Crews salvage as much as they can amid renovation of 107-year-old theater

via The News-Gazette

When Phil Langley makes his almost daily stop to check on the progress of the Fischer Theatre restoration, it’s not unusual for him to find 90-year-old philanthropist Julius Hegeler watching the work from the stage, a front-row seat to the historic renovation he’s making possible.

Scaffolding fills the century-old theater auditorium, 45 feet floor to ceiling, wall to wall, providing access to practically every inch of the interior for the construction crew that’s been plugging away since August on the nearly 107-year-old downtown theater, all at the expense of Hegeler.

“It’s a full-blown construction zone,” said Langley, a Danville Area Community College instructor and member of the Vermilion Heritage Foundation board, which owns the theater. “It’s just amazing for him to be that generous.”

Either personally or through his foundation, Hegeler has donated millions to various organizations and projects in Danville. Langley calls him the city’s guardian angel.

This particular gift resurrects a 30-year-old dream that has surged and waned over the years.

Board member Chris Dunn said it’s amazing the theater is still standing — “after 30 years of trying to keep the lights on.”

Hegeler reached out to the theater board last May about possibly funding some work at the Fischer.

Initially, the agreement was for exterior restoration of the mammoth four-story brick building that was originally constructed in 1884 as an opera house, then totally renovated and expanded in 1912 for live theater and eventually retrofitted to show films until 1982, when Kerasotes Theatres closed it for good.

In August, Hegeler and Offutt Construction went to work on the outside, installing all new windows and doors, tuck pointing all four brick walls top to bottom and sealing up the roof.

“The exterior was mammoth,” Langley said. “At the time, we thought that’s all we would do.”

But Hegeler decided to keep going. The Danville businessman grew up here and spent a summer working at the Fischer. Gene Hackman was the manager at the time.

“He loves the building, too,” said Chris Dunn, calling it a hidden gem.

Vacant since the early ‘80s, most of the Fischer and its features have remained intact since 1912, when it was renovated and expanded by Louis Fischer. It boasts good acoustics, mezzanine and balcony levels, loge seating, ornate plaster work and a stage that can still accommodate a variety of live shows.

 

‘It’s exhausting’

The city of Danville took title to the building in 1983, and fundraising began.

Danville natives Hackman, Jerry and Dick Van Dyke, Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short all came back home for a fundraiser, appearing together on stage for the only time at the David S. Palmer Civic Center. But the funds-matching Illinois Civic Center Authority grant the city was banking on never happened, so the foundation invested the money and continued with minimal maintenance over the next 30 years.

In 1997, concern over the building’s stability resulted in the city council narrowly voting to save the theater, and cash remaining from the original fundraising effort was used to stabilize the building.

What’s happening now is “literally a ground-up renovation,” Langley said.

Without any old blueprints to go off of, Dunn and the crew have been practicing “architectural forensics,” as Langley describes it, combing through historical photos showing what the interior of the theater actually looked like in 1912 — the period they’re restoring it to — and investigating the actual bones of the building as they’ve been uncovered.

They’ve learned a lot in the demolition phase as the crew tore away whatever could not be salvaged — like plaster on walls and features that weren’t original, including concrete risers at the back of the auditorium, put in to accommodate more seating.

“It’s exhausting,” said Langley, who visited daily during demo to see what more had been revealed.

It’s a long list, ranging from a false wall at the back of the main floor to a 75-cent Milk Duds box from the ‘60s.

“But it’s a blast,” he said.

 

‘21st century’ space

The goal is to salvage or replicate as much as possible.

“We’re going to the trouble of making sure the details all match,” Langley said, explaining that they have no information from pictures or other sources about the original 1912 light fixtures, for example, so they plan to use fixtures from other theaters in that era.

“So we’re keeping the best of what’s original, but we’re making it a production space for the 21st century,” said Langley, who’s working with a St. Louis-based theater expert — whose previous clients include Champaign’s Virginia Theatre.

The Fischer Theatre will seat 1,000 when finished. 

There’s no exact timeline, just a commitment between Hegeler and the foundation to a certain scope of work, Langley said.

While it won’t result in a 100 percent complete historical restoration, it will be close, Langley said.

And more importantly, he said, the Fischer will be a fully-functioning theater for live productions and films — all thanks to Hegeler.

“He’s a genuine, wonderful man to work with,” Langley said. “He loves Danville and wants to fund things that are worthwhile.”

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