On The Art Theater

The first time I went on a date after breaking up with my girlfriend of two and a half years, I went to the Art Theater.

In the year following the break-up, I had developed a new hobby: going to movies by myself. It didn’t really matter what the movie was. On Tuesdays, I’d go with friends to Jupiter’s for half-price pizza and pool and $1.50 Miller Lites.

Afterward, I’d often head to Savoy 16 by myself and see whatever seemed most interesting. Quite a few times I was the only person in the entire theater for a $5 10 p.m. showing of some forgettable movie. It was nice to sit in the comfy chairs and just zone out for a few hours. Maybe even fall asleep for a bit.

After awhile, I expanded to weekend nights. For those, I’d go to the Art Theater. Maybe grab a coffee or beer beforehand.

Ever since I discovered the Art Theater in high school, I’ve always liked it best. Its no-frills chairs, floors and screen. The movies that played nowhere else. The popcorn that doesn’t taste like liquid butter. You could just be you, just like the theater was just what it was. You could just let your mind watch a weird movie and feel things.

The Art Theater has been a rite of passage, but I knew the theater’s closure was a long-time coming. The theater has held fundraising drive after fundraising drive to stave off its eventual death. I texted my friend Fletcher from high school – the one that introduced me to the Art – that the theater was closing this week, and he said “That makes me sad. This is the first place where I felt cool, where I thought my friends and I were on to something. It’s the epitome of Champaign coolness to me!”

The Art was a place where you saw movies that weren’t just the pedestrian superhero or romantic comedy or bullet-shooting pornography of the masses. In high school, when everyone is so concerned with fitting in, the films allowed him to be him.

While I discovered The Art in high school, I didn’t get that visceral of a connection to it until later, when I found that going to movies by myself allowed me an escape from everything else for awhile.

Inviting someone else to a movie interfered with my ritual. Not that I didn’t go to movies with other people over that year. I did, but not usually to the Art. The Art was more for special occasions, like annual viewings of the Oscar-nominated shorts and Casablanca on Valentine’s Day.

But company evolved into a welcome intrusion. For a long time, I didn’t want anyone else there, and then when I did find someone I wanted to spend time with, of course I took them to the Art, the best place I knew in Champaign-Urbana.

On the date, we saw Colossal, a black comedy about Anne Hathaway being a big city party girl who moves home and sometimes gets drunk and accidentally turns into a monster that terrorizes Seoul, South Korea.

The movie was weird and fun. We ate dinner at Wedge. It was a nice date.

I don’t live in Central Illinois anymore. I often go to the Megaplex by myself to watch the shiny new object. I often call my sisters on the way home. Sometimes I sit alone in my thoughts as I drive home, much like those weekend nights at The Art.

Downtown Champaign has undeniably become “cooler” in my adult lifetime. There are quite a few bars where they have dozens of beers on tap. You can get good food at a dozen restaurants. Even so, there is less live music than ever. There are no longer any art galleries. There are fewer places that are out of the ordinary. 

If you wanted to go on a date in downtown Champaign and do something other than drink and eat, you’d be hard pressed to find something. With The Art gone, it’ll be even harder.

Champaign always changes, and that’s a part of being a university town. The Illini Inn gets more beers on tap than PBR, Budweiser and Coors Light. KAM’S becomes a high-rise. The once-great Garcia’s Pizza and La Bamba are confined to the Planet Fitness Parking Lot. 

Change is expected, and change is good. But Champaign lost part of its identity this week. So did I.

(By Johnathan Hettinger. Find him on Twitter.)