Wednesday, July 2, 2014

117 West Church Street - Russell Building

117 West Church Street - Russell Building (Rialto Theater)
Constructed: 1905
Renovation: 1915 (re-purposed to Theatre Belvoir)
Renovation: 1938 (extensive renovation and restructuring of the theater. Renamed Rialto)

Original Owner:Charlie and Elizabeth Russell
Current Owner: Bill Capel & Ernie Martin

Built as a retail store in 1905 by Charlie and Elizabeth Russell the building was re-purposed in 1915 as the Theatre Belvoir by C.F. Hamilton after his Walker Opera House was torn down to make way for the Hamilton Hotel. The theater was originally a road house; seating somewhere between 850 and 900 with two balconies and a main floor.  The theater saw stage greats Al Jolson, Katherine Cornell, Cornelia Otis Skinner among others perform live.
1887 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map showing the site prior to the Russell Building being constructed.

This 1909 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map shows the building shortly after construction.
 In 1917 Charles C Pyle in partnership with Richard Porter took over the operation of the theater and the name was changed to the Rialto Theater. The Rialto Theater switched from live theater to movies around 1920.
By this 1924 Sandborn Fire Insurance Map, the Store had been converted to the Rialto Theater.

Original Lobby.

By 1921 Pyle had partnered with A.W. Stoolman and Harry McNevin to build the Virginia Theatre at Park and Randolph. The Virginia and Rialto were operated jointly by Pyle and Stoolman until financial difficulties in 1923 when Stoolman filed a lawsuit against Pyle. Pyle lost control of the Rialto and Virginia in 1924 when Stoolman prevailed in the courts.

In 1925 Stoolman decided to not renew his lease for the Rialto space at which time Elizabeth Russell recruited her son Gene to take over the Rialto’s operation. In 1927 Gene Russell installed Movietone and Vitaphone sound equipment and the Rialto introduced Champaign-Urbana to “talkie” motion pictures with the debut of the “Jazz Singer”.

Church Street looking east from Randolph Street February 5, 1936.
This photo is the only photo known to exist showing the original marquee in operation.
Photo Courtesy of the Sholem Family

Gene Russell closed the theater in June of 1938 for extensive renovation. Architect George Ramey (architect of the Champaign City Building) designed the new interior in collaboration with Floyd R. Watson, professor of experimental physics along with air conditioning experts from Chicago. The interior was stripped to bare walls and an entirely new balcony was constructed. Internal bracing was used throughout eliminating sight obstructing support columns. The renovation included a new modern steel and glass marquee and air conditioning.

Champaign Builders Supply delivers concrete to be hand carried into the theater.
Notice the close up detail of the original marquee.  This is likely one of the last
photographs of that marquee before it was replaced.

Seating plan for the original balcony.

Seating plan for the original main level.

Gene Russell, Owner and Operator of the Rialto Theater

Rialto Theater lobby on opening night 1938

Rendering of new Rialto Theatre Marquee
Photo provided by Ernie Martin

The theater reopened on Saturday October 1, 1938 with “Sing You Sinners” starring Bing Crosby.

Opening Night at the new Rialto Theater October 1, 1938

Rialto Theater 1938

Crowds gathering outside the Rialto Theatre to see Dodge City in Technicolor 1939

Crowds line up to see North West Mounted Police 1940

Rialto Theater projection room.

Theater organ located to the left of the screen. Note floral pattern
speaker covers which still exist today.

A 1956 fire in 115 West Church Street claimed the upper floor of the building but
failed to damage the theater.  The second floor of 115 was removed and the ground
floor refurbished.  The building was razed in 2012 to make way for the new
Hyatt Place Hotel.  Photo courtesy of the Champaign Fire Department.
Another view of the 1956 fire at 115 West Church showing the
Russell Building and Robeson Department Store.
Photo courtesy of the Champaign Fire Department

Intersection of Randolph Street and Church Street looking east from
 the Post Office (William Springer Building) 1968
Rialto Marquee with Robeson's Marquee in the background 1970.

Shops located in the front of the Rialto Theater in 1971

Church Street looking east from Randolph Street 1971

Rialto Marquee and storefront 1978

Gene Russell operated the theatre until his death in 1956 at which time his son, John took over and ran the theatre until December 1978. He leased the theatre to Kerasotes from December 1, 1978 until December 1, 1981. After Kerasotes the theatre was the Gospel Lighthouse until the building was eventually sold to Robeson’s in 1986.

The Gospel Lighthouse occupied the building from 1981 to 1986.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Moran

Upper floors of the Russell building had various tenants including Knights of Pythias, a finance company, art studio and an apartment utilized by the Russell family. Robeson’s leased most of the upper floors of the building starting in 1970.

Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.

Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.

Russell building following sale to the Robeson family.

Russell Building in 2007. Photo Courtesy of T.J. Blakeman

In 2008, current owners Bill Capel and Ernie Martin removed the layers of
paint to restore the original brick and limestone.  The process revealed much
of the detail that had been lost.  Photo Courtesy of T.J. Blakeman

Russell Building in 2012.  Photo Courtesy of Google.

Interior of the Rialto Interior Circa 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior of the Rialto Interior as seen from the balcony in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior of the Rialto Interior in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Interior lighting of the Rialto in 2008
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Balcony railing from the Rialto in 2008.  Architect George Ramey used this
same style in the Champaign City Building.
Photo provided by T.J. Blakeman

Today the Russell Building is under the steady care of Bill Capel and Ernie Martin.  Bill operates his photography business out of the space and both continue to maintain the building in good working order.  Many don't realize that behind the somewhat nondescript facade sits the second largest theater in Champaign.  The art deco details are maintained in perfect order, waiting for the right idea to bring the space back to life.  As a quick side note, the 2010 movie Leading Ladies was filed almost entirely in the Rialto.  I've included the trailer so that you can get a quick glimpse inside this beautiful Downtown building. 


  1. theater looks fabulous movie looks...well, unwatchable

  2. The First United Methodist Church used the Rialto as their sanctuary during renovations of the church in the early 1960s.