Meet the Will Rogers

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will_facadeThis 1938 theatre’s Art Deco design, vertical tower, and marquee mark it as one of this eastern Illinois community’s most distinctive buildings. Permanently closed in November 2010, the owner, American Multi-Cinema (AMC), sold the theater and the adjoining commercial block. The building is now in foreclosure, and The Will Rogers Theatre Project, an Illinois not-for-profit corporation, has been formed to purchase, preserve, rehabilitate, restore, and operate the theater for the benefit of the people of Charleston and Coles County.

The Will Rogers Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It was designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011. Landmarks Illinois included the Will Rogers Theatre on its list of Ten Most Threatened Historic Sites in 2011. The historic theatre and commercial block has received significant attention, but efforts to save and restore it have failed until now.

The Will was completed and opened in 1938. The adjoining commercial block, which contains four storefronts, had been completed a few years earlier (1935). The stream-lined-style buildings were developed by local businessmen, who also had built theater buildings with commercial blocks in Mattoon and Taylorville. While those theaters are standing, they have been largely gutted and altered. The Will Rogers’ lobby and stage are still intact. In the 1980s, the auditorium was divided into two theaters, but could be restored to a one-screen auditorium. The color scheme of the exterior terra cotta panels and decorative motifs are crimson and yellow, selected to honor the local high school’s colors, while the recessed auditorium ceiling was painted in blue and gray – the colors of Eastern Illinois University.

Originally seating approximately 1000 patrons, the Will Rogers Theatre faces the same challenges of many small town, Main Street movie theaters – competition from large-scale, multi-theater “cineplexes,” that are often located near an interstate highway with substantial parking. Many other Main Street theaters have been purchased and operated by local non-profit organizations to serve as community centers or performing arts venues.

It can happen! Below are links to inspirational theater projects very much like ours.