BY JENNIFER BAILEY
DANVILLE — The Fischer Theatre celebrates its 100-year anniversary this month.
In 1912, Louis Fischer purchased the 1884 Grand Opera House and in 1913, transformed it into the larger structure it is today.
“He did this huge renovation that really transformed the theater …,” said Vermilion Heritage Foundation Board President Cher Pollock.
New boxes and another balcony were added, she said.
“He really modernized, it,” Pollock said.
According to the theater’s history on the Fischer Theatre’s website at http:// www.fischertheatre.com, the building was enlarged by 40-feet to the west and the stage was moved back the same distance to provide more seating space. The entrance also was changed to Harrison Street and a new facade was made on Vermilion Street with four first-floor storefronts created on Vermilion Street.
Also a new balcony was added; and there was a new mezzanine floor with 100 boxes that would seat six people each. The Lyric Theatre next door, which opened in 1906, was also remodeled. The cost for both theaters was $100,000.
On March 13, 1913, was the grand opening of the “new” Fischer Theatre.
In 1929, the Fischer and Palace (former Lyric Theatre) theaters were sold to the Publix Great State Theatres.
The Fischer’s entrance on Harrison Street was changed back to Vermilion Street. The lobby was enlarged by absorbing two of the four storefronts created in 1912. The ticket booth now faced the outside. There was a new marquee, the largest in town, and state-of-the-art motion picture equipment was added. All the vintage movies, “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singing in the Rain,” etc. were shown at the Fischer.
Kerasotes Theatres of Springfield purchased the Fischer and Palace theatres in 1971
On Sept. 4 1981, it was announced the Fischer Theatre would close. Two weeks later it was announced it would reopen as a dollar house.
On Jan. 5, 1982, the Fischer Theatre was closed. Kerasotes Theatres took seats, the boiler and everything else it could use and sell out of the building.
In 1983, the city now owned the theater. The Vermilion Heritage Foundation was formed to restore the theater.
The five Danville stars, Donald O’Connor, Bobby Short, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Van Dyke and Gene Hackman came to Danville to do a benefit for the theater. About $400,000 was raised. But because an expected state grant did not come through, the complete restoration of the theater was postponed.
In 1997, it was announced the building was unstable and should be destroyed. Old Town Preservation Association intervened to try to save the building. The city gave the theater to the Old Town Preservation Association. This group set about having the necessary structural work done to make the building stable.
In 1998, the Old Town Preservation Organization sold the building to the Vermilion Heritage Foundation so the funds raised by the stars’ benefit could be used to start renovation to the lobby area of the theater.
The renovation and expansion of the lobby was completed, including refurbishing and replacing the tin ceiling, new heating and air conditioning, and the creation of a concession area. A donated boiler and theater seats have been installed.
During the years, much money has been donated and spent keeping the theater in a viable, restorable state.
In August, The Fischer Arts & Entertainment Museum opened to celebrate the entertainment careers of the many former Danville residents who built a career in the industry.
The focus is on the Van Dykes, O’Connor, Hackman and Short who returned to Danville in 1989 to help raise funds for the restoration of the Fischer Theatre. Also honored is singer Helen Morgan, who is shown on the Walldogs Celebrities wall opposite the theater.
Pollock and Vermilion Heritage board member Amy Chrisman said the 100th anniversary is a big deal for the theater.
“We’re finally saying something about it,” Pollock said laughing.
Pollock said the theater has hosted so many live performances and movies.
“We like to show (the theater) off, Pollock said. “We don’t want to forget how wonderful it is.”
Events at the theater, including this weekend’s holiday activities and a holiday book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 15 with local authors, scheduled throughout the year remind residents of its vast history.
“It’s kind of a big deal. It was the most opulent of all the theaters …,” Chrisman said.
It’s also the only one still standing out of the seven older theaters, she said.
“That’s really remarkable,” Chrisman said.
She said she always calls the theater “the crown jewel of Danville.”
“It’s a diamond in the rough,” Chrisman said. “It’s beautiful.”
The theater’s acoustics are remarkable, she added.
The theater was built prior to the days of electricity. A whisper on the stage can be heard up high in the projection booth. Voices are amplified and projected well.
“We’re really proud of our building,” Chrisman said. “It’s the cornerstone of downtown Danville. It’s an important venue for the entire area. It was and will be.”
She can’t wait for the theater to be fully restored.
“The Fischer Theatre loves Danville and we hope Danville still loves the Fischer Theatre,” Chrisman said.