Raue Center for the Arts celebrates its history, future in 85th year

CRYSTAL LAKE – At a time when many old theaters are winding up on the list of Illinois’ most endangered places, the El Tovar Theatre is not only surviving, it’s thriving.

Most McHenry County residents would better recognize the El Tovar as the Raue Center for the Arts, located at 26 N. Williams St. in Crystal Lake.

The El Tovar is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, and this month the building was plaqued by the McHenry County Historic Society in honor of its historical significance.

“It underscores [the Raue Center’s] commitment to preserving history,” said Kurt Begalka, the historical society’s administrator.

On the heels of the county designation, the Raue Center also applied for and received landmark status from the city of Crystal Lake. A plaque ceremony will take place in the near future, Raue Center Executive Director Richard Kuranda said.

“It’s a big turning point for us, acknowledging our history and legacy,” he said.

When the El Tovar opened in June 1929, it was billed as “Northern Illinois’ most beautiful theater,” according to an article at the time in the Crystal Lake Herald.

About 8,000 people attended the four-day grand opening event. At that time, the theater seated 900 and used RCA’s photophone equipment for its presentation of “talkies,” movies that included sound, according to the historical society. On the weekends, the theater also hosted vaudeville acts.

“It was a beautiful theater, something unusual for [Crystal Lake’s] size,” said longtime Raue Center volunteer Judy Minsley, who helped with the application for the county and city landmark statuses.

The theater was designed by architect Elmer F. Behrns, who designed eight other theaters in Illinois, including the Arcada in St. Charles, the Egyptian in DeKalb and the Woodstock Theatre in McHenry County.

Those who enter the Raue Center still can experience the fantasy of a “Night in Spain” with the theater’s blend of California Mission and Spanish Eclectic architecture. Arched openings with clay tile roofs, stained glass and ornamental scrolled ironwork are just some of the details that add to the Spanish theme.

Theater-goers who look up are treated to a midnight-blue sky, complete with twinkling stars.

The original two-story theater included dressing rooms, an orchestra pit, a modern stage and a large mezzanine.

The theater also had apartments upstairs and was flanked by two storefronts. At the time, it cost $165,000 to build. Today, that would cost about $2.2 million, according to the historical society.

In 1952, the theater was sold and renamed the Lake. Then it was sold again to become Showplace 8. Longtime county residents might remember seeing first-run movies such as “E.T.” there in the 1980s.

In time, the theater began to show its age, and extensive repairs were needed.

The theater changed hands again in 1999. Thanks to a gift from the Lucile Raue Family Estate and with the help of matching funds, the restoration of the theater was completed in August 2001.

Many of the original elements remained intact, so the idea was to bring the El Tovar back to its former glory, Kuranda said.

“There’s so much character, so much charm,” he said. “It’s not something you see every day.”

The attention to detail, as well as to the preservation of original features such as the 85-year-old terra cotta mosaic floor in the lobby, made the Raue Center a natural for landmark status.

“It’s a recognition of the work they’ve done,” Begalka said.

To get that recognition, though, the Raue had to go through an extensive process with the county historical society’s Historic Sites Committee.

“They’re very diligent in checking and seeing what’s original,” Begalka said.

The review included a long application, a four-hour site visit last October with members of the committee, a vote from the committee and then a vote from the historical society’s board.

“It took a tremendous amount of research,” Minsley said of the process that began in mid-June and culminated with the plaquing this month.

A similar, though less lengthy, process was required from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and City Council to secure the city’s designation.

“It was a smooth process,” Minsley said of the effort that began in October and led to the City Council’s approval Dec. 17.

A champagne reception for the McHenry County Historical Society honor took place Feb. 8 and was attended by relatives of the Edward Kirchberg, the founder of the El Tovar, as well as relatives of Margaret Gracy, the previous owner and general manager of the theater.

“It gives it the recognition of being of such value to the community for this period of time,” Minsley said of the significance of the historical society and city honors.

Those interested in learning more about the history of the El Tovar Theatre, as well as the renovation work on what became today’s Raue Center for the Arts, are invited to view a photo display in the center’s box office. They also can take a tour of the Raue Center with volunteers such as Minsley, who can share even more details about the theater’s history.

As “stewards of history,” the Raue Center values its ties to the past as it works with the city to be part of a vibrant future for Crystal Lake’s downtown, Kuranda said.

“We’re really, really proud of it,” he said.

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