Smile Politely

Yes Virginia, there is a better way

Much has been said about the recent dismantling of the old neon marquee that once adorned the entrance of the Virginia Theatre. I am not willing to get into that here. My feelings are marred by nostalgic emotion, and I am without enough information to truly formulate a fair judgment. I tend to (sometimes foolishly) give the benefit of the doubt to those in power; after all, the board that decides on an issue like the Virginia marquee couldn’t possibly be wrapped up in some political game, tied in with financial back door deals, and social intrigue, could they? In the end, it seems like they simply looked at the facts and tried to make the best decision for the theater, and ultimately, for the Park District. I commend them on their decision, even if it is one that hurts my overly sentimental heart. I can still see my 9-year-old self outside in line, waiting to get into see Michael Keaton as Batman in 1989. What a memory.

No, now that the marquee issue is in the morgue, I am much more interested about what actually happens inside of the walls of the Virginia than I am about what the new marquee will look like on the outside come next Spring. For years now, like so many people in the community, I have been both hot and cold about the landmark theater in downtown Champaign, and all that it does and does not accomplish.

After all, it’s within those walls and on that stage that our most cherished cultural event has taken shape and helped to define a new era of how and why Champaign-Urbana can affect not just the rest of the community or the state, but — honestly — the entire world.

Rober Ebert’s Film Festival is truly a one-of-a-kind, internationally recognized and revered event that we are only too lucky to have right here in our own home town. But ultimately, the Virginia simply acts as a vessel for Mr. Ebert to present his wonderful world of fame, fortune, and film. The theater, the park district, or its staff, aren’t truly responsible for it. They serve it well, and obviously, they play a role, but that doesn’t give them the kind of honest accolades that are granted to the College of Communications at UIUC. It is that department that spearheads the event, along with Mr. Ebert. And so while I cannot simply dismiss the CPD here, or its role in the festival’s production, I also know enough about event coordination and venue rental to understand where the lines are drawn between producer and production.  

And that serves as an excellent starting point to this simple list of four things that the Virginia Theatre can do to help situate itself as the true gem of downtown Champaign. As it stands, there are shortcomings that are as plain as day, in my view. I am hopeful that these points can simply serve as an illustration and as a space where people can discuss their own ideas, and hopefully, help to brainstorm so that the people of the park district might get a beat on what some other folks in the community are saying about the theater. After all, it’s our theater, and as such, we have the right to speak up about not only what it looks like, but how it functions as well.

1. Keep up the Good Work. OK — it’s easy to point fingers and assign blame to anything if you look hard enough. And certainly, the park district is likely more hamstrung that we’d like to believe, what with having the weight of the city on its shoulders and super tight budget with which to provide all sorts of parks, pools, events, and activities that are intended to appeal to such a broad and diverse community. So, it goes without saying that, on the whole, the Virginia and our park district is something for which we should be mighty thankful. Honestly, they do a great job. Take the film series at the Virginia. It is always well designed, and timely. A quick look at the choices from last year will show you that they reeled off Groundhog Day a few days before February 2, 2010 and then two weeks later in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, they screened Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Well done. Add in Chinatown, and and The Shining, and well, you see what I am saying. Nice work on showing old classics, but honestly, it’s…

2. Time to live in the now. For being next door to the town that birthed HAL 9000, and for being the theater that actually hosted his damned birthday party celebration, which kicked off what would become Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, the fact that one isn’t able to purchase tickets online is simply ridiculous. Seriously, there are few words for the archaic and poorly executed ticketing system at The Virginia Theatre. I am thinking that they are likely to change that with its impending remodel, but honestly, that it has taken this long bears a mention. I cannot tell you how many conversations with various people I have had about this particular topic. It might seem shallow and unimportant, but there is no reason that the park district can’t…

3. Treat it like a business. To elaborate on the above point, there is no other way to define this: The Virginia Theatre, no matter how “publicly owned” it is, should be absolutely and constantly trying to not just reach the black, but stay there, and grow. That they have some tax payer bucks to help out should be gravy, to be honest. Here we have a 1500 capacity theater, and just how often do you see people streaming out of its doors after a sold out show? As I mentioned above, the Virginia does some great things, but feel free to check in on the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, Indiana, which is owned by the city. Or how about the Englert Theater in Iowa City, which is, you guessed it, also owned by the city. These are of a similar nature and in a similar situation to The Virginia, and I won’t get into what kinds of performances they host on a regular basis — but let’s just say that we’re getting pwned, to use the parlance of our times.

