She’s a beauty, and it took a Herculean effort to restore The Historic Fischer Theatre in Danville, which was built in 1884 as The Grand Opera House. Audiences in the late 1800s and early 1900s enjoyed an amazing performing arts history featuring live theatrical and musical performances during the Vaudeville era before the age of motion pictures.
The doors closed in 1981, seemingly for good. But an army of tireless volunteers and donors – including famous Danville celebrities Gene Hackman, Jerry Van Dyke, Dick Van Dyke, Donald O’Connor and Bobby Short – rallied together and worked for decades to save the theatre.
When local philanthropist Julius Hegeler II caught the vision, his major donation supported the work of local craftsmen on the theatre. Known as a humble businessman and hands-on benefactor, Hegeler, 91, died before The Fischer Theatre’s grand opening in September 2019.
Between that grand opening and March 2020, the schedule at The Fischer Theatre took off with performances by the Danville Symphony Orchestra and the Danville Light Opera as well as other live concerts. Movies ranging from classics to art films enjoyed live audiences. Non-profits and charities also began to utilize the Fischer’s historic stage for fundraising efforts. Then COVID-19.
“As the pandemic began to unravel in March, we took a forward-thinking posture,” writes Jason Rome, executive director for the Vermilion Heritage Foundation and The Historic Fischer Theatre. “I am proud to say we worked constantly and side by side with public health officials to ensure that our theatre and its operations were safe, smart, and compliant with the guidance related to COVID-19, and that we were not sitting out when we could be in the game. We had come too far to lie down in our first year of operation. So, we got creative, busy, and kept things simple.”
The Vermilion Heritage Foundation and The Fischer Theatre became charter members of the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA), and actively helped develop policy and lobby for various pieces of legislation and programs of support to specifically ensure the survival of the industry. Eventually those efforts led to advising the state of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity on the second round of Business Interruption Grant funding and various pieces of federal legislation which landed on the #SaveOurStagesAct.
“The future is bright,” writes Rome. “The Fischer Theatre has so much opportunity, and its potential to continue to make a meaningful and lasting impact in our community is what guides everything we do.”
This month, you can attend a “May the 4th Be With You” surprise movie night, a Mother’s Day Brunch and Concert, Yoga and Mimosas or a Ladies Night Out showing of “Bridesmaids.” Or you can rent the 800-seat Fischer Theatre for weddings, concerts, conferences, meetings, movie nights and more. And that’s just a small sample of what this versatile, premier, multi-purpose venue will bring to the cultural, educational and economic development of the Danville area.
As Rome so aptly puts it: “The Lady waits no longer.”