Smile Politely

Champaign theaters, past and present

Last Saturday, Discover CU presented a special one hour walking tour featuring downtown Champaign theaters of the past and present. Our guide Jared shared with us his wealth of knowledge about the history of downtown theaters such as the Art, the Virginia, and more.

The tour took us to some operational locations and others that are now home to new businesses in the downtown Champaign region. The tour began at the Virginia Theater.

Next we stopped by the former site of the Walker Opera house (now Hamilton Walker’s). We learned the name comes from the history of the owners of the opera house over the years.

Our next stop took us to the old Varsity Theater, which is now 51 Main.

The next location was a parking lot that used to house the Eichberg’s Opera House.

A reccuring theme of the tour described how the many fires that took place in the downtown area in the early to mid 20th century shaped what we see today. Another reccurrence was the name C.C. Pyle, also know as “cash and carry Pyle.” He owned many buildings in the old days of downtown Champaign. C.C.’s management of these theaters influenced his meteoric rise with his premier client, Red Grange, in the mid 1920s.

Our next stop was at the old Barrett Hall which is now One Main. The building at One Main is the only building in Champaign on the north side of the street with an odd number because they wanted to be number one. 

Our next stop was the Orpheum Theatre, now a popular children’s museum. Unfortunately, due to the weather, we were unable to tour the inside as planned. 

Our second to last stop was the old Rialto Theater, now privately owned.

Our final stop was the Art Theater, still original and just as beautiful as ever.

Overall, the tour was extremely informative, and I would definitely reccomend such a tour to anyone with an interest in downtown Champaign. This rich history is one we are lucky to call our own. How incredible it is to still be able to enjoy the many shows, movies, and plays that take place at the still operational theaters. 


The Theaters Past and Present tour was presented by Discover CU on Saturday, March 24th. All photos by Mark Clodfelter. 

Related Articles