In the prologue to his book, “Awake In the Dark,” renowned film critic and U of I alumni Roger Ebert writes about the closing of the Dream Palace, a memorable movie theater from his childhood. To read his words about the memories he had there is to understand the power a theater can have in a small town, especially before the internet or tv. He ends his farewell by essay describing the theatre’s closing as “the end of an era” and writing how even in its last showing, “It was the best deal in town.”
It would seem the same would be a very suitable ending to this article as well. In the same book, he talks of Art Theater and the films it exposed him to many years ago, such as classics by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, and of seeing Citizen Kane rereleased in the one screen theater.
50 years later my, and many other Champaign-Urbana resident’s, experiences with the Art Theater have been very much the same. It was where I first saw “Casablanca” on the big screen and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” shadow-casted by my classmates. Attending shows there was a privilege I didn’t realize was coming to an end, and now I wish I had taken more advantage of it. It is true of course, all good things must end in time, but somehow all the best quotes and sound advice do not damper what we all feel at the end of something we’ve grown so accustomed to. The news of the theater’s closing came as a shock to many.
The Art Theater was not the place to see the latest Marvel movie or Disney film. Rather, it ran a different breed of film; the classic, the independent, the foreign. In the end that might have been its undoing. Not everyone is a film buff and a small town like Champaign-Urbana with two other major cineplexes, the competition must have been tight, to say the least.
After recently becoming a non-profit charity and earning its status as a local staple of the community, it seemed like it would survive on necessity alone. After all, where else can one catch up on the latest documentaries or check out the annual Shocktober offerings?
Establishments like the Art Theater support local arts and give smaller scale filmmakers a chance to showcase their films. It was there that residents could see the films made outside the studio system and those that were more controversial. Big theaters can be a great place to see the local blockbuster but that mass production removes the personality, the charm and ability to showcase local and smaller filmmakers. It is why it is so important to support local art and why so often it is overlooked.
For this publication, it was certainly an important establishment. As calendar editor, the sheer amount of diversity of films and the ever-changing line-up offered was unmatched by any other venue of any kind. For our critics, it was how we took a break from reviewing the latest action flick and rom-coms(though both are important in their own right) and gave us a chance to bite our teeth into the art and independent films we’d otherwise have to travel to bigger areas to see. Here at buzz, we’ll feel its loss greatly.
While the showtimes will cease and the ticket-booth will stay unmanned, the memories of its many patrons, performers and visitors will go on. We’ll remember laughing out-loud as the screen is filled with ancient comedies by greats or reels at the Found Footage Fest that filled the screen. We’ll remember being taken away to worlds far away from life in Champaign-Urbana and watching the trials and tribulations of people so very different from ourselves. We’ll remember watching friends act out alongside the characters in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” screaming at the screen and taking pictures under the bright lights of the marquee outside of the theater.
After being in operation for 106 years, it would be hard to say the Art Theater didn’t have a good run. It certainly had some fun during a period in 1969 – 86 when it showed Adult films, but it still seems a bit too soon for its time in CU to come to an end. As a co-op owned theater, the future of the building remains uncertain. It can’t be torn-down so what will become of the historic building remains to be seen. While its prices were low, around $8 on average, there were certainly theaters that were cheaper at times. But in terms of quality and influence on those who attended its shows, well, in the words of that famous critic “It was still the best deal in town.” And it was, right until the very end.