Twenty years ago, Rockford citizens banded together to save the city’s lavish performing arts venue. As the Coronado Theatre emerges from pandemic-related closures, this beloved venue continues to wow people both young and old.
Even before the curtain rises on the stage of Rockford’s crown jewel, theatergoers are awestruck by a performance of another kind – the grandeur of the theater itself – thanks to the Friends of the Coronado (FOC), a nonprofit organization.
This group was formed 25 years ago to save and restore a one-of-a-kind historical building in downtown Rockford, while preserving the memories of its past and assuring its future. The result is a revived venue that’s entertaining a new generation.
“The theater avoided the proverbial wrecking ball, thanks to people who stepped up to save it,” says Beth Howard, executive director of FOC. “It’s exciting that ‘new’ history is being made here every day. The Coronado Performing Arts Center is extraordinary, and we need to remind people that we have something very special here.”
The decor inside the Coronado is a mix of exotic styles, with a successful blend of many cultures, including Spanish castles, Italian villas, gold-encrusted figures and oriental dragons.
The FOC managed a capital campaign that resulted in an $18.5 million renovation and a 2001 reopening of the beloved theater, after a much-needed facelift. The Coronado is celebrating the 20th anniversary of that restoration this year.
Between then and now, the group has prioritized historical preservation with impeccable accuracy and excellence; high-quality student educational programming; and public access to the building.
“The restoration of this building should make everyone in our community really proud,” says Howard, who calls the Coronado Rockford’s crown jewel. “Not a lot of cities can say they had the same success. People who made the restoration possible and those who enjoy the building should gather together and feel that pride.”
Howard credits the Land of Lincoln Theatre Organ Society (LOLTOS) for volunteering to take care of the theater and maintaining the historical archives.
“We’ll forever be grateful and need to remember those people who had that kind of passion and commitment,” she says. “Because of family connections and memories embedded in the historic building, it’s still being used for the same reason it was built – to entertain audiences.”
In the Beginning
When the Coronado first opened in 1927, the city was prosperous and growing fast. Nickelodeon theaters were popular and radios had replaced pianos as the favorite form of entertainment.
Willard Van Matre Jr., whose father had founded the Schumann Piano Company in Rockford, decided the future was in motion pictures. He and other investors set out to construct one of the grandest movie palaces in the Midwest, with a budget of $1.5 million. Van Matre hired Peoria-based Architect Frederick J. Klein, who was respected for the opulent theaters he had already built in Illinois, such as the Art Nouveau-styled Apollo, in Peoria, in 1914.
Designed to accommodate silent movies and vaudeville acts, the theater showed its first “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, in 1928.
Howard knows all about the 2,500 movie palaces built in the ’20s and ’30s. Only about 300 of them could be described as “atmospheric” theaters like the Coronado, meaning the ceiling can show twinkling stars, moving clouds and other sky features. Only about 10 % of the original U.S. movie palaces have been restored. Many have been razed or exist in a limbo of disrepair.
The Coronado has become a model project for other communities.
“The theater restoration world is a small world, and I get calls all the time and host tours for people from other communities who want to see what we accomplished and how it can be done,” says Howard.
Rockford was fortunate, because even though the theater was in disrepair in the 1990s after decades of neglect, architects and other professionals declared it to be an excellent candidate for restoration. Most of the building’s original features still existed because very little remodeling had taken place over the decades. Preservation was a top priority from the building’s beginning, and careful plans had been laid for an ongoing maintenance plan.
“It was an inspiration to know how the owner cared for the building in the ’20s and ’30s, and it inspires us today to have those same standards in place,” Howard says.
Even during the recent 18-month pandemic shutdown, preservation work and project planning continued. The most obvious evidence of that work is the stunning restoration of the bright, vertical marquee, with its chasing lights. The glitzy lobby has also received updated lighting.
The 15-member FOC Board of Directors met earlier this year to discuss upcoming restoration projects and community access goals. They wanted an emphasis on more opportunities for students and community members to experience the theater, along with free events and visits to the new Coronado Education Center, which displays 94 years of Coronado photos and archives, Howard says.
Maintaining the Coronado
The Coronado has been owned by the City of Rockford since The Kerasotes Company donated it in 1997. Then-Mayor Charles Box strongly believed in preserving the building and appointed the late C. Gordon Smith and his wife, Mary Ann, to head up the FOC to raise funds for restoration. Mary Ann remains on the Board of Directors.
Today, the role of FOC continues as the Coronado’s fundraising partner, preservation expert and community connection. It also plans and implements restoration projects, high-quality student education programming and community access initiatives.
FOC meets regularly with the theater’s management group, ASM Global, and city representatives to secure the future with careful planning, Howard says.
“The building was meticulously restored in 2001 and our goal is to maintain the same level of preservation,” says Howard. “Together, we’re not just waiting for things to happen. We’re identifying future needs and addressing things when small problems arise. It takes vigilance and passion.”
