up the 800+ seating capacity of their standalone, single-screen location for smaller auditoriums and more movie variety. Final owner GKC turned Country Fair into a second-run house, the death knell for many aging venues in the era of home video, and it closed in January 2003 after a final showing of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. It was the only film to play that final month with the other six screens remaining dark. Approach the location today and you’d be hard pressed to realize an early multiplex had existed there for nearly 30 years. I peered through the grimy glass and it sure feels like a cinema lost for nearly 20 years more. If you click on the image below of the prefabricated marquee, you will pull up a version that I rotated and flipped in Photoshop so the GKC logo and “Country Fair Cinemas” can be read.

Comments closed.