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History

Opened in 1937, Normal Theater Now Twin City Icon

For the past 20 years, the Normal Theater in Normal, IL has thrived as a town-run venue for classic, independent, and foreign films. Today, the theater is a central attraction in the revitalized “Uptown Normal” district just east of the Illinois State University campus. Yet the Art Moderne-style theater goes back much farther—all the way to 1937 and the Great Depression. Its golden years lasted better than three decades before the aging movie house began facing its share of the tough times and indignities common to pre-World War II theaters in American downtowns. Fortunately, the Normal survived neglect, disfigurement, and closure to become, after its restoration, one of the finest movie venues in the Midwest.

“A new thrill in theater beauty!”


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Finishing up the theater in 1937 (Photo courtesy of McLean County Museum of History)


The Normal Theater (or “Theatre”—for much of its history the two were used interchangeably) was built by Sylvan and Ruth Kupfer, who owned the 209 North Street lot where the movie house went up. Sylvan, a graduate of the old law school at Illinois Wesleyan University in adjacent Bloomington, was a local attorney and later real estate broker. The movie theater business ran in the family, for his father Henry opened the Scenic, an early nickelodeon in downtown Bloomington, way back in 1906. More than 30 years later, Sylvan and Ruth Kupfer obtained financing for the $100,000 project to open the first ever standalone, commercial movie theater in the Town of Normal. Once completed, they leased their “show house” to Publix Great States Theatres, a regional chain which also ran the Irvin and the Castle, Bloomington’s two top movie theaters. Sylvan Kupfer, though, kept the title of manager, and he and his family remained associated with the theater for more than four decades.

The Normal’s striking Art Moderne architectural style makes it one of the most photographed buildings in Bloomington-Normal—especially with the marquee light on! The architect was Arthur F. Moratz, youngest sibling of Paul O. Moratz, another prominent local architect. In Bloomington, Arthur Moratz buildings include the acclaimed Art Deco-style Holy Trinity Catholic Church at the north end of downtown, and his own residence, 317 East Chestnut Street, on the south side of Franklin Park. Outside the Twin Cities, his more ambitious projects include the Church of the Holy Rosary (now the Queen of the Holy Rosary Memorial Shrine) located 60 miles to the north in LaSalle.

“A new thrill in theater beauty!” declared Publix Great States at the time of the Normal Theater’s November 19, 1937 grand opening. The Normal was the first movie house in the Twin Cities built for sound, as both the Irvin and Castle dated to the silent era and thus had to be retrofitted for the “talkie” era. The Normal’s high fidelity system was called “revolutionary” by the The Normalite, the town’s longtime weekly newspaper. Playing the role of unabashed hometown booster, The Normalite was effusive in its praise of the theater. “Sound technicians from the great laboratories of the RCA manufacturing company, at Camden, New Jersey, have installed and tested the new high fidelity system and reported it ready,” marveled the weekly. “The range of volume, too, has been improved so that the merest whisper of the wind in the grass or the great crescendo of a symphony orchestra may be reproduced with equal fidelity.” The Normalite also gushed over the theater’s heating and cooling systems, noting: “While few are apt to choose the theater for permanent residence, the air will be as perfect as modern science can make it.”

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Finishing touches to the interior (Photo courtesy of McLean County Museum of History)


For Depression-era moviegoers, the theater’s distinctive Art Moderne style offered hope, architecturally speaking, of better days to come. “A step forward in everything!” boasted Publix Great States. Even today, first-time visitors to the Normal Theater are often charmed by the “modernistic” façade and streamlined architectural detailing and elements in the lobby and auditorium. “Indirect lighting,” noted The Normalite of a prominent motif, “brings to life a modern and artistic design of decorating done in new and blending tones of blues, salmon, maroon and silver.” When it opened, the theater had room for 620 seats, modest when compared to the Irvin’s nearly 1,000 (today, with changes in building codes, wider aisles, and wider seats for the public’s wider bottoms, the Normal’s capacity is down to 385). Although thoroughly modern in design, the relatively modest size of the Normal, vis-à-vis the Irvin and other downstate movie palaces in Peoria, Decatur and elsewhere, helped give it the reputation as Bloomington-Normal’s “small town” theater. “Intimate and extremely modern in design, the new Normal will possess every new device known, to give its patrons the utmost in beauty, comfort and entertainment,” added The Normalite.

