Revitalizing Our Coronado Theatre
By: John Shepler
It was an energized era of grand dreams that built the great theaters in America. On stage, fantasy worlds emerged in splendor to reinforce what people wanted to believe in their hearts...that anything, yes anything is possible. The magnificence of the showplaces, the buzz of excitement in the downtown nights, the unforgettable experience of being immersed in the presentation of a major stage show. For many cities this is a fading memory, and one not to be experienced by coming generations. Or is it?
There is such a theater, the Coronado, in my hometown of Rockford, IL. It is one of the fortunate ones. It has friends in the community who have come together in a mission to preserve this historic landmark and expand its capabilities. It will again be both a structure of beauty and a modern facility that is constantly in demand. They offered to share their vision in a behind the scenes tour, and I was intrigued to join in, and also to be able to share my experiences with you.
Enter the Coronado Theatre and you step into a world of grandeur. The European crystal chandelier in the reception hall sparkles with over a ton of cut glass. The stairways are marble. The walls are gilded plaster, carved with scallop shells and faces of the famous. There is Coronado, the namesake of the theater. Over there is Abe Lincoln, our President from Illinois. The stage is framed in a beautiful proscenium arch, flanked by Italian villages with box seats that hover over the side aisles. It is old world craftsmanship brought to the new world by a generation of skilled immigrants whose touch has been lost with their passing, and whose meticulous hours of labor we could no longer afford even if offered.
When it was built in 1927, the Coronado Theatre was a crown jewel of downtown Rockford. It was known as "Rockford's Wonder Theatre." It was also state of the art in atmospheric theaters of the time. The Frank Adam Electric Co. light board back stage is a rock solid floor to ceiling wall of lights and levers that still function after 70 some years. The fly system for scenery is a tidy collection of ropes and weights routed overhead. Above the audience, electric stars twinkle in the simulated night sky. The Italian villages glow in soft colors from indirect lighting, suggesting twilight in Venice.
In the orchestra pit stands what must be the most precious crown jewel of all, the Grande Barton Pipe Organ. Vital to the silent films that were shown in the late 20's, it was also there to accompany Vincent Price, the Marx Brothers and Donald O'Conner, Rudy Vallee and others. Theater organs such as the Grand Barton and Wurlitzer could simulate any instrument or an entire orchestra with their almost limitless combinations of keys, pedals and stops, and all by simply moving air.
As I stand center stage facing the arc of 2400 seats, I hear our tour guide, Gwen, talking about the restoration, how they'll push back the far wall so that major New York Productions will have room for their entire productions, instead of having to leave truckfulls of props unloaded. The seats will be reupholstered, the plaster cleaned and repaired. Once air conditioning is installed for the first time, they'll be able to offer summer performances. The Rockford Symphony will make this their permanent home, as will many other performing groups. The stage will come alive at least 159 times a year, and the Coronado Theatre will help restore the vigor of a metropolitan downtown at night.
There will be an elevator added and access for those physically challenged. Nine apartments on the second floor, once highly desired by young professional women with careers in the office buildings nearby, will be refurbished into badly needed dressing rooms. The owner's art deco apartment, with its curved walls and large living room, will become a museum to preserve part of the light board, the fly system and other historical treasures, as they are modernized for today's productions. The roof will be made sound again, and the water damage that has left gaping holes in the upper hallways and even the reception hall, will be repaired.
But what is the cost? Will it be a worthwhile investment? Yes. The estimated $14 million will come half from community donations, with a matching amount from the city. That figure might take your breath away, until you realize that to tear it down and put up a modern, less ornate, performing arts center that could host the same functions would cost $30 million. To build the Coronado Theatre from scratch on a vacant lot, to its original drawings, if it were even possible, would raise that figure to $70 million.
Restoration is a not just a good idea, it is a good investment. The painstaking craftsmanship that was bought for $1.5 million in 1927 is worth 50 times that today, providing you can find people with the skills to recreate the art as it was designed. This is probably the most serious consideration. We protect the works of the great masters in climate controlled museums because we value the art for its own merit. Why not afford the same consideration to art as architecture?
It is something we can enjoy now and for generations to come.
Also visit these related sites:
Friends of the Coronado present the history, preservation efforts and many beautiful photos of this historic theater. Thank you to the Friends and Nels Akerlund for the photo of the interior of the Coronado Theatre shown on this page. Thanks also to Paul Baits and Steve Tamborello of Sundstrand Corporation for arranging our bus tour. Note: the Coronado Theatre hosted a gala reopening on January 21, 2001, following extensive renovation.
Coronado Performing Arts Center - See what events are scheduled at the Coronado and get tickets.
The American Theatre Organ Society - Organ history, feature articles and profiles of theatres. Plus complete information on the Society, if you wish to join.
The Mighty Barton Organ - Story of the might pipe organ installed in the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It is a similar organ to the one in the Coronado Theatre.
Note: The Barton Organ console at the Coronado Theatre has been repainted to its original colors (gold and a special crackled red finish done by the same process Barton originally used) and should be grander than ever. Thanks to Bob Bates, President, Land of Lincoln Theatre Organ Society (LOLTOS).
Copyright 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: February 14, 1999 as part of A Positive Light