Destination Illinois: Rockford’s historic Coronado Theatre

Destination Illinois

For generations, families have filled a downtown Rockford theater for performances that ranged from films to Broadway musicals and rock concerts.

About two decades ago, the curtain nearly came down on that long history for good.

The theater is an ornate movie palace that was built in 1927, complete with Spanish castles, Italian villas, oriental dragons, starlit skies and a Grande Barton Pipe Organ. Countless show business legends, including the Marx Brothers, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gypsy Rose Lee have performed on the Coronado stage.

“It’s just a mind-blower, and particularly because what you’re seeing at the street, you just have no idea what’s behind these doors,” said Beth Howard, the Executive Director of Friends of the Coronado.

“I think it’s just, the mouths drop, the heads turn up, because you just can’t believe [what you’re] walking through,” she says of the Coronado’s intricate, Spanish-style decor. “You’ve stepped back in time. It’s 1927 and it’s beautiful.”

The theater might not have been around today if it wasn’t for support from the community. 

After years of decline, a restoration effort was undertaken in 1999, which took 18 months and $18.5 million to complete.

Mary Ann Smith and her husband, Gordon, were the public faces of the fundraising campaign. They personally bought the building next door to allow the Coronado to expand.

More than 55,000 individuals, organization and businesses supported the effort.

“From the beginning of the [restoration] it was ‘for all to use and share.’ That was the mission of Friends of the Coronado,” Howard said. “It was that $5 donor was as important as our $2 million donor. And that was always the philosophy, and that philosophy has carried us through to today, to be honest.”

Roughly 80,000 people come through the doors of the Coronado Theatre every year.

Howard says they come to be entertained…but also to make memories.

“I came here with my grandfather for his Christmas parties, for this company that was in town every year,” she remembers. “And, I came here for the Nutcracker every year with my children. And it’s those memories… that’s what makes these theaters across the country really special to their communities.”

Every fourth grade student in the Rockford School District, all 23,000 of them, attends a special performance every year.

“Our community is very proud of it and I think they have every reason to be proud of it, not only because it’s here, but because they saved it,” Howard said.

Fun fact: depending on who you ask, Frank Sinatra may have actually got his big break on the Coronado stage, singing with Tommy Dorsey.

For more information about the theater or to check out what events are coming up, visit coronadopac.org

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