Remembering the Will: Stories about the Will Rogers Theatre – Charleston, IL

Rameen: If one kept a record of such things,
February 8, 1938 should be remembered as one of the greatest entertainment days for Charleston,
a sleepy little town in east Central Illinois. For on that Tuesday afternoon, the Will Rogers
Theater celebrated its grand opening with great anticipation and fanfare.
[music playing] The 1100 seat, fully air-conditioned auditorium
built in the art deco style could boast, ��there is not anything equal to it within a radius
of 150 miles of Charleston. The police blocked traffic on Monroe Street
in front of the theater to allow the crowd easier access. Leland Hall was 18 years old
at the time. �I was one of the lucky ones that got through the doors. It was a real
mob. I remember the crowds being lined up all the way to Benedicts and out into the
street.� Elaine: And the first time I went to this
show was in 1938, I think maybe when they had the grand opening. When we came here for
that opening, and we got in those front seats at the first step whatever it was. And we
could see everything. So, I was real thrilled that we got to sit there because usually we
had to go to the back.� [music playing]
Rameen: Distant visitors, including film executives from St. Louis were in attendance. Paramount
Films executives speaking to the audience said the new Will Rogers surpassed even their
fondest dreams of what a modern theater could be.
Several movie stars sent opening day congratulatory telegrams to the Will Roger Theater managers.
The actors included: Allan Jones, Joan Crawford, William Powell, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Robert
Taylor, Fanny Brice, Spencer Tracy, and Judy Garland. The telegrams were displayed in the
theater lobby and printed in the Charleston Courier.
The grand opening performances included the latest movie hit as well as live acts on its
20 by 40 foot stage. [music playing]
The nationally acclaimed Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears, an all-woman band performed
three acts on that Tuesday starting at 2:30. Leland Hall said, �Ina Ray Hutton and her
Melodears were a real swinging show, not like so many of the big band sounds that were popular
back then.� [music playing]
The live act alternated with showings of the major preview movie �Everybody Sing�,
staring Judy Garland, Allan Jones, and Fanny Brice. Designated as a preview movie theater
or �pilot theater� meant that film companies would test box office receipts to see how
much money a movie could gross. They sometimes ran films a month or two ahead of Chicago
according to former projectionist John Kruger. The construction of the Will Rogers Theater
was part of Charleston�s million dollar building program begun during the waning years
of the Great Depression. The courthouse square was the center of both the social and commercial
life in the first half of the 20th century. But with the addition of big box stores and
fast food restaurants and other businesses along Lincoln Avenue, during the 70s and 80s,
the center of life gradually shifted away from the town square. In fact, there is not
one business on Charleston�s square today that was in business there in the 1930s. So,
when the Will Rogers Theater closed its doors on December 6, 2010, it may have signaled
the end of its colorful 72-year history. Before we signal this as the final curtain
to this story, we should first ask how this remarkable building came to be in the first
place and why in the small college town of Charleston, Illinois.
Our story begins by tracing the lives of two Italian immigrants, Dominic Frisina and Antonio
Bianchi, who met around 1920 as fellow coal miners in Kincaid, Illinois.
Rose Marie: My father came to this country as a young man. It took a lot of courage to
come alone, a 13-year old child. He got started in Pawnee, Illinois. And in
fact, I think he was a coal miner at the time. And this coal miner came in somehow, I think
into a restaurant where my mother was a waitress and said that he was going to buy a theater.
And my father didn’t even know how to operate or run it. He ran the first reel upside down,
because nobody showed him how to thread the machine.
Rameen: The Taylorville Breeze Courier Centennial Edition reported that Frisina got the urge
to enter the show business when a traveling moving picture outfit stopped in Pawnee. Dominic
was so thrilled after seeing this first show that he scraped together $300 to buy the whole
outfit. That depleted his finances so badly that he had to borrow money to pay the charges
for the film that he was to show on opening night.
Frisina and Bianchi purchased the American Theater in Pawnee, Illinois in 1920. They
worked in the mines by day and ran the theater at night. It�s not clear how long they continued
to work at the mine or how many theater ventures they pursued as partners. But Frisina went
on to become a leading showman, owning over 100 movie theaters at the height of his career.
Rose Marie: My father found partners to go in with him because they were Italian like
he was. They�re very family and closely knit friend oriented, family and friend oriented.
