The Coronado Theatre: Rockford's Crown Jewel
Every Great Theatre Deserves a Great Book by Jim Rankin
Every great theatre deserves a great book to commemorate and document its fame, and while not the largest theatre, the CORONADO of Rockford, Illinois, is among the most deserving! The greatest theatre to have a book devoted to it is probably the long-lost FOX of San Francisco which has a massive, seven pound, 380-page tome called "Fox -- The Last Word" to memorialize that noble edifice. At the other extreme is the tiny book meant to document a fine theatre, the STATE in Syracuse, New York, now called the LANDMARK theatre; its puny hardbound, titled: "Movie Palace Masterpiece" reveals that the theatre is a masterpiece, but the book about it is not! Filling its 78 matte pages with mostly copied newspaper clippings, it was no real attempt at scholarship, which the FOX book was. Here, with this memorial to the "restoration" of the extremely imaginative design of the CORONADO, we have the medium size and achievement in the scale of such books. At 112 glossy pages, between black-cloth-covered boards, this book is perhaps the ideal size to represent the 2,650 (now 2,440) seats on two levels of this most memorable movie palace.
What one first notices on seeing this book is the excellent full cover photo constituting the jacket that reveals the now restored 'atmospheric'-type theatre as seen from the stage. At 24-1/2 by 19 inches in size, the wraparound color photo reveals details not elsewhere shown in the book, so it should be protected in plastic. Among the details somewhat revealed only here are the six little niches under the balcony on the sidewalls with 'vases' of branched brass flower stems supporting light bulbs in novel displays that bring the artistry down to the scale of a person and such should have been detailed in the pages. This is not to fault the illustrations, for every one of the pages contains at least one image, most of them in color. The handsome and clever layout of the book was by Kurt Mazurek of ColinKurtis Advertising & Design, and we must also thank photographer Nels Akerlund for some excellent photos, among them that of the close-up of the organ screen shown on page four where it reveals some of the magic by which the artisans created the jewel-like tones of this masterpiece, by means of the overlapping use of 'gold' leaf in the forms of silver, and ruby with vermilion highlights to bring out the Oriental theme of the dragons crawling around the pagodas of the screens. One may have thought this to be an Oriental-themed theatre decor from this, but many other photos bring out that it was Renaissance Spain that constituted the majority of the decor, with such other additions as full scale statues of the famous Botticelli painting of "The Birth of Venus" given form on the tops of columns rising through a well in the lobby ceiling, into the balcony promenade! To say that the theatre is lavish and eclectic is an understatement, and the book well represents that fact with a parallel opulence. Detractors might say that the book reveals a pastiche, but this devotee sees both as catapults for the imagination.
For such artistry at its opening in 1927 we must thank Peoria architect Frederic J. Klein who also graced us with such other theatres as the HIPPODROME, MADISON, DUCHESS, APOLLO, and COLUMBIA theatres in that city, and the PRINCESS in Ottawa, Ill. The publisher even found a photo of the architect to include with this data on page 15 (and all page numbers are shown as though engraved on a medallion photographed in the CORONADO, another nice touch.) The history of the architect/designer is often slighted in books, so it is nice to see him get the credit he deserves in this publication.
NEED FOR AN ABSTRACT
One feature missing from this book and from most others, is an "Abstract," a simple table with the salient facts of a structure summarized for easy referral, something which is often difficult to do from lengthy text where such details are often buried. A typical theatre Abstract would include:
· Formal name (plus alternate names) and street address of the building
· Size of the building and the compass direction it faces (a plat plan and floor plans (missing from this book) are always desirable!)
· Date of construction, followed by dates of renovation, and date of demolition if that is the case
· Names of architect(s)/designer(s) and the firm they belonged to, if any
· Capacity: Number of permanent seats (usually among the fire dept. files or building permits of a city)
· Type of theatre: Legit? Vaudeville? Atmospheric? Hard Top (standard) movie palace?
· Style of decor of auditorium (if exterior and lobbies differ, they should be listed separately as to decor)
· Major construction artisans and contractors, if known
· Pipe organ specifications (number and placement of console(s), number of manuals and ranks, names etc.)
As with all such books of this nature, it must divide its pages between the conflicting interests of those financing it (the backers of the restoration) who want their due kudos, and the need of an historic and architectural exposition of the origin and nature of what made a theatre so wonderful as to warrant an entire book to be devoted to it. Within the Introduction and nine chapters the author does tread that line fairly well, but the text overall does leave lovers of architecture and ornamentation (who may never have seen the theatre outside of the book) a bit underfed, as it were, due to skimpy development of such topics. The women writing and editing the book were members of the fund-raising committee and thus saw the book as more a tribute to the efforts of them and others, than any technical history, especially with a photo of them worked into the text. This leaves so richly ornamented a building lightly covered as regards its ornaments and features, though the photos do reveal most --but not all-- of them. Their captions are also sometimes in error as when they say that the "organ grilles adorn the alcoves on both sides of the stage" on page 5, since these areas were/are not true alcoves. The caption for the photo on page 19 refers to a single cloud projector, when in fact there are two machines shown there, but this is not entirely the author's fault since the image is adapted from the theatre's 1977 souvenir booklet and is improperly silhouetted here such that it makes one think that there is only one machine present; the shadow is false and the faint image of the second stand was obliterated. Its now kind of like a stork standing on one leg! When referring to the large finials (almost pinnacles!) once on the parapet line, the ladies give them the costuming term "tiara" in several places, leading readers to suspect that they may have coined other nonlegitimate terms for other areas of the theatre and the readers are thus misinformed. This illustrates why such books should be written by theatre or architectural experts, or at least vetted by them. For those looking for views of the interior restoration, there are only five full pages of them in a theatre which would warrant galleries of detail shots!
Given the truly lavish decor, one would have expected more than the three full page antique photos of the original decor, but that is almost all one sees of the first artists' work. We learn from these that it was not a total restoration, but an "interpretive" one, as is so often the case these days. True, the theatre had to be updated to accommodate latter-day users so as to be profitable, even though the building is now owned by the city, but it would have been nice to see more of the original creation so as to better evaluate the 'improvements' of today, and extensive detail photos act as a record of what could still disappear in future. A plus for the book is that it uses the endpapers as visions of the auditorium taken from opposite sides to fully display the different sidewalls as spread over the four pages, but these are in a dark sepia tone for some reason, though the original photos were no doubt in full color. The famous man shown working on the organ pipes on page 61 is not even identified in the caption, but he is well known to their own Land Of Lincoln Theatre Organ Society to be internationally noted organist and pipe organ expert Clark Wilson. There is an extensive Index, though no pretension to scholarship is evident from the total of only eleven Sources listed.
The CORONADO was fortunate in being the premiere theatre in a smaller community in that much of its history was still preserved in the form of photos of persons, artifacts from the theatre, and other items as well as memories from locals who had served decades before which helped to enliven and lend depth to the text. In this regard, the book is clearly aimed at a local history audience, as one would assume it would be, and for that it does well. As a technical history it is but minor (though better than some books!), as local history it is good, and as a colorful memento, it is excellent. The only thing better than reading this book, would be a visit to this "jewel" of a theatre itself!
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