My main concern here is not really about the shows that the theater does get, but rather it’s the fact that there are so few. To be blunt, it seems like there is no actual talent buyer at the helm of The Virginia Theatre, trying to drum up business and bring in touring musical acts, comedians, theater performances, and the like. Now I realize that someone does work in the position of programmer or director, and I am hearing that they are hiring for a job in this department. So, we might be able to file this one in the “wait-and-see” category like the aformentioned online ticketing.

Granted, shows do crop up, but I am thinking that it’s often as a result of said performance landing in the theater’s lap as opposed to someone actually going out of their way to find it on their own. Again, no pointing fingers here at anyone on staff, and certainly, not looking at any one individual, but I feel like I am well versed enough in this particular area to make a good call. And I appreciate that a risk is exactly that; as such, the financial stake might not be worth it when you look at it from hard ticket sales and how that affects a bottom line. But that problem could be easily solved if the Virginia Theater made a simple pledge and promised to…

4. Treat us like adults. And by that, I mean, sell us alcohol. Yes. Beer. Wine. Whiskey. All of it. It doesn’t have to be a nightclub, but it also doesn’t need to be Chuck E. Fucking Cheese. Seriously. I am not sure I understand the thinking behind the “dry” theater concept here, but for a park district that sponsors and supports street fests where people are raging and sometimes vomiting in the streets of Champaign, I can’t see the whole “moral high ground” working as an acceptable excuse. So, what gives? I am honestly confused, and I have even sought out answers from people who work at the park district, or who used to work at the park district and even some people that some might consider to be “higher ups.” Their answers, which will definitely remain anonymous, have varied from “we want it to be a family-friendly place” to “we don’t feel like it would bring much to the theater” to “I don’t know. The people in charge of the theater are completely missing the boat on this one.”

I am going to go with the latter. They are missing it, and I would dare anyone to prove to me otherwise.

Let’s get real for a moment. Downtown Champaign has experienced a considerable uptick in business and in traffic as a result of… yes, alcohol sales. Let’s not kid ourselves. No one decided that Jos. Kuhn and Co. was the place for suits all of a sudden, and certainly, as much fun as Carries and Rebecca’s are to browse around, they don’t bring hundreds and hundreds of people to the town from 50+ miles around on a Saturday night.

No, it’s booze. Good old fashioned drank and the prospect of meeting someone in a romantic capacity for a night of a lifetime. And what is wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing at all.

The Virginia Theatre doesn’t have to promote Red Bull Bombs or $2 U-Call Its. They don’t need to hire sexxxy bartenders or start a weekly salsa night. I am not suggesting that they treat themselves like a bar even. But that I cannot go into my downtown theater and watch a performance with a beer is simply beyond me. If you want to keep dry on “kid-friendly” shows, so be it. But Alice Cooper played at the Virginia. Yes. Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper and no swill? Really? That sounds like a terrible time, to be honest. At least give me a beer, lest I sneak a flask of whiskey in with me to mix with the fountain soda. Yeesh.

Both the theaters that I mentioned above allow alcohol sales, so excuse me for typing this one out and forcing you to get all phonetic with me, but, NO DUH, right?

It’s a financial swing and a miss on the part of the park district. A major one. They are currently missing out on what could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. Huge error.

I need to reiterate: I am not down on The Virginia. In fact, I am extremely proud of it, and treat it as a show piece when I have friends in town who are visiting. It’s an impressive sight. And it’s been beautifully restored, and that type of effort cannot be overlooked. But it’s not complete yet. It needs work, from an organizational standpoint.

I’ve been meaning to write about the Virgina Theatre for years now. As someone with a vested interest in how performance affects the community, naturally, it’s of great interest to me. But beyond that, I am still just a tax paying citizen living in the city of Champaign, Illinois. And from that perspective, I am just as intrigued about the way things happen, and how it permeates the culture.

I am hopeful to see the theater grow and prosper in its new era of maturation. Let’s hope that the people in charge make some good choices to help it along.

Photo by Jamie Newell

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