Orpheum 100th, lore in spotlight

Without a doubt, Perry C. Morris must be one of the hardest-working cultural stewards living in our fair twin cities! He will prove it handily over the next 10 days during a quartet of appearances at which he will wax ephemeral not only about the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Champaign, which will reach its centenary at the end of the week, but also his book on the neighboring Art Theater.

Morris will become a de facto theater historian-in-residence at the Urbana Free Library, 210 W. Green St., Urbana, as three of his four events will be hosted there with the first taking place tonight, Tuesday, October 14, 7 p.m., in the second-floor Jean Evans Archives Room. After general business is conducted at the monthly meeting of the Champaign County Genealogical Society, of which Morris is acting president, he will give a presentation titled “100 Years of the Orpheum Theatre.” And tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15, also at 7 p.m. but this time in the ground-floor Lewis Auditorium, Morris will be joined by Joshua Harris, media preservation coordinator at the University of Illinois’ University Library, for a unique show-and-tell called “Champaign County on Film” where they will discuss various artifacts of local significance. (Morris has hinted to C-U Blogfidential that Harris will share vintage footage of the Orpheum at this event.) The latter is part of a new “Town & Gown Speaker Series” sponsored by the Student Life and Culture Archives, UIUC, and the Champaign County Historical Archives, while both are free admission for the general public.

The “main event” of the bunch will jazz it up on Saturday, October 18, when current caretakers – including Morris, who serves as secretary on their board – throw a Twenties-themed “Centennial Celebration” in the auditorium of the Orpheum, 346 N. Neil St., Champaign. Home for the past two decades to the non-profit Orpheum Children’s Science Museum, the space will reflect its former life as a vaudeville and movie house for one night only while guests enjoy dinner, libations, and performances by singer Katie Flynn, the Illini Contraband, and Crash Events. Obviously, this is being staged as a dress-up affair – era-appropriate attire is highly encouraged – and not just a nostalgic reunion show you can crash at any point; tickets are available here for $95/individual, $180/couple, and $500/table for six, with all revenue going towards continued operation of the science museum. For your memory banks, the ornate New Orpheum Theatre first opened for business on October 19, 1914, replacing a previous live venue of the same name, and eventually operated as a dedicated movie palace for many years until its closing in 1986.

Concluding the sequence will be a return to Urbana Free’s Jean Evans Archives Room on Thursday, October 23, 7 p.m., when the Champaign County Historical Archives presents “Local History & Genealogy: Authors Panel.” Several participants will talk about how they utilized the holdings of the archive for researching or augmenting their manuscripts. Audrey Wells, Joseph Muskin, and Morris will recount their work on The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years (Champaign Urbana Theater History, 2013) and be joined by Guy C. Fraker (Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit, Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), Dennis Roberts (Images of America: Urbana, Arcadia Publishing, 2009), Dannel McCollum (Remembering Champaign County, The History Press, 2010), and Frederick A. Schlipf of the UIUC Graduate School of Library and Information Science. If you are an independent writer and the task of weeding through a collection seems formidable, this might be worth your time to attend. A “light reception” – presumably, chatter and refreshments – will conclude the program.

We imagine Morris’ proposed Orpheum book, originally intended to debut at this time, will resemble The Art Theater in scope and spirit. Since discussion of the follow-up volume is irrelevant at this stage, we direct your attention to a video tapping Morris’ extensive knowledge about the movie, nickelodeon, vaudeville, and opera houses dotting Champaign around the turn of the twentieth century. This third episode of the Illinois Public Media series ILLINOIS PIONEERS from 2010 features Morris, retired theater manager and Virginia Theatre volunteer Leonard Doyle, and host John Paul who tour a lot of key real estate in 27 short minutes. (Timed to air in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Champaign, the piece omits mention of any comparable Urbana structures.) Grab some concessions from the nearest kitchen or barista and give it a watch; we are very fortunate to still have the Orpheum, Art, Virginia, and other remnants of yesterday’s entertainments based on some of the anecdotes told here, even if their functions in our community have changed.

Illinois Pioneers – Champaign Theatres from Illinois Public Media on Vimeo.

Now, we remind our dearest readers why the birthday venue holds a special place in our hearts, even after its own heart had peeled, chipped, and otherwise deteriorated after more than 20 years of disuse. Off and on for several months in 2008, the Orpheum Theatre served as home base to our Portland pal Jason Butler and his cast and crew for the making of WEREWOLF CEMETERY Episode 4. Luckily, the timing worked out perfectly for them to film extensive interior scenes before auditorium restoration was scheduled to begin following Thanksgiving of that year. Our fare-thee-well image is of lead villain, the Thane (Bob Henne), peeking conspicuously through the Orpheum front doors during a break in the Brainsmart madness. It’s almost like he wants to tell us, “Happy Halloween!”

Really, he just wants to eviscerate all the grave diggers in Ditchtown and overrun the human population of Amnesia Falls with his lycanthropic army. We would not make this up.

~ Jason Pankoke

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