The exterior, with its horizontal lines and curving forms, features a color scheme of tan stucco, black glass, and a stunning marquee of “Chinese red.” When the theater opened, the marquee was said to be of the “newest design,” given that the only exposed electric bulbs were attached to the underside (or soffit), while the rest of the lighting scheme was of the “neon tube type.” The tan stucco façade is trimmed with narrow bands of shiny black Vitrolite glass, while the smartly designed box office features accordion-pleated black Monel metal (a type of nickel alloy) with curved window frames trimmed in Vitrolite. For its part, The Normalite couldn’t help but trumpet the town’s first theater at the expense of those in Bloomington, the much bigger city to the immediate south. “Normal,” the weekly declared, “may well be proud of the new Normal, which will equal, if not surpass, all other local theatres.”


Doors open, November 1937


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Gilbert Brown of Great States Theatres was the first manager of the Normal Theater in 1937 (photo courtesy of McLean County Museum of History)


The grand opening, held Friday, November 19, 1937, featured the musical Double or Nothing with Bing Crosby and Martha Raye. There was also a Popeye cartoon and a newsreel or two. Tickets—“all times”—were 25 and 10 cents. Sylvan Kupfer, as mentioned, served as the theater’s manager, though Gilbert Brown, already the local Great States manager, was given the title of the Normal’s “managing director.” At the beginning, the new theater opened its doors at 5:45 p.m., Monday through Friday, with the first show at 6:00 p.m. On the weekend doors opened at 11:45 a.m. with the first show at 12 noon. There was a complete change of program four days a week—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

When the Normal opened there were three main theaters in Bloomington that played movies, all located on the eastern edge of downtown within two blocks of each other.  On the Normal’s opening weekend of November 19-21, 1937, the Majestic, a vaudeville-era house that still mixed live entertainment with a movie schedule, presented Chicago magician Harry Blackstone Sr., live and in person, while also making room for the romantic comedy Breakfast for Two with Barbara Stanwyck. Meanwhile, over at the Castle, it was the “merry mix-up” of Partners In Crime, an installment in a long-forgotten Hank Hyer mystery series, and at the Irvin, it was Wife, Doctor and Nurse with Loretta Young, Warner Baxter and Virginia Bruce. 

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The Grand Opening of the new Normal Theater, November 19th, 1937


After two days of Double or Nothing, the Normal followed with Raoul Walsh’s Artists & Models starring Jack Benny and Ida Lupino (Sunday and Monday) and Handy Andy, a 1935 Fox production with Will Rogers (Monday and Tuesday).  The early December 1937 schedule included the Allan Dwan-directed drama One Mile from Heaven; Hopalong Rides Again with William Boyd; Love Under Fire with Don Ameche and Loretta Young; the 1936 romantic comedy Small Town Girl; the western musical High, Wide, and Handsome with Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott; and the comedy It Happened In Hollywood. On Saturdays early on at the Normal there was a “weekly fun show” featuring one hours’ worth of cartoons and comedies beginning at 12 noon.

As evident from the schedule above, the Normal, generally speaking, did not screen the just-released prestige pictures and big budget epics. Those were shown instead at the Irvin (and sometimes the Castle), which were both owned by Publix Great States Theatres. After all, why would the chain compete against itself? For its part, the Normal was known for genre and “B” pictures, especially westerns and musicals, as well as second-run fare. This meant that Irvin and Castle advertisements for “now playing” and upcoming movies in The Pantagraph, Bloomington’s daily newspaper, were often considerably larger and showier than those for the Normal.

Golden Years


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Circa 1948…”comfortably cool”


As was common in the 1940s and 1950s, it seemed as if each month brought a new sales pitch or manager’s bargain, as well as theme weeks and an endless stream of special matinee programs and double bills. On Saturdays in July 1940, to cite one representative example, ladies received a matinee “shoppers” bargain of two-for-one admission. On Saturday, July 6, it was the RKO production of Swiss Family Robinson (later buried by Walt Disney upon the release of its own version in 1960) and the light mystery Opened By Mistake with Charles Ruggles, while the following Saturday included a “Western Hour” from 12 noon to 1:00 p.m. and the fourth installment in the 12-chapter Republic serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion. One wonders, though, how a Zorro serial appealed to “lady shoppers!”

