Pekin’s theater tradition is long and varied

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in October 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

Pekin’s theater tradition is long and varied

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Showplace 14 out on Edgewater Drive, built on the former site of the Starlite Drive-in, is now the place to catch a motion picture on the big screen in Pekin – but older residents of Pekin still fondly recall a time when downtown was the place for movies.

A visit to the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room will reveal that downtown Pekin was once the home of seven theaters, some of which hosted live acts, plays and music before the dawn of the motion picture. One of them, the Vaudette, was located in a room of the Pekin Daily Times building that later served as the office of Times publisher F.F. MacNaughton (now demolished and used as a Tazewell County parking lot). The other six were the Dreamland at 302 Court, the Empire at 325 Court, the Unique in the Arcade building, the Idylhour at 405 Court, the Court at 439 Court, and – the best remembered of Pekin’s downtown theaters and the one that outlived the others – the Pekin Theater at the corner of Capitol and Elizabeth (now the front lawn of the Tazewell County Justice Center).

The Pekin Theater was not the first theater to exist at that location. Going back to 1879, we had the Turner Opera House, later known as the Standard Theater, the Celestial Theater and finally the Capitol Theater. When the Pekin Theater was built in 1928, one of the walls of the Capitol Theater became the south wall of the new structure.

This vintage photograph, printed in late 1928 or early 1929 in the Peoria Star, shows the newly-opened Pekin Theater. The marquee displays the title of the comedy romance, "Moran of the Marines," starring Richard Dix, Ruth Elder, and Roscoe Karns, a silent film that came out in 1928.

This vintage photograph, printed in late 1928 or early 1929 in the Peoria Star, shows the newly-opened Pekin Theater. The marquee displays the title of the comedy romance, “Moran of the Marines,” starring Richard Dix, Ruth Elder, and Roscoe Karns, a silent film that came out in 1928.

The Pekin Theater opened Nov. 27, 1928, with a dedication ceremony and a show featuring a jazz orchestra, vaudeville acts, and a feature film, “The Show Girl,” starring Alice White. Designed by Chicago architect Elmer F. Behrns, who specialized in palatial themed theaters, the Pekin Theater was built in a grand vaudeville style by Mrs. Anna B. Fluegel. However, it was toward the end of the vaudeville era and early in the golden age of cinema, so Mrs. Fluegel’s theater made most of its money showing movies. Making the most of Pekin’s fanciful association with Beijing (Peking), China, the theater was elaborately decorated inside and out like a Chinese pagoda and prominently displayed a Buddha statue.

With the passage of years, however, eventually the Pekin Theater fell victim to the poor economy of the 1970s, and the theater’s last manager, Harold Williams, closed its doors in the early summer of 1975. Owner Robert Monge, who had bought it from the Fluegels in 1971, attempted to reopen it in December 1975 as the Pekin Dinner Playhouse, but that plan fell through, as did Monge’s 1980 proposal to reuse it as a medical office building. Utilities were disconnected in 1981, and the building began to deteriorate.

There were several more attempts to save and repurpose the theater during the 1980s. It was added to the National Registry of Historical Places in August 1983, and Monge considered giving it to the Committee for the Historic Preservation of Pekin in 1983 and 1984. When those ideas went nowhere, in 1985 he offered it to the Pekin Civic Center Authority Board – but the state rejected the board’s plans to turn the old theater into a civic center.

By 1986, Monge regretfully announced it would cost too much to save the old theater. Furnishings were auctioned off in December 1986 and January 1987, and the last of Pekin’s downtown theaters fell to the wrecking ball in March 1987.

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