The Co-Ed Theatre
By Perry Morris
Visiting today's bustling Campustown, it is increasingly hard to envision the quaint commercial street of yesteryear. Initially, Campustown, as it was later known, was one block of simple two-story commercial buildings between Wright Street and Sixth Street. From 1938 until 2000, the Co-Ed Theatre stood as the glowing beacon along that street with its orange and blue neon marquee . The Co-Ed Theatre would have celebrated 80 years this September and while the structure is no longer there, we take a look back at its long history as the social center of the University of Illinois.
Beginning at least ten years prior to opening in 1938, various groups worked to make a campus area theater a reality. Local and out-of-town interests, both individually and in concert with others, had worked for a theater at different times. Paul Prehn, University wrestling coach and owner of the popular Prehn’s-on-Green, had formulated a plan for a theater, but unable to bring it to fruition.
Campus merchants, feeling a theater would draw trade into the small business district, formed a committee that by July 1936, were in negotiations with Chicago architects and had taken options on sites in the block bounded by Sixth Street, Green Street, Fifth Street, and John Street. Then in October 1936, they were actively buying land on Sixth Street between the Boneyard and Healey Street.
The size and scope of the proposed theater changed over time as did the architects and developers. By May of 1937, Chicago Theater company Balaban & Katz had an interest in the project and architects, Pereira and Pereira, of Chicago, had plans drawn. William Pereira,1930 University graduate in architecture, had been active in dramatics. This plan looked like it would become a reality.
An 8 May 1938 article in the Courier revealed major changes in the planned campus theater. Harold R. Alger announced plans for the construction of a new theater at 614-616 East Green Street to be known as the Co-Ed and operated by Alger Brothers for the Campus Theater Corporation.
The color scheme of the modern fireproof theater would feature the University of Illinois orange and blue. The end standards of seats with aisle lights would feature campus building scenes. Equipment was to be of the latest design including Simplex brand sound equipment. Mr. Alger said, "The new theater will be the last word in modernity, beauty, comfort, and safety in design. It will be built and operated in a manner commensurate with the last word in showmanship."
A new company, the Campus Theater Corporation, was formed following several months of negotiations between Alger Brothers, campus district business men, and the A.J. Balaban Co., Inc., of Chicago. The Balaban company had purchased lots at Sixth and Healy Streets about 18 months earlier, but construction on those lots was delayed because A.J. Balaban was in Europe part of 1937. In the meantime, Alger Brothers had leased the Green Street property and had plans drawn for a new theater. Before construction on either theater was started, negotiations began for a merger of the combined interests. The lots at Sixth and Healy were taken over by the Campus Theater Corporation to be used as a parking lot and possibly the larger theater at some future date.
The Alger brothers, Edward E. of LaSalle-Peru, and Harold R. of Urbana, ran a circuit of 12 theaters in Illinois. They had operated theaters locally for 30 years, including the Park in Champaign, the Princess in Urbana, and formerly the Albro in Urbana. Edward E. Alger was serving as president of the LaSalle Chamber of Commerce and Harold R. Alger had served as president of the Urbana Association of Commerce.
A.J. Balaban was an original partner in the Balaban & Katz theater corporation in Chicago. The Champaign theater would be the fourth in a new chain established by Mr. Balaban. The other three were in Chicago, the Esquire, near the Drake hotel was the most recent.
The Campus Theater Corporation had a 10-year lease with a renewal option from F.F. LeSeure, Danville, owner of the property at 614-616 East Green. The transaction was handled by S.B. Trelease and L.M. Rovelstad.
Architects Monberg and Wagner, Chicago, designed the new Co-Ed Theatre into a remodeled and expanded building in the heart of the campus business district.
The Duncan-Erber studios would continue to occupy the building but in a different layout. They would retain the 614 East Green store-front to a depth of 41 feet on the first floor and move their photographic studio to redecorated space on the second floor. The front of the 616 East Green store-front would house the box office and lobby. The remainder of the first floor and the 65-foot addition would all be used for the theater. Additional space north of the adjacent buildings and west of the theater was also leased to provide room for the heating, boiler and air conditioning systems.
The Frank A. Somers Co. of Urbana began excavating for the addition on Tuesday 17 May 1938. Brick walls would rise 26 feet in height on a 13-inch thick foundation of reinforced concrete.
The Courier reported on 14 August 1938 that the brick addition had been completed and the ceiling framework was ready for lathers and plasterers. A sloped concrete floor had been constructed in the auditorium with the remainder of the concrete floor, including the foyer and rear of the auditorium, to be poured within the next few days. Construction work in offices and toilet rooms in the basement was also nearly finished.
The Co-Ed contained 900 specially designed and built seats. Cost of the finished project was $90,000. The air-conditioning plant changed the air at the rate of 20,000 cubic feet a minute and could wash and cool the air with 250 gallons of water a minute.
The lobby featured a large fountain with statuary. The lighting effects, wall colors, and outside façade all reflected the University of Illinois theme. Interior of the building had indirect lighting featuring neon. The auditorium was lit with 1,500 feet of neon in Persian orange, midnight blue, and amber gold, along with 14 specially designed triple-color light fixtures of spun aluminum.