So, they try to bring those people in with them when they go into a project.�
Rameen: In 1924 Frisina and Bianchi purchased four theaters in Mattoon, Illinois. Why they
chose to purchase theaters in Mattoon was no coincidence. During the last half of the
nineteenth century, Mattoon was probably the main theatrical center south of Chicago. Being
at the intersection of major railroad lines, companies doing business between Chicago and
St. Louis had to switch trains in Mattoon. With its reputation as a show town that catered
to overnight visitors, businessmen and families, sought out Mattoon as a destination for musical
comedies and later vaudeville and motion pictures. Although some lasted only one or two years,
Mattoon had at least 12 venues between 1906 and 1947. Ed Clarke was the third partner
in the Mattoon theater purchases. After business dealings took him to Taylorville, Pana and
Springfield, Clarke settled down in Mattoon. Bianchi moved to Charleston, and Frisina settled
in Taylorville. Frisina, Bianchi, and Clarke built the Clarke
Theater at 1815 Broadway in 1936. By 1938, the partnership owned the remaining three
theaters in town. The Mattoon partners showed first-run movies
at the Mattoon and Time Theaters and relegated second-run features to the Clarke Theater.
The spring of 1947 marked the opening of the Skyway Drive-In Theater. Located about one
mile east of Mattoon on Route 16. The Bianchi and Frisina Amusement Company bought it in
1952. That was the year Ed Clarke retired and sold his one-third interest to his partners.
Rose Marie: 100 theaters when they had the Drive-Ins in operation. But then the Drive-In
land became so valuable, we had to give it up and concentrate just on the four wall theaters.
Rameen: On March 1, 1957, Bianchi sold his interest in the theaters to Dominic Frisina.
Antonio Bianchi and his son, Rino, continued to manage the theaters in Charleston where
they resided. The Frisina, Bianchi, and Clarke partnership expanded into Charleston when
they purchased the Rex and Lincoln Theaters in 1927. The Rex was located on the west side
of the square and the Lincoln on the north side.
The Berner and Mitchell buildings in the center of Monroe Avenue were torn down to make room
for the Lincoln Theater which opened on February 4, 1921 with the Cecil B. DeMille�s production,
�Something to Think About� starring Gloria Swanson.
It not clear when plans to build the new theater were formulated, but friendly competition
with Mattoon may have been a factor. Rose Marie: People used to run to Mattoon
because it was theater, bigger town. And they seemed to get the movies quicker.
Rameen: Construction on the Will Rogers Theater began on August 1, 1937, on the northeast
corner of the square. The local newspaper reported that the property was secured from
William Kenney and Miss Mary Cadle. �Round the Square, calls it the Pugh House.
After the Will Rogers Theater opened, they closed the Rex Theater and the Lincoln Theater
showed second run movies. Both the supervising architect, Carl T. Meyer
of Springfield and the general contractor, Roy Kennedy of Taylorville, had already completed
many other theater projects for Dominic Frisina. Although no known blueprints of the Will Rogers
Theater have been uncovered, several other theater blueprints by Meyer have been found
including these from Olney, Springfield and Washington Park.
Meyer also designed the Heart Theater in Effingham. Like many other architects of the day, Meyer
incorporated the Art Deco style into both the exterior and interior theater design.
Dorothy: I remember visiting him at his office in the Meyers building. I believe it was the
tenth floor. And I was so happy to know that�s where he worked and where he went in the daytime,
you know. And I remember meeting his apprentice, Phil Trutter.
I went over to his home, maybe a year or two before he passed away. And he gave me a lot
of information on the buildings and the homes that my dad did.
Rameen: This is Carl T. Meyers original sketch of the exterior of the Will Rogers Theater.
Another theater in Springfield designed by Meyer was originally called the Will Rogers
Theater. The name was changed before it opened perhaps
because of the one built in Charleston. By the time he built the Will Rogers Theater
in 1937 and 38, the general contractor, Roy Kennedy, had been building theaters for twenty
years. Even so Kennedy stated that he never arranged one so beautiful as Charleston.
Carol: One of the interesting things that one of my cousins said, if Dominic Frisina
had something going on, Roy Kennedy had his hands in it too. And if Roy Kennedy had something
going on, Dominic wasn�t far behind on that one either. So, I think they had a lot of
projects that they had mutual interest in.� Rose Marie: Exactly.