As another example, take the wonderfully busy 1941 “Back to School” schedule. Over a three week stretch, Saturday, August 23, to Saturday, September 13, the Normal showed no less than 18 movies as 9 double bills, with each pairing rotated every two or three days. The eclectic list to follow (in order, by double bill) speaks to a long-gone time of American movie going: Early wartime Hope-Lamour comedy Caught in the Draft and Thieves Fall Out with Eddie Albert; Man Made Monster with Lon Chaney Jr. and Horror Island, two low-budget Universal Pictures horror films; Archie Mayo’s The Great American Broadcast and the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Flame of New Orleans; the Army Air Corps drama I Wanted Wings with Ray Milland and William Holden and I’ll Wait for You, a remake of Robert Montgomery's 1934 hit Hide-Out; the comedy The Man Who Lost Himself and the crime drama Face Behind the Mask with Peter Lorre; the Rudy Vallee musical Too Many Blondes and the Warner Brothers drama Singapore Woman; the westerns Billy the Kid (played by Robert Taylor) and San Antonio Rose; William Wellman’s Reaching for the Sun and Cowboy and the Blonde, a rodeo version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew;” and last, the bullfighting drama Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power and the musical Rookies On Parade with Bob Crosby, younger brother of Bing. Whew!—and that’s just three weeks’ worth of movies!

The Normal has also always been more than a movie theater, even during its successful commercial years, serving as a venue for community meetings, children’s Christmas parties, and various public and private events. On Tuesday, November 7, 1944, for instance, residents could catch national, state and local election returns at the Normal, as well as the other two Great States movie houses in Bloomington, the Irvin and the Castle.

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The Normal Theater circa 1956, showing some wild science fiction titles


Yet the Normal Theater is first and foremost a shrine to cinema—always has been … and hopefully always will be! Back in its heyday, the Normal’s schedule was packed with feature length films, as well as high-adventure serials, comedy shorts, newsreels, cartoons, and who knows what all. “Western Week,” for example, arrived on Monday, December 29, 1952, with a double feature each night, including a New Year’s Eve showing of Lone Star with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, followed by The Great Missouri Raid with the likes of lesser stars Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carrey. Friday, the lone interruption in this “oater” marathon, featured no less than 25 cartoons running “noon ’til midnight.” Western Week also included Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland in Dodge City, a western from 1939. Although the Normal concentrated on first and second-run pictures, it also mixed into its rotation much older films from time to time, a common practice before the television age, to say nothing of the subsequent videotape and digital revolutions. 

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Screening Doris Day in 1954 (no, that’s not Doris)


Suffering form poor health, Sylvan Kupfer “retired from active management on advice of his doctor” in the fall of 1945, though he remained owner of the building. Replacing Kupfer as manager was Peoria native James F. Holliday, a colorful figure with a long stage and screen career, who, from 1936 to 1940, appeared in Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy films. Kupfer passed away in 1953, and his son Sylvan retained ownership of the theater into the early 1980s.

Neglect and closure


In December 1974, the Springfield, Ill.-based chain Kerasotes Brothers took over the Normal and Irvin theaters from Publix Great States, which by that time was itself part of Plitt Theatres, Inc. of Chicago (Kerasotes already owned the Castle, the drive-in on South Main St. in Bloomington, and Cinema I and II off College Avenue in Normal). On January 8, 1982, the day Kerasotes closed the Irvin, the Normal became a “dollar house”—all tickets $1. Even worse, stalled negotiations over the year-to-year lease led to the theater’s closure on January 31, 1982, though it reopened in mid-March with the Paul Newman drama Absence of Malice. In 1985, one of the Kerasotes siblings, George, became the Normal’s owner. That same year, the already cozy Art Moderne theater was split into two cinemas (an act of vandalism known in the business as “twinning”), with the balcony given its own screen. In November 1989, the Normal, looking a little worse for wear, returned to a full-price movie house, though by the fall of 1990, it had once more been demoted to discount theater status, with tickets this time going for $1.50.

