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Memories of Virginia

Having grown up in Champaign-Urbana, IL, I have memories of people and places that are no longer with us: Keith Page, Mr. Roberts (both local weathermen), George Valentine, Nicole Storch (educators), Burnham Hospital (where I was born) and, of course, the movie theaters. There was the Co-ed on campus, which was long ago demolished, the Thunderbird in Urbana, which has been re-purposed as The Canopy Club, a hot spot for live acts, Market Place Cinemas in Champaign (demolished), and Country Fair Cinemas (long-closed). For the most part, these places exist only in memory.

One local movie theater that has stood the test of time is The Virginia. Opened some 90 years ago, it began life as a vaudeville hall, and then made the transition to showing films. By the time I came on the scene, the Virginia was in its waning years as a first-run movie house. Multiplexes were becoming the in-thing, and single screen movie palaces were on a major decline. After closing its doors in 1991, the Virginia sort of stumbled around a bit looking for a purpose, until the Champaign Park District and late film critic Roger Ebert helped save it. Now, it's home to an annual film festival, several live acts, and a monthly classic film series.

I saw movies at the Virginia primarily during the 1980s. There I remember seeing Brainstorm, Terms of Endearment and Dances With Wolves with my mom and maternal grandmother, Gummy. Mom and I went there to watch Young Sherlock Holmes back in 1985, a movie I was quite stoked about seeing. There was a placard placed in the lobby, advising folks to stay until after the credits for a "surprise." It was one of those tagged-on scenes that are so prevalent in Marvel superhero movies now. And it was about as exciting (read: not very).

There was the experience of watching Back to the Future II at the Virginia, with a packed house, and a brief moment when a banner in the 2015 setting notates that the Chicago Cubs are the World Series champions. The crowd around me erupted into cheers, hoots and hollers. At the time, I didn't understand. Only the intervening years have provided knowledge of the pathos that is the Cubs' existence. Then there was waiting in a line that stretched around the corner one hot, summer afternoon as a friend and I went to the Virginia to see 1989's Batman. Watching the opening credits of that movie, as they swooshed around inside the bat logo, up there on the Virginia's massive screen, was something I'll never forget.

Of course, Ashley & I have made our own movie memories at the Virginia. From our first Ebertfest movie (2001: A Space Odyssey), to some of the highlights of the monthly classic film series (Vertigo, Annie Hall, The Long, Long Trailer and Grease), the experiences have almost always been worthwhile. Indeed, that can be said of the Virginia, itself. It is a worthwhile institution. Not only that, but it is a repository of experiences and memories. Flickering images exist within its walls, not only of the films it has shown, but of the people who have gone to see the movies there.

I look forward to returning to it this evening for the start of Ebertfest 16.


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