Carol: I know there right at Roy�s place though, they had the factory with the mirrors,
windows, because everything was custom in all the movie theaters. Every movie theater
was designed for its space, and the number of seats, and I know my dad, Pat Kennedy,
who�d be Roy�s grandson, he said that your dad loved uplighting, backlighting, mirrors,
he loved mirrors and… Rose Marie: He loved the mirrors…
Carol: And Roy Kennedy had in many places where he had done work, he would put people�s
initials in the glass, you know, or little specialty touches to make something customized
and different. And I�m sure that�s from the influence of all the movie theater work
they�d been doing.� Rose Marie: Right, right.
Carol: I have Roy Kennedy�s desk at home, and I feel I�ve really have gotten to know
him and I�ve learned much more than I ever thought I would about all these movie theaters.
I didn�t realize the extent of Frisina Amusement Company. And I didn�t realize the extent
of or the volume of movie theaters that Roy Kennedy and his sons all worked on over the
years. Rose Marie: He worked on all of them. He worked
on all of them. My father used to always want your family to make, cause he felt that you
really put the quality and the materials that were going into making the theater and that
they would be quality and they would be lasting.� Rameen: The distinctive Art Deco fa�ade
is unique for commercial buildings in Charleston. It utilizes terra cotta in geometric and floral
low-relief ornamentation. The Art Deco design also included six retail spaces along the
fa�ade, one to the west and five to the east of the theater entrance, unifying the
look of the whole block. Carol: Back years ago they loved that Deco
design. With Carl Myers kind of put those details in, but then they sometimes go in
and do a quick rehab, and they would have the specialty glass and things, make it look,
you know, tie it in to the building in keeping with its architectural design.
Rose Marie: And it always made it look more expansive and bigger, made you feel bigger.
Carol: Very elegant buildings and just real attention to detail. I think the details made
all the difference.� Rameen: This promotional film was shown at
other theaters owned by Frisina, Bianchi, and Clarke. The grand opening of the Will
Rogers Theater on February 8, 1938 did not disappoint and immediately become a magnet
for evening shows during the week and all day Saturdays and Sundays.
John Kruger who worked there from 1942 to 1974 said, �Sundays were a big day at the
Will when sometimes up to 3,000 people would attend movies shown from 1 to 9PM. They came
from every place. Everybody went to the show. That was the only thing to do in those days.�
Jeanne: We went to the theater every Saturday and Sunday. Loved it.
Elaine: If, if we could save ten cents, I�d be here every Saturday afternoon.
Nancy: I was 7 years old when they opened this theater, and I think we came shortly
after that. My dad was a fan of Will Rogers. So, he was anxious to come to the theater.
Steve: We spent a lot of time as a family, as neighborhood kids, as neighbor families,
at the Will. And we never really called it its real name, the full name anyway. It was
the Will to us. And right behind the ticket taker was this
great picture of Will Rogers, right there, with lights shining up, shining sown. For
a young kid it was almost intimidating. Jeanne: What I remember most about this theater
is the fact that when you walked in, I was always in awe every time I walked in this
theater. And I�m not kidding you. I was. The beauty, the Will Rogers, the great big
picture of him, the beautiful stairs going up to the restrooms. Then you�d walk into
the theater part, and I was, I�d always look up and look around at all the art deco
every single time. I mean, you know, maybe I led a simple life, Ha, Ha, but I loved it.
Rose Marie: The Will Rogers became sort of special to the Roy Kennedy people because
they built so many others, and this was built to memorialize a man, you know, and they thought
that was unusual and different which it was. Most theaters had a name like the Capital
and the Strand, you know, that kind of thing, the Roxy and all that. This one had a man�s
name. Earl: We didn�t have the big Cineplex out
in between Charleston and Mattoon that we have now. So, it was the place to go and probably
my favorite memory of it was going to see Star Wars for the first time.
Norma: I worked at the Will Rogers Theater in Charleston from 1948 to 1951. And we lived
about three doors from Tony Bianchi. He was the owner. And his son, Rino Bianchi, was
the manager of the theater. Rino did not allow cokes or soft drinks, and he didn�t allow
chewing gum to be sold� Steve: They had big boxes. I think they were
a nickel or a dime for a container that high of popcorn. When I think about the Will, I
think my most vivid memories are at Saturday matinees� They were always double feature.
