Smile Politely

A Building, A Feeling, and A Latrine: The Art Theater tribute

When I started writing this column in Smile Politely alllllll the way back in the summer of 2015, I knew at some point I wanted to write about the men’s room in The Art Theater. I kept saving it up though, either for a special column, or a particular time of need when I couldn’t find another bathroom to write about. Last fall though, The Art Theater permanently closed. It looked like I’d missed my chance to write about a pretty memorable bathroom (and a way more memorable theater). Moral of this story of course is that you shouldn’t wait to do the things you want to do! Seize the day today! Don’t let amazing opportunities slip through your fingers because you think you’re “not ready.” (Well actually, depending what you want to do you should maybe still wait until after the pandemic is over, use your best judgement on that bit.)

I’m getting a second chance now though. My friend, the talented Matt Wiley was able to snag a bunch of beautiful interior photos of The Art Theater some months ago (before the fire sale), so now is finally the time! THIS is the special column I was saving it for, and honestly due to COVID, I definitely have few other bathrooms to write about. Though this column won’t just be about the bathroom, it’s my tribute to The Art Theater as a whole, and maybe even a little walk down memory lane for myself and for you, dear reader.

The Art Theater Building

Of course, much has been said already about the facade of this building. The brickwork, marquee, and ART sign are all great. It’s an icon of downtown Champaign. I bet even when this place housed a porno theater it still looked classic.

The facade of a theater with dark brown bricks and white detailing. There is a red sign with white lettering that says ART. Below the sign is a marquee that says Thanks for the Memories in red letters. Photo by Matt Wiley.

Photo by Matt Wiley.

I could go on about the theater marquee and all the times I spent under there waiting in line for a movie with friends or having frenzied conversations about the film we just saw. However, I want to take this time to show the oft overlooked rear view of The Art Theater building.

A view of the rear facade of the Art Theater with brown brick and a white roof. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Not as classy looking, but still a lot going on back here. You get a great view of the HVAC system for The Art, which as I recall had two settings: “Way too loud to happen while watching a movie” and “OFF.” 

It’d get pretty toasty in The Art Theater during the summertime, which was often annoying, but occasionally enhanced the movie. I remember seeing Fight Club a few years back and sweating the whole time. Whatever you think about Fight Club, you can’t deny it’s a very sweaty movie, and seeing it at The Art proved extra immersive.

At the far end of this photo you can see windows for the few apartments that exist above the lobby of The Art. It’s important to remember that this building isn’t just the theater, there’s those apartments (I toured one once, it was too cool for me), and also the barber shop next door.

My favorite part of this angle is the tall exhaust vent with what appears to be an antique TV antenna perched on top.

Another view of the rear of the theater, focused on the larger portion of the building that houses the actual theater. It has brown brick and a white roof. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Also it looks like there used to be some windows down at the ground level on the back side?

A brick wall; the patterning of the bricks indicates that a portion are covering a window. There is a white metal door to the right. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Photo by Tom Ackerman.

Guess at some point in the last century somebody realized you don’t want a bunch of natural light streaming in behind your movie screen and the bricked them up.

VERDICT: 10/10, I’d buy it if I were an eccentric local millionaire.

Sitting in the Front Row at The Art Theater

In most modern movie theaters, sitting in the very front row is the absolute last resort that you only take if all other seats are full. Taking a front row seat at a modern megaplex is a great way to guarantee an amazing view of the actors’ necks during close-ups, and not much else. At The Art Theater though, the screen is a solid 30 feet away from the front row, and the screen ain’t that big to begin with, so only rubes go to The Art Theater and don’t attempt to sit right in front. Sitting in the front row is amazing. It honestly feels like you’re driving the movie or something, and there’s nobody else’s heads to get in the way of your viewing.

The interior of a movie theater facing the seats. The walls and ceiling are blue with off-white detailing. The blue theater seats are separated into three sections, with carpeted aisles running between them. Photo by Matt Wiley.

Photo by Matt Wiley.