In the 70,000-square-foot building, multiple roofs are watched carefully along with water systems and fixtures for water infiltration problems. Water leaks are the greatest enemy of any building, especially a historical one, Howard says.
A modern sprinkling system was a necessary part of the 2001 renovation. Installing it in a manner that can’t be seen by the public was a challenge, she says.
Some of the major changes made during the restoration included building a deeper and taller stage that was 45% larger; expanding and adding dressing rooms; expanding storage areas, including creating a temperature- and a humidity-controlled room for the Steinway Grand Piano, an instrument mainly used by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra.
“We can now handle the larger traveling productions,” says Howard. “Before the restoration, our stage and facilities could only handle small shows and reduced touring productions. Now, we can handle full Broadway musicals, complete with their elaborate sets.”
Getting the Youth Involved
Youth programs are being expanded this year, with hopes of bringing more than 5,000 grade schoolers to the theater.
FOC is working with educators to make more field trip opportunities available to students through the unique Coronado Classroom Education Center in partnership with LOLTOS, where photos, newspaper clippings, an original ticket grinder machine, an original “beautifully sculpted” marble drinking fountain and historic furniture, among other things, are on display.
The education center brings individual school classes to the Coronado for an informal and interactive experience. Presenters talk about the artifacts and bring history to life by exploring topics such as the Roaring ’20s, when the theater was constructed; the Great Depression, when people found respite from their hardships by seeing low-cost movies in the magical theater; the era of World War II, when the building inspired the community to raise a national record of $175,000 in war bond sales during a variety show hosted by Camp Grant personnel (documented in LIFE Magazine); the 1960 event when every seat was filled for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s arrival in town; and the time in 1997 when the community came together to save the Coronado, winning national awards for the project in the process.
The Reach for the Stars Program traditionally brings in all Rockford Public Schools fourth-graders to a world-class touring performance. This year, the program has expanded to include fifth-grade students, who missed the opportunity last year due to the pandemic.
“We want to instill in our students a greater feeling of community pride with this historic building,” says Howard. “I have the chance to point out to students that the 5,500 names listed on the 2001 Restoration Donor Wall are not just recognizing financial contributions. They’re also symbolic of a community that cares enough about them to save the Coronado for future generations.
“Kids may not think of donors in that way; that they gave money to benefit people they didn’t know,” she continues. When I speak with children about this, it really resonates with them because people in the community cared about their future. The children like imagining what the past was like when the theater first opened. They can see pictures of famous people walking where they walk and see things not in use now that were once a part of the theater, and it connects them with the past. The kids get excited knowing they, too, are a part of history.”
At this year’s annual meeting, FOC board members overwhelmingly supported an old favorite returning to the Coronado: free organ concerts with the venue’s one-of-a-kind Grand Barton Organ that has been restored and maintained by LOLTOS.
FOC will launch a website this spring that’ll offer videos, pictures, a link to make appointments for the permanent exhibit, and a calendar of events, among other features.
Recent projects include the restoration of the recessed and reflected lighting of the large cove ceiling. The marquee has been restored to its original rich colors using modern mechanical systems. It’s now 90% more energy-efficient with nearly 3,000 LED fixtures that are reminiscent of the original 1927-era incandescent bulbs.
Upcoming projects include converting the auditorium to LED lighting while preserving the architectural character. Also, after 20 years, the six original auditorium gilded doors and doorway architectural details – which have been passed through more than a million times by visitors attending more than 1,000 performances – are due for a little TLC, Howard says.
When original restoration plans were underway, consultants talked about the potential of the building to host up to 125 events each year. The Coronado’s management company is working to bring more and more performances to the stage.
Perhaps one of the most unique features, the owner’s apartment, is tucked away inside the Coronado.
“The apartment has been carefully curated with original Art Deco furnishing and fixtures, a pink marble fireplace, a round bathroom, walk-in closet with glass doors, original paintings, a shower with six water heads and other artifacts,” says Howard. “It’s a step back in time and a vision of pure elegance. The original owners were so ahead of their time with this epitome of luxurious living. I don’t know of any theater that has this one-of-a-kind luxurious apartment. The space can be rented for special events and is included in tours of the building.”
Howard recalls recently giving a tour to a lifelong community member and hearing the sadness in his voice about never being in the theater.
“I hope to never hear that again,” she says. “FOC strives every day for every corner of the community to have access to the Coronado and to enjoy this beautiful and historical theater. We’re already in a rare class because we chose to restore this beautiful theater. We did it – and now we have to keep it up.”
Support the Coronado’s Future
For more information about Friends of the Coronado events, tours and preservation projects at the Coronado, sign up for emails and newsletters at friendsofthecoronado.org.
To plan a visit to the Coronado Education Center, email [email protected] or call her at (815) 847-6314. Secure online donations can be made at friendsofthecoronado.org or by mailing checks to Friends of the Coronado, P.O. Box 1976, Rockford, IL 61110.