And you would pay your twenty-five cents or thirty-five cents. When you walked in after
you paid and opened the doors and walked into that lobby that angled upward with the big
geometric design on the floor. You had the movie posters on each side. So, you kinda
made your plans as you were walking up to see that movie. The ticket taker was dressed
in a uniform at the time, kind of a maroonish jacket, brass buttons, uh, pretty formal.
Rose Marie: The staff at the Will Rogers Theater were very proud to be in the theater business.
Yes, we asked them if they would like to wear uniforms and they said yes we would. So, that�s
why we had a cashier, and a doorman, and an usher, and a concessionaire.
Steve: The ushers were there, and you could tell them where you wanted to sit and they
would walk you down to the aisle, with their flashlights. The ushers themselves were your
classmates. They were guys you might sit with in class on Monday. And but they had a little
bit of power and they knew it. The first movie would end of the double feature, and then
the lights would come back up. Then they’d have the Saturday afternoon drawing. And some
of the ushers and some of the management would get up here on this stage and they would always
make the announcement as you were coming in on Saturday and gave your ticket initially
to the ticket taker. Save your ticket. Save your ticket. We�ll have a drawing in between
movies. So, they�d have this big crank thing. They�d reach in and pull a ticket out. Who
has number 2-0-3-4. Somebody would jump up, it�s me. They�d run up one of these side
aisles, and come up from either side and grab in, would get their prize, whatever that would
be, and that would be a water pistol or a hula hoop or whatever it might be. They did
probably oh, I don�t know 8 or 10 of those prizes every Saturday and then they�d all
clear off again. And by that time the projectionist had the second film ready to go up there,
and the lights would come down again, and you were all ready for the second feature.
Rose Marie: We used to have bank night. If you came and bought a ticket, you didn�t
have to be present to win. If your name was called, drawn out for the cash prize, that
was sort of an inducement to get you to come to the movie, even if you didn�t, all you
had to do was keep your ticket stub to prove that you were at the movie.
Rameen: The Frisina chain of theaters was always running some kind of promotion. The
reverse side of this ticket from the collection of the Coles County Historical Society reads
Admit 1 child to the Big Free Holsum Bread Show every Saturday morning at the Mattoon
Theater. Steve: I would say by the time the second
feature was over, it was probably close to 4:30, 4:45, something like that. You�d take
your date to uh coffee shop or, just across the street here, just across Monroe was Pizza
Joes. Nancy: After the movie we would either go
to King�s Bookstore. They had a fountain. Or we went to Hill�s Drugstore on the south
side of the square. Jeanne: After the show we�d go either get
a coke at one of the King�s Brothers or Covalt�s or Al Drug Store and uh, going
to a jewelry store. And then Miss Grant had a hat shop. So, sometimes we�d go in there
and see what she had. Norma: We lived in the country at that time,
and we would go to town on Saturday night and, everybody did this, you bought your groceries
and the men went to buy whatever they needed to buy and get a haircut. There were people
who would go early and take their cars down and then walk later downtown. So they had
the choice spots off of watching people. And that is what you did. You watched people.
We moved to town and then you get your girlfriends and you spend lots of time, especially on
Saturday afternoon going in every shop, then walking, walking, walking around the square.
And it was, as a matter of fact, I met my husband as he was walking around the square.
I have twin sisters and a little brother who liked it because I was working there, and
if I worked there, they got in free. Jeanne: The difference between the Lincoln
Theater and the Will Rogers Theater, the Lincoln Theater was smaller and they had B movies.
They had all the cowboy shows on Saturday afternoon. And they didn�t have the big
movies like they did in this theater. But it was still fun to go. Usually I only went
to that theater on Saturday afternoon. I didn�t go on Sundays there. Not when you could get
the big shows here. And then we�d watch sometimes in the dance shows and so forth
and then go home and make costumes and try to reenact the whole movie. And if it was
a cowboy show, we�d go home and act like cowboys and Indians and so forth. There was
a lot of kids in my neighborhood. And so, I just have really wonderful memories.
Norma: When we had big blockbuster movies, and that could have been at either one. They
would be lined up three and four deep around the corner.
