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 that formed 25 years ago to save and restore this beloved and historic Rockford icon.
“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 FOC managed a capital campaign that resulted in an $18.5 million renovation and a 2001 reopening of the theater. The Coronado is celebrating the 20th anniversary of that restoration this year. FOC’s ongoing priorities are 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. “Not a lot of cities can say they had the same success.”
When the Coronado opened in 1927, Rockford was prosperous and growing fast. 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.
Originally used mainly for silent movies and vaudeville acts, the theater showed its first “talkie,” called “The Jazz Singer,” in 1928.
Of the 2,500 movie palaces built in the ’20s and ’30s, only about 300 of them were “atmospheric,” meaning the ceiling can show twinkling stars, moving clouds and other sky features. Only about 10% of original U.S. movie palaces have been restored. Many have been razed or exist in a limbo of disrepair, says Howard.
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 that although the theater was in disrepair after decades of neglect, professional inspectors declared it to be an excellent candidate for restoration. Most of the original features still existed because little remodeling had taken place over the decades.
“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 of the building, 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 15-member FOC Board of Directors met earlier this year to discuss upcoming restoration projects and community access goals. They want to see more opportunities for students and other community members to experience the theater and a the new Coronado Education Center that displays 94 years of photos and artifacts.
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 historic building and appointed the late C. Gordon Smith and his wife, Mary Ann, to lead the FOC to raise funds for restoration. Mary Ann remains on the Board of Directors.
FOC meets regularly with the theater’s management group, ASM Global, and city representatives.
“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.”
Learn more about events, tours and preservation projects by signing up for newsletters at friendsofthecoronado.org.
To plan a visit to the Coronado Education Center, email [email protected] or call (815) 847-6314. Secure donations can be made at friendsofthecoronado.org or mailed to Friends of the Coronado, P.O. Box 1976, Rockford, Ill., 61110. ❚