EIU Memories: Will Rogers Theatre

Built in 1938 at a cost of $90,000 in Art Deco style, the Will Rogers Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Charleston, Illinois for generations. It was named after William ‘Will’ Rogers, a famous Cherokee actor, humorist, and newspaper columnist of the Progressive Era who died in a plane crash in 1935. When I was an undergrad at Eastern Illinois University, my Friday night routine was to walk down to the Will Rogers and watch whatever movie had been released that week.

During the 1980s, Kerasotes Theaters divided the 1,100-seat auditorium and began showing movies on two separate screens. The Will Rogers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and designated a Landmark Property by the City of Charleston in 2011.

When I entered EIU as a freshman in the fall of 2000, Kerasotes still owned Will Rogers Theatre. They showed two films per week on two screens, one at 7:00pm and the other at 7:15. Movie tickets were only $2, and popcorn was cheap too. My first visit was to see The Replacements with a sorority girl named Valerie who my roommate introduced me to (for more on him, read my article on Carman Hall).

Will Rogers Theatre in July 2005. Photo by the author.

Valerie and I never hit it off, but I did start taking the 1.5 mile walk up 7th Street nearly every Friday to see a new movie. Since it was a cheap theater, it often played second or third rate films like Dr. T & the Women starring Richard Gere and Helen Hunt (what ever happened to her?). But it beat hanging out with the smokers outside my dorm.

By the early 2000s, the theater was already showing its age. The restroom, located at the top of a long flight of stairs, reeked like moldy pipes. It wasn’t uncommon to see dead cockroaches in the urinal. God only knows how many crawled around the floor in the darkened theater, scurrying off with bits of spilled popcorn.

In this classic image, you can see awnings above the adjacent stores, where moviegoers would likely shop on a night out with the family. Lines stretched from under the lit marquee past the smiling faces of entrepreneurs. By the time I arrived in Charleston in 2000, and from then on, these stores were abandoned, with curtains blocking out the bay windows.

AMC closed the Will Rogers Theatre on November 28, 2010. It was already struggling as a result of the new 8-theater multiplex out on Route 16. Residents could just drive a few miles to see newly released films in a theater that didn’t smell like mold. But I preferred the affordability, simplicity, and vintage architecture of Charleston’s classic theater.

Jim and Katie Troccoli took over ownership in November 2011 and worked hard to renovate the 75-year-old building. Unfortunately, a water pipe burst and flooded the basement and auditorium, hampering repairs. Troccoli fought off the specter of foreclosure, but even by 2017 the prospect of once again seeing its glimmering marquee lights appeared dim.

A non-profit group called the Will Rogers Theatre Project has approached Troccoli about working together to restore the historic theater, but Troccoli balked at their request to share ownership. “That is never going to happen,” she reportedly said.

It’s a fact of life that demand drives business, and you can’t keep a theater open without a steady stream of customers. Sadly, Charleston’s downtown no longer draws crowds like it once did, and EIU’s sharp decline in enrollment was the death-knell for many longtime Charleston businesses. I hope things turn around, and future generations can enjoy this small-town landmark.

“Will Rogers partnership unlikely; no noticeable changes in years,” JG-TC (Mattoon) 17 May 2018.

“Will Rogers Theatre restoration remains a work in progress,” JG-TC (Mattoon) 9 August 2017.

“Opening of theater in Charleston this week,” The Decatur Daily Review (Decatur) 6 February 1938.

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