Steve: My mother-on-law, Norma Sunderman, who is now 91 years old and living in Champaign
with us, was a ticket taker here at the Will Rogers, and in fact, she started at age 15
at the Lincoln Theater. And when the Will opened up in 1937, she moved over to the Will.
Tony Bianchi asked her to come over and be one of his original ticket takers. She was
Norma King at that time and met Bill Sunderman, who was an usher here, and they married in
1946. But they didn�t know each other until they were ticket taker and usher here at the
Will Rogers. In the war years in particular, there were lines clear down the sidewalk,
clear crossing the street clear on the north side of the square waiting to get into the
Will Rogers. And that was night after night. Rameen: Even though vaudeville was gone by
the time the Will Rogers came along, Meyers designed it with a large stage and an orchestra
pit. Besides Ina Rae Hutton�s live act on opening day, not many remember other live
performances. Earl: There were dressing rooms downstairs
here. And folks like Ina Rae Hutton and the Melodears they would come in and they�d
dress downstairs and come up here. And then they would roll the screen up, and she would
perform, and after they�d leave, and then they�d put the screen back down and show
the film. Rameen: Elaine Ooley actually in a beauty
pagent a few years after the Will opened. Elaine: They had all the Charleston girls.
Lot of them was from the college, and it was on the stage. It was quite important because
everybody, there was so many of us that we all had parents. That place was absolutely
crammed. Jeanne: Jack Chaplain was here to talk about
the movie he�d made, and then they showed the movie. But that�s the only thing I saw.
Earl: There wasn�t the suspended ceiling or anything. We had all the nice tapestries
and all the art deco trim. Upstairs were the original washrooms. The people that owned
it took good care of it, but they didn�t really keep up with any of the repairs when
something started to break, it was broken. But you didn�t see any mold or peeling paint
or anything in those days. It was still pretty nice.
Rameen: The Will has undergone many changes since it opened in 1938. The owners had to
adapt to changes in the film industry. During a remodeling in the 1950s, the seating was
reduced to 783. A wider screen was installed when Cinemascope was introduced. In 1979 it
was added to the Coles County Register of Significant Places.
Rose Marie: He passed away when he was in the business. So, we continued to operate
it until we sold to George and Marge Kerosotes, and I knew them personally and liked them,
very nice people. Rameen: The theater closed its doors in October
1982 during the showing of a film named �Things are Tough All Over�. Kerasotes Theaters
purchased it in May 1983 and turned it into a two-screen theater, reducing the seating
to 667. In 1984 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In May 2010,
AMC bought out Kerasotes Theaters, and on December 6, 2010, AMC closed the Will Rogers
Theatre. In April 2011 the Will Rogers Theater was added to the list of ten most endangered
structures in Illinois. In November 2011, Katie Troccoli purchased the Will Rogers Theatre
with the intention of restoring it to its original grandeur and offering a variety of
film and live entertainment. Katie: It was a major hurdle just to come
up with the down payment and to secure the building. From that point we�ve come in
and we�ve taken out the nasty old carpeting. We�ve started to dismantle the things that,
you know, they twinned the auditorium. There�s a wall down the middle of the auditorium.
They put projection screens on two sides. So, those had to come out. That all is gone.
We found the beautiful, beautiful terrazzo floor underneath the lobby entry foyer. You
know it�s amazing, and it�s all still there. So, the bones are here. You know we�re
in destruction phase, um, but we also have an architect�s plan. You know we have a
blueprint for where we�re going. You know, when this building was built, it didn�t
have handicap accessible bathrooms. The bathrooms were on the second floor. It was a major hurdle
to figure out a way to put handicap bathrooms on the main floor.
Rameen: The restoration of the Will hit a major setback when First Farmers Bank served
Katie and Jim Troccoli with foreclosure papers in fall of 2015. In the wake of this news
a group of interested local citizens formed The Will Rogers Theatre Project. Set up as
a non-profit, its mission is to purchase, restore, and operate the historic Will Rogers
Theater in Charleston, Illinois. [music playing]
All across the country in large and small towns alike, communities are repurposing their
old movie theaters, bringing new life to downtown commercial districts and creating lively cultural
environments. Whoever the future owner of the theater ends up being, a lot of fund-raising
and hard work remains until the residents of Coles County can have another movie-going
experience at the �Will�. [music playing]
Will Rogers: Hey, hey, hear. [gavel pounding]
Court�s called to order.


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