This October will mark the 20th anniversary of the rebirth of the Normal Theater as a town-run venue for classic, independent and foreign films. Yet the distinctive Art Moderne-designed movie house goes back much farther — all the way to 1937 and the Great Depression.
And though the restored theater is now a cherished uptown Normal icon and one of the more photographed buildings in all the Twin Cities, during its commercial years it suffered its share of tough times and indignities common to downtown theaters across the nation.
The Normal Theater (or “Theatre”—for much of its history the two were used interchangeably) was built by Sylvan and Ruth Kupfer, who owned the 209 North St. lot where the movie house went up. Sylvan, a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan back when the university had a law school, was a local attorney and later real estate broker.
The Kupfers obtained financing for the $100,000 project, and once completed they leased the “show house” to Publix Great States Theatres, a regional chain which also ran the Irvin and the Castle, the two top motion picture venues in Bloomington. Sylvan Kupfer, however, kept the title of manager for himself, and his family remained connected to the theater for much of its history.
The Normal Theater’s architect was Arthur F. Moratz, whose buildings include the Art Deco-style Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the north end of downtown Bloomington. Interestingly, the Normal was the first movie theater in the Twin Cities built for sound. (The Irvin and Castle dated to the silent era and thus had to be retrofitted for the “talkies.”) Seating capacity for the Normal was 620, rather cozy when compared to the Irvin’s, which almost reached 1,000. (With changes in building codes, wider aisles and wider seats for increasingly wider American bottoms, a full house at the Normal is now 385.)
The Art (or Streamline) Moderne architectural style hasn’t lost any of its novel charm since the theater’s Great Depression opening. The exterior, with its horizontal lines and curving forms, features a color scheme of tan stucco, black Vitrolite glass and a stunning marquee of “Chinese red.” The interior is also rich in Moderne motifs, especially the elegantly designed recessed lighting.
The Bing Crosby musical “Double or Nothing” opened the theater on Nov. 19, 1937. Tickets were 25 and 10 cents.
The Normal has always been more than a movie theater, even during its successful commercial years, serving as a venue for national, state and local election returns, children’s Christmas parties and various public and private events.
Yet the theater is first and foremost a shrine to cinema — always has been … and hopefully always will be! Back in its heyday, the Normal’s schedule was packed with feature length films, as well as high-adventure serials, comedy shorts, newsreels, cartoons and who knows what all. “Western Week,” for instance, arrived on Dec. 29, 1952, with a double bill each night, including a New Year’s Eve showing of “Lone Star” with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, followed by “The Great Missouri Raid” with the likes of lesser stars Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carrey.
In December 1974, the Springfield, Ill.-based chain Kerasotes Brothers took over both the Normal and Irvin theaters, and 11 years later, one of the siblings, George, became the Normal’s owner. That same year, 1985, Kerasotes split (or “twinned”) the already cozy Normal into two cinemas, with the balcony given its own screen.
Moviegoers to the Normal became increasingly scarce, especially when they started flocking to the eight-screen Parkway Cinemas off Veterans Parkway, which opened in 1990. The Normal closed its doors on May 16, 1991. “I don’t decide these things — the public does,” George Kerasotes said at the time. “The reason we closed it is that nobody went to it.”
Fortunately, the town of Normal came to the rescue, purchasing the rundown, chopped-up theater in November 1991. About $1 million in federal grants, donations and tax dollars were needed for the ambitious restoration, which included the return to a single screen. The grand reopening was held Oct. 7, 1994, with a showing of the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” Three years later, the Normal Theater earned its rightful spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and the old “popcorn palace on the prairie” continues to thrive as a town-run enterprise.
As a series of nondescript, strip mall-like “sprawl-plexes” have fallen to the wrecking ball (University Cinemas, those at Eastland Shopping Center and College Hills, and yes, even Parkway Cinemas), the Normal has survived to become a community treasure and the symbol of a revitalized uptown.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.