Thinking Outside the Multiplex

Historic theaters offer unique, local movie experience

(Originally published in the Daily Illini New Student Guide on 7/23/2008)

Do you tire of drab movie theaters with no personality that play only the latest big-budget releases from Hollywood? Then head to beautiful downtown Champaign, that boasts not one, but two classic one-screen theaters a little more than a block away from each other.

Boardman’s Art Theatre

Built in 1913 and originally known as The Park Theatre, Boardman’s Art Theatre, 126 W. Church St., specializes in foreign and independent films. The art house became a regular hangout for the likes of Urbana native Roger Ebert, who told Entertainment Weekly that he “learned about the art of film” there in the beatnik 1950s.

Greg Boardman, a retired technical director for NBC in Burbank, Calif., purchased the Art in June 2003 and has since screened popular Oscar winners such as No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and The Counterfeiters. Boardman prides his 248-seat theater for its HPS-4000 audio setup. Designed by John Allen of Boston, the system is known in the states and abroad for its pristine clarity. Put simply, it’s “the best sound system anywhere,” Boardman said.

“You always feel like you’re in the movie, and no (other theaters in Champaign) can do that,” he said.

Although the majority of movies shown at his theater are of the art variety, Boardman is no stranger to thrilling summer blockbusters.

“I love the foreign and indie films like Juno and No Country for Old Men, but it’s fun to show off a great film like The Dark Knight and have a little fun in the summer and throw back some popcorn,” he said. “The nice thing is that we can do both.”

Virginia Theatre

The Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., was established in 1921 and is “one of the few vaudeville theaters in the area still standing,” said Facility Coordinator Matthew Eckhardt.

The gorgeous 1,500-seat facility, complete with an antique organ and full balcony, not only shows films on “largest screen in Central Illinois,” but also hosts concerts, comedy acts, plays, musicals and magician shows. Legendary performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and more recently B.B. King and Jack Hanna, have all appeared at the Virginia.

“The strength of our following is our diversity,” Eckhardt said. “We don’t lock ourselves into any one kind of event.”

Actors, directors, critics and cinema enthusiasts from around the state and country pack the Virginia each year during Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. Last April marked the 10th year Ebert handpicked a batch of overlooked movies and invited their casts and crews to discuss the experience of producing them.