“But Tom,” you must be saying, “you’re a tall fellow, if you’re sitting in front aren’t you impeding lots of other peoples’ view of the movie? Isn’t that immoral at best and a huge asshole move at worst?” Well, the other great thing about sitting in the front row is the tremendous amount of leg room. In the front row at The Art I could spread allll the way out until I wasn’t in anyone’s way. Here’s a dramatic reenactment of what I usually looked like watching a movie at The Art:

The writer is lounging in a lawn chair in the middle of a grassy lawn. He has a bowl of popcorn on his chest and is holding a red solo cup. Photo by Andrea Black.

Photo by Andrea Black.
The writer is lounging in a lawn chair in the middle of a grassy lawn. He has a bowl of popcorn on his chest and is holding a red solo cup. Photo by Andrea Black.

Photo by Andrea Black.
The writer is lounging in a lawn chair in the middle of a grassy lawn. He has a bowl of popcorn on his chest and is holding a red solo cup and has popcorn in his mouth. Photo by Andrea Black.

Photo by Andrea Black.

As you can see, I’ve got my popcorn and my (sometimes reasonably-priced) movie special cocktail. There’s honestly no better moviegoing experience.

VERDICT:  A+ I pity anyone who never sat in the front row at The Art.

The men’s room at The Art Theater

Lemme start off by saying that The Art Theater is a place with tons of charm, however none of that charm ever extended into the men’s room. You’d think a little indie theater would like, put movie posters on the bathroom walls. NOPE. None of that. This bathroom is devoid of whimsy.

An overhead shot of a bathroom stall. The floor has small white hexagonal tiles and the walls have white square tiles. Photo by Matt Wiley.

Photo by Matt Wiley.

One of several bad aspects of this bathroom is that the urinal and stall are situated such that if one person is in the stall and one person is at the urinal, it is almost impossible for urinal person to not accidentally look in on stall person. This is not ideal.

A bathroom stall with a toilet and a urinal side by side. Photo by Matt Wiley.

Photo by Matt Wiley.

You could hypothetically fit three humans in this restroom, one each at the stall, urinal, and sink, however I really wouldn’t recommend it. Anytime anyone tried to move they’d run into each other. This restroom is quite small.

A bathroom sink hanging on a wall with white square tiles. A black paper towel holder is on the wall above it. A metal soap dispenser is on the adjacent wall. Some of the tiles are broken. Photo by Matt Wiley.

Photo by Matt Wiley.

These pics don’t show it, but I recall this sink being a real sprayer. Like the water pressure was too high and also water would shoot out at a nearly 90 degree angle to where the faucet appears to be pointing. 

By far what I remember most about the Art Theater men’s room though is how, in the winter, it would be 10-20 degrees colder than the rest of the theater. Seriously, a few times watching a movie in January, I felt I might have been more comfortable just going outside and peeing in an alley, but then I wouldn’t have been able to wash my hands.

VERDICT: This isn’t a great bathroom, but I have now fulfilled a life goal by writing about it in a column.


I told y’all there might be a little walk down memory lane, so here it is, Tom Ackerman’s best memories of going to The Art Theater. These certainly aren’t the best movies I saw at The Art, but some of the funnest times.

  • Seeing Nosferatu with a live band doing the score.
  • Going to a screening of Labyrinth. My friend insisted on putting eye shadow on me, which was of course necessary and appropriate.

  • A blond woman is putting eyeshadow on the writer as he sits with his eyes closed. Photo by Lauren Graham.

    Photo by Lauren Graham.
  • Watching the film Willow (1988) with a group of friends. We’d all seen Willow before, but we’d forgotten just how great it was and we got emotional at the end.
  • At a showing of Back to the Future, some guy brought his delorean and my friend Han and I got to sit in it.

  • The writer is sitting in the driver's seat of a vehicle, a man with dark hair and glasses is sitting in the passenger seat giving a thumbs up. Photo by Charles Bjork.

    Photo by Charles Bjork.
  • Not a single instance, but for several years I would gather a group to go see the Oscar-nominated animated shorts at The Art. You never know quite what you’re getting into when you see these collected shorts, but that’s part of the magic.

I hope those ancient photos of baby beardless Tom brought you joy. Maybe some of you readers were even there at The Art Theater on those fateful nights as well!

Anyhow, that’s enough rememberin’. I’ll see ya’ll next month!

Top photo by Matt Wiley.

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