If celebrated film buff Robert Ebert instilled anything on his native Urbana, it’s that there’s no better way to pass some time than getting lost in a movie.
His passion for a good visual story remains in the form of theaters, acting troupes and even his own event, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. Initially titled Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, Ebertfest sheds light on non-mainstream flicks that would otherwise not get to be seen by the local audience.
Held each April at the historic Virginia Theatre, Ebert himself selects all the movies in the course of his reviewing process and appears at his eponymous festival, and producers, directors and actors featured in the films answer audience questions
The annual Ebertfests bring in the likes of Oscar-winning director (and U of I graduate) Ang Lee, among others. But the Virginia Theatre sees much more than the cherry-picked films during the festival. Live music, theater performances, old film screenings and special events dot the calendar of the historic site.
For more than 75 years, the theater has been a prominent feature in Champaign’s business district, starting out as a venue for vaudeville acts. Though it closed as a commercial venue in 1991, just a few months later a theater group formed to perform acts specifically at the historic site.
Today, The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company still puts on classics such as Little Shop of Horrors, Oliver!, The King and I and Man of La Mancha. Also in keeping with Ebert’s love of unsung films, Boardman’s Art Theatre, built in 1913 as the Park Theatre, shows critically acclaimed independent and foreign films, garnering the distinction as the area’s only single-screen movie theater operating daily. Not all of the city’s theaters still feature movies, but the Orpheum Theatre has been put to good use.
While the venue hosted vaudeville performances and “moving pictures” when it opened its doors in 1914, today the historic building in downtown Champaign houses the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum. The learning environment features hands-on exhibits, camps and fun programs such as the Girls Do Science Club and Weekend Wizards.