Memory Lane: It’s Showtime!
At Illinois, going to a movie theater in town was once nearly as common as going to class. Chris Alix, ’88 RNG, fondly remembers the high spirits at a midnight showing of Blue Velvet at the Co-Ed Theatre. “The entire audience sang—badly—every time the title song came around,” he recalls.
Steps away from campus, the Co-Ed was “full all the time,” says Linda Cardiff May, ’87 AHS, who managed the theater for several years, beginning in 1969. Droves of students flocked to the Thunderbird Theatre, too, which was practically on campus. Students also patronized the Rialto, with its massive steel-and-glass marquee; the art-deco Princess; and the Orpheum, which had a 40-foot-high auditorium ringed by 24 Greek columns.
“I went to all the movie theaters off campus,” says Roz Lynn Dorf, ’71 LAS. “They played first-run movies. They had bigger screens, better sound—so much better than watching a movie at the Student Union.” Emily Johnson, ’79 BUS, wryly adds, “I would go to see a first-run movie I really wanted to see—or if a date was paying.”
The Co-Ed and Thunderbird purposely catered to students. Built in 1938, the Co-Ed initially featured an orange-and-blue façade and interior. Matinees had student-friendly prices: 75 cents in the 1960s.
Opened in 1966, the 850-seat Thunderbird displayed a large wooden Indian chief in its lobby. In the 1990s, to great success, it debuted its Brew’n’View. “I loved the Thunderbird—indie art movies and great pizza,” recalls Nancy Brooks Miller, ’71 FAA, ’98 SIS.
Going to the show was such a given that as early as 1929, The Daily Illini ran a lengthy overview of local theaters in its September issue. That year, students could see movies at the Orpheum, the Rialto and the Virginia in Champaign, and at the Princess and Colonial in Urbana. In 1965, there were seven theaters and two drive-ins. “Students provide most of the support for all these theaters,” The Daily Illini reported.
Some movie theaters broadened horizons. Sally Duchow, MS ’86 LIS, recalls, “Seeing a movie at the Art while a student seemed exotic.” The theaters also were a source of jobs for many students. “We’d see friends coming to the show. And all the free movies we wanted!” says Mary Wehring, ’82 LAS, who worked at the Co-Ed and Country Fair Cinemas.
Going to the show was popular despite frequent film screenings by student groups on campus. An astounding 438 movie nights were held during the 1971-72 school year, according to The Daily Illini.
The movie houses, alas, eventually faded to black. The Co-Ed, shuttered in 1999, was razed and replaced by a luxury apartment building. The Thunderbird is now a concert venue.
The last picture at the Rialto was Stripes on New Year’s Eve in 1981. The magnificent Orpheum shut its doors in 1986. It’s now a children’s museum. The Princess, where Roger Ebert, ’64 MEDIA, fell in love with movies, was renamed the Cinema Theater in 1966 and closed in 1994. It’s now an art gallery. Called the Park when it opened in 1913, the Art finally ended its long run last Halloween.
Remaining in the area are two multiplexes and the Virginia, which shows movies periodically and hosts Ebertfest.
Lots of good memories remain, too, that sometimes hit close to home. John Paul, ’77 MEDIA, MS ’10 MEDIA, saw Risky Business at the Co-Ed: “I remember the applause when Tom Cruise smirks, ‘Looks like the University of Illinois!’” Students were similarly thrilled with the citing of the birthplace of HAL, the petulant computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The crowd went wild when the University was mentioned,” Dorf recalls.