Historic Urbana theater inspires musical

‘Gloria’ will be performed at the Gloria, of course.Proceeds go to restoration of the venue.

Not only will Gloria be there for this weekend’s premiere of Umstead’s “Gloria – The Musical” it’s where the event will take place.

“Gloria — The Musical” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, and Saturday, Jan. 10, at the historic Gloria Theatre, located at 216 S. Main St., Urbana.

The venue has been an Urbana entertainment hub for 110 years, starting as a Vaudeville theater called The Clifford, operating until the early 1930s, when it shut down for a decade.

Urbana industrialist Warren Grimes rebuilt The Clifford as a two-screen movie cinema and named it The Gloria after his young daughter in 1941. It was later purchased by Chakeres, where it operated until fall 2013 as a cinema.

Urbana United Methodist Church purchased the building in February 2014. A nonprofit group called the GrandWorks Foundation has taken over from there, trying to raise funds to renovate the theater for multiple arts uses.

Umstead was invited to a planning meeting in April 2014 and became fascinated by its history. Someone mentioned it would make a good skit, and the wheels in Umstead’s mind turned.

An independent business consultant, Umstead had time between jobs and knocked out the original story in about six weeks.

“It just happened,” said Umstead, who has lived in Urbana more than 20 years. “The story I came up with is an allegory for the history of the theater. The characters tell the tale with the history as a backdrop; it’s a story in a story.”

The story is about Gloria, a new girl in town whose dad is building a new Vaudeville theater. She meets a guy named Champaign Sam, as well as the antagonist, Penelope Passingtime (pronounced “Passing Tim”), who dislikes Gloria and wants to stop the theater being built.

Umstead said Gloria represents the theater itself, Sam the community and Penelope the passing of time, technology and the tragedies that affected the theater over the years, including a devastating fire.

A former alternative-rock musician, he took parts of several pre-existing songs and retrofitted them for the show. There’s 19 songs altogether, 26 total counting the reprises.

The cast is made up of mostly local talent. A choir is also a running gag, offering the characters support at times.

Amanda Rockhold, a recent Urbana University graduate, is directing “Gloria — The Musical.”

All proceeds will go to GrandWorks’ ongoing restoration of the theater. The group has removed the wall separating the two screens of the cinema, but Umstead said there’s still a lot to do.

The movie screens are still up, and there’s no permanent stage lighting, which makes it challenging for producers.

In December, another original play, “I Remember Christmas,” was performed. Umstead said he’d like to see more of this through GrandWorks’ project.

“It’s been a blast doing this, and I would love to see people support theater, live entertainment and local talent. We’ll see how this goes.”

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Contact this contributing writer at bturner004@woh.rr.com.

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