Moviegoers to the Normal became increasingly scarce, especially when they started flocking to the eight-screen Parkway Cinemas off Veterans Parkway, which opened in 1990. The end for the Normal Theater as a commercial enterprise came on May 16, 1991. “I don’t decide these things—the public does,” George Kerasotes said in a rare interview with The Pantagraph. “The reason we closed it is that nobody went to it.”

Rebirth


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A Grand Re-opening: October 7th, 1994


Fortunately, the Town of Normal came to the rescue, purchasing the theater in November 1991. Gigi Miles was brought in to coordinate fundraising efforts, and an advisory committee was led by Miles and future City Manager Mark Peterson (at the time an assistant city manager). About $1 million in federal grants, donations, and tax dollars were needed for the ambitious restoration, which thankfully included the return to a single screen (about one-fifth of the total restoration cost came from Normal tax funds). The grand reopening was held October 7, 1994, with a showing of Singin’ in the Rain from 1952. A program to mark the “premier night” (as the reopening was called) included reminiscence by the likes of former projectionist Karl Blakney. 

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Interior of the Normal Theater today. (photo courtesy of Dawn Riordan)


Since that evening nearly 20 years ago, the Normal Theater has not stopped showing the kinds of films you just can’t see most anywhere else on the big screen. Moviegoers can soak in the historic architecture while chatting with the friendly volunteers who sell the tickets, greet you at the door, and work the concession stand. They love movies as much as you do! Not only that, but Uptown Normal, with its restaurants, specialty shopping, pedestrian-friendly streetscape, and ample parking offers a cultural experience not to be had at a 14-screen multiplex next to the interstate highway. And best yet, you can watch a movie with zero distractions—talking and texting during the show is a big “no-no” at the Normal!

One of the truly special evenings at the Normal Theater occurred on September 30, 1995, with a gala to “welcome home” McLean and Ann Stevenson. The hometown boy made good (most famously as Lt. Col. Henry Blake for three seasons on the celebrated CBS television show M*A*S*H), “Mac” was back in the Twin Cities to say hello to old friends. Proceeds from the gala helped finish the restoration project as well as ensure the theater’s use to a wide variety of groups.

The restoration project has made the Normal Theater one of the more honored buildings in downstate Illinois. In June 1996, the Town of Normal received the “Preservation Project of the Year” award by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. A little more than one year later, August 1997, the Normal Theater earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, having received a unanimous recommendation by the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council.

October 7, 2014, will mark the 20th anniversary of the rebirth of the Normal Theater as a town-run venue. Since the fall of 1994, this old “popcorn palace on the prairie” has shown classic (from Citizen Kane to Bicycle Thieves), independent (Hoop Dreams to Safety Not Guaranteed), and foreign films (Cinema Paradiso to Pan's Labyrinth), all the while providing both a retro ($1 pop and popcorn) and state-of-the-art (projection and sound) experience to the most discerning moviegoer. Throughout the year the Normal plays host to sneak previews and special screenings, including a traditional late-February showing of Academy Award-nominated shorts (live action, animated, and documentary). In addition, the theater has become a regular venue for a locally organized LGBT Film Festival, the Manhattan Short Film Festival, and other special events.  And let’s not forget the Normal’s wildly popular schedule of holiday classics beginning in November—from It’s a Wonderful Life to White Christmas. Attending one or more of these holiday movies with friends and family has become a cherished tradition for many area residents.

As a series of nondescript, strip mall-like “sprawl-plexes” in Bloomington-Normal have fallen to the wrecking ball (University Cinemas, those at Eastland Shopping Center and College Hills, and yes, even Parkway Cinemas), the Normal Theater has survived to become a community treasure and the symbol of a revitalized Uptown. Whether you’re a cinephile looking forward to the latest Scandinavian import or an unabashed romantic in need of an old-fashioned tearjerker, the Normal is your home away from home.

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With our anniversary fast approaching, we hope to show another 20 years (and more!) worth of movies, but to do so we need your continued support. Spread the good word of your Normal Theater experience to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. And if you’ve never attended a movie at the best theater in downstate Illinois, what are you waiting for? We’ll see you soon at the Normal!


Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History, Bloomington, IL. An earlier, much-briefer version of this history originally appeared in The Pantagraph, where Bill writes a Sunday local history column. 



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