Feature on Normal Theater

Jayden Erie, Features Editor

Going to the movies is a time-honored pastime as old as film itself. It’s an enduring fixture of entertainment culture at the level of sporting events and live music. The sights and sounds of the movie theater have changed a great deal since the first commercial movie screening in Paris in 1895, but a vintage movie theater in Uptown Normal has continued to offer a movie-going experience reminiscent of the early 20th century for the better part of its 85-year existence. 

The Normal Theater is located at 209 W. North St. between Fell and Broadway Ave., a plot that it’s occupied since 1937. 

The vertical neon “NORMAL” that illuminates the street with fluorescent red and green is impossible to miss on any given night on North St., and is perhaps the most recognizable historic landmark of uptown. It acts as a beacon for the commercially underrepresented community of foreign, classic and indie film lovers. 

The Normal Theater was built by a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan’s old law school, Sylvan Kupker, and his wife Ruth. They leased it to the regional chain Publix Great States Theaters after construction and Kupker stayed on to manage the theater until 1945. His family remained active in the theater’s operations for nearly 40 years. It ran its first show at 6:00 p.m. each Monday through Friday evening, and at noon on the weekends. Tickets were between 10 and 25 cents. 

Most of its film catalog was made up of lesser-known genre pictures and B-movies, in large part because of the business model established by Publix Great States Theaters in Bloomington-Normal. They owned the two other theaters in town that most often screened the newest blockbuster hits, the Irvin and the Castle theater in Bloomington. 

The Normal Theater provided an alternative to seeing the biggest and spendiest movies. Between the early twenties and the early sixties, home televisions were less common and so too was the ability to view movies at home. Having the option to visit theaters with different titles was favorable, especially since the big-five studios were producing up to 800 movies every year at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  

In addition to feature-length films, the Normal Theater screened a wide range of short-form pieces, such as cartoons, serials and comedy shorts. The theater hosted plenty of special events and themed weeks during the forties and fifties like “western week,” which featured a week’s worth of double feature westerns, and their “weekly funshow,” which featured an hour’s worth of cartoons on Saturday afternoon. 

The theater was purchased from Publix Great States in 1974 by the Kerasotes brothers company and began a trend of steep commercial decline and building neglect. It became a one dollar movie house in January of 1982 and returned to a full-price theater in the fall of 1990. Then, it dropped ticket prices again later that same year to $1.50 due to poor business. 

It closed in May of 1991, but the city of Normal decided to save the theater and purchased it later that November. The building, which had become increasingly rundown, received a full $1 million restoration and reopened in October of 1994. 

Since then, it’s continued to be a popular movie destination for the people of Bloomington-Normal, as well as a venue for local film festivals and live stage performances.  

Today, at $7 for adults and $5 for students, customers of the theater are treated to a variety of movie titles that you won’t find on the big screens of any modern chain theaters. Their catalog is interspersed with modern independent movies, classics from every era of cinema and films produced in different countries and languages. 

 Not only does it screen movies from different time periods, the theater itself offers an atmospheric moviegoing experience that transports customers back in time. 

After you purchase your tickets at the ticket box, located below the radiant yellow, green and red bulbs that line the underside of the theater’s iconic marquee, you’ll be greeted by the smell of popcorn in the building’s small lobby. 

From there, the rounded corridors on either side of the lobby desk will take you to the intimate 385-seat theater. Crimson and blue lights accent the rounded forms of the ceiling panels and wall designs, which harken back to the Art Modern architectural style popularized in the 1930’s.  

The feel of the theater’s interior is vintage, but the picture and sound quality of its screenings are state-of-the-art. The clarity of the picture and audio in the theater is on par with the production of modern chain movie theaters. 

It was the first theater built for sound in Bloomington-Normal. At the time of its construction, every other theater in town had been built in the silent film era, and had to be renovated to meet market standards of sound quality for films with audio. 

The Normal Theater has endured for nearly a century as a cultural landmark of central Illinois. Support and donations from a passionate community of movie-lovers have enabled it to serve Bloomington-Normal through decades of cinema history and periods of hardship. 

This holiday season, consider checking out their Christmas classics marathon — a month’s worth of holiday movie screenings featuring classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Home Alone” and “Die Hard.”