The projection and sound equipment were modern and up-to-date. Only two other theatres in the state, both in Chicago, had this type of sound equipment. Sound was enhanced with special paint that helped prevent distortion of sound waves and a special porous screen that measured 14 feet by 18 feet.
The marquee weighed over 5 tons. It was built by Federal Electric of porcelain enamel. The glass attraction boards were trimmed in stainless steel. The interior orange and blue color scheme was extended outdoors to the marquee. The canopy was lit by over 1,000 feet of neon and 500 light bulbs. The large block letters C O E D were each faced with three neon tubes that changed color at regular intervals.
There were capacity crowds at the opening of the new Co-Ed Theatre Saturday 10 September. Harold Alger called it "a realization of a dream of 25 years. Everything went off without a hitch, I don't think any of the ushers even missed a smile." He went on to say, "The comments we heard were far better even than we had expected, although we knew they were bound to be complementary. I don't believe the whole evening could have gone off any better." Gil Martin, city manager of the three Alger Brothers' theaters in Champaign-Urbana, and Roy Prusz, manager of the Co-Ed, concurred.
The opening bill featured Women Are Like That with Kay Frances, Pat O’Brien, and Ralph Forbes, a western short Sons of The Plains, and a Betty Boop cartoon. Dean G. Miller was the first projectionist. He had been at the Alger’s Princess Theatre.
Stereophonic sound made its first appearance in Champaign-Urbana on Sunday 23 May 1954 at the Co-Ed Theatre. It was also the first showing of CinemaScope at the Co-Ed. The combination of CinemaScope with stereophonic sound is the first such installation in downstate Illinois. The Co-Ed's CinemaScope screen measured approximately 26 feet wide by 14 feet high.
The inaugural film, New Faces, in technicolor, starred Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Ronald Graham, and Robert Clary. It was a film version of Leonard Sillman's Broadway musical, which ran for a year.
The Alger Brothers closed their three local theaters, the Park, Princess, and Co-Ed theatres on Monday 22 July 1958, Harold Alger’s 45th year in show business. The Park was then purchased by the Art Theatre Guild and reopened as the Art Theatre on 3 October 1958. The Co-Ed reopened in September. The Kerasotes Theater chain announced on Thursday, 9 October 1958, its purchase of eight Alger Brothers theaters including the Princess and Co-Ed. Kerasotes, one of the largest independent chains in the Midwest, owned 25 theaters in Illinois alone. Co-Ed operations continued without a break and the Princess was reopened on Christmas day 1958.
The Kerasotes Theater Company announced in March 1965 that Champaign would have its first "twin theater" complex with the construction of a second Co-Ed Theatre adjacent to the present Co-Ed. The lot immediately east of the Co-Ed had been used for parking.
George Kerasotes, president of the chain, said that art and foreign films would be shown in one of the theaters while conventional and family films played in the other, and occasionally simultaneous showings of the same film.
The original theater would be remodeled and renamed Co-Ed Number 1. The new theater would be named Co-Ed Number 2. They would share a front lobby, with side-by-side ticket windows at the entrance with a concession stand in the center of the lobby.
Co-Ed 1 had 750 seats, but 50 were to be removed for greater leg room. Co-Ed 2 would have 900 modern lounge-style seats rising from front to rear with stairways to reach the rear seats. Plans for the theater included a 40-foot screen, the latest in sound and projection equipment, facilities for patrons using wheelchairs, and a special seating area for smokers with ash trays installed in the seats. Construction was expected to begin soon after April 1.
Architects of Co-Ed II were Berger-Kelley-Unteed and Associates and general contractor was Kuhne-Simmons Company. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Co-Ed’s “twin” was held on Monday afternoon 25 May 1965. The building permit issued 16 June 1965 estimated structural costs of the building at $56,014.
The Courier reported on 21 September 1965 that the walls of the new Co-Ed were up, workmen were tarring the roof, and plumbing and wiring was underway.
A time capsule was buried 24 November just before the new sidewalk was poured. Manager James Ackron had put together the capsule to be opened fifty years in the future.
The new theater opened Christmas Day 1965 with the Sound of Music. The Co-Ed II was Kerasotes’ 50th theater. It is believed that they earned enough from the extended run of the Sound of Music to pay for building the theater.
A third auditorium was created in 1979 when the balcony was walled off. Co-Ed IV was added in 1981 with the annexation of the storefront to the west. It was later subdivided into two auditoriums.
The News-Gazette reported on 16 June 1999 that JSM Development had reached agreement with George Kerasotes Corporation to purchase the theater complex effective 1 July. JSM’s long term plans were for a retail and office complex. The theater would remain open for the present time along with Babbitt’s Books and Champaign Plaza Travel.
Citing a 78% drop in attendance between 1990 and 1998, GKC then closed the Co-Ed on 8 July 1999. The last films screened were: The Matrix, Notting Hill, Election, Cookie’s Fortune, and The Mummy.
Demolition began in late February 2000.
Contractor Darren Franzen found a wallet that Ron Birkey had lost in the summer of 1982. It was intact except for the money. The time capsule was also recovered during demolition. It was displayed at GKC’s Beverly Cinema for some time. When the Beverly was being demolished prior to being rebuilt as the Carmike, it was discovered that the capsule had been vandalized.