Returning to its glory days | The Dixon Historic Theatre
Earning a place in the hearts of Dixon
Walking from the parking lot behind the 99-year old Dixon Historic Theatre through the alley, the sounds of workers constructing and renovating comes through the backstage doors loud and clear. The building is impressive and even more so when entering the lobby through its front doors.
It takes a village — and a staff
Timothy Boles, the theatre’s executive director, is busy overseeing the renovations, staff, booking events, and in general making sure everything is running smoothly with the grand opening in early September 2021. Speaking of staff and Boles, they have husband and wife team Scott and Jan Fattizzi, theatre and box office managers respectively, Sean Ports as artistic director, Spencer Aurand as facilities manager, and Scott Shipp chief technician.
Many of the artists coming to the theatre are conducting residencies with the community the day before their performances. “We know that we’re not going to earn a place in the heart of Dixon if all we are doing is selling tickets. We want to be more than that. We want to be a place the community is invested in and proud of,” said Boles.
A history of rebuilding “The Dixon”
The original building was called the Dixon Opera House and opened in 1876. Unfortunately, it was heavily damaged by fire in 1903. At that time it was remodeled and continued on. Believe it or not, on February 17, 1920, another devastating fire occurred. This time it was completed destroyed.
Enter Leonard G. Rorer in 1920, manager at that time of Dixon’s Family Theatre. He announced the purchase of the original Opera House site “for the purpose of erecting the finest show house to be found between Chicago and Des Moines and from Rockford to LaSalle.”
On March 15, 1922, the Dixon Evening Telegraph announced the opening of the brand new theatre. Eventually, The Dixon cost $200,000 to build (equivalent to $3 million today). It was designed in an Italian Renaissance style by local architect William J. McAlpine, responsible for the Lee County Courthouse, the Old Post Office, and the Dixon National Bank.
The building was not given a legal title/name at that time, but soon the local paper and community started referring to The Dixon Theatre as just “The Dixon.” Boles hopes to see the nickname come back into everyday use almost 100 years later. “We want to reclaim it!” said Boles.
Because of the two previous fires, The Dixon was entirely constructed of fireproof materials–brick, terracotta, concrete, steel, and terrazzo. Also included in the new building was an apartment above the lobby and storefronts.
The apartment remains to this day, along with the original theatre manager’s office. It has a small kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom. The original wood floors, woodwork, and built-ins remain. Boles plans to use this apartment as a private VIP reception room before events in the near future.
The Dixon is constructed with terrazzo and marble tile floors throughout the lobby area. The owner’s name, Rorer, is embedded in the lobby floor. Terrazzo and marble are not easy materials to install. Because of this, the building contractor brought over a craftsman from Italy to install the materials.
“He was a fellow named Venier (Lorenzo),” said Boles. During his time working on The Dixon, Venier fell in love with Dixon and the area and decided to resettle here with his family. To Dixonites, the Venier name is well known. Venier Jewelers on First Street is owned and operated by Lorenzo’s descendants.
The second-floor lobby mezzanine overlooks the main lobby and provides access to the balcony seats. Every seat is a good seat. Initially, The Dixon was built to accommodate over 1,000 seats. With the new tech deck and sound system relocating to the main floor, there are now just over 900 seats.
The architectural treatment of the interior had an understated elegance with fine decorative features. The crowning glory was a large dome in the center of the ceiling with a sky treatment, which retains beautiful acoustics. There is also a large stage, orchestra pit (now covered but accessible from the basement), and a 1924 organ used to accompany silent films.
The Rorer family owned and operated the theatre for almost 30 years. Vaudeville acts, a seven-piece all-woman orchestra, and motion pictures highlighted the schedule. Talking pictures arrived in 1929. One of the famous events held at The Dixon was the premier showing of the film “International Squadron,” featuring Ronald Reagan. The projection room is still on the second floor with two shutter windows for use when a reel had to be switched during the movie viewing. The large 1950s reel holders sit predominantly in the center of the room.
The basement, constructed entirely of concrete and steel, houses the dressing rooms, bathrooms, and orchestra pit. Boles says the orchestra pit is to reopen from the top sometime in the next year or so.
New leadership in 2019
The Dixon went through ownership changes but continued to operate as a movie house until 1984, when it closed. In 1985, Dixon Theatre Renovation, Inc. (DTRI) entered into a lease-purchase agreement, and The Dixon once again became a performing arts showcase. Both DTRI and the Lee County Civic Center Authority guided the building through almost 35 years of use as a performing arts center. Many volunteers, along with generous contributors, renovated the building and brought many years of entertainment and culture to the Sauk Valley region.
Currently, The Dixon Historic Theatre is owned and operated by Historic Dixon Theatre Group. Of the seven theatre board directors, three members are appointed by the Dixon mayor and the Dixon city council. However, the organization acts as an independent body. All was right with the world until COVID struck and new programming was delayed.
The first thing visitors will see when walking into the central part of the theatre is the new set of red curtains with gold details. The backstage is busy building a new fly-system replacing the old ropes used to open and close curtains and theatre backdrops. New aisle carpets are to be installed soon.
Within the next year, Boles sees the entire theatre interior getting a new paint job using the colors of the original theatre. The painting won’t be copied precisely but inspired by the actual shades of dark ochre, reds, and blue.
When buildings of this type were built back in the day, they were known as “the people’s palaces.”
“Everyone should feel like royalty when they walk through the doors,” remarked Boles.
The new season starts September 3
Franc D’Ambrosio’s Broadway: Songs from the Great White Way performs on September 4. D’Ambrosio, acclaimed for his role as the Phantom of “The Phantom of the Opera,” celebrates Broadway music and more. On September 3, he will conduct one of his famous Master Classes, including a talent search for a pair of young singers (between the ages of 18-35) to perform on September 4 the renowned love duet, “All I Ask of You,” onstage with D’Ambrosio. The finals on September 3 are open to the public to watch.
See the performance schedule here.
Children’s Theater and Community Theatre are part of the plan
Outside of bringing in performing artists, Boles said that a year-round children’s theater–starting in fall 2021–and the resurrection of community theatre is on the books. Jan Fattizzi, box office manager, is also an experienced children’s theatre director. There are two planned productions with a possible summer 2022 production.
The lucky kids who get to participate learn how to perform on stage and learn all aspects of theatre life. “We’re not just rehearsing to put on a show. They’re being educated on technique, makeup, costuming, lighting, and more,” explained Boles.
After an absence of many years, community theatre is coming back to Dixon. The first community theatre event taking place is the holiday production of “A Christmas Carol.” Boles remarks, “It’s going to be a spectacular production as it’s an inter-generational play and will have both adult and child actors.”
A bright future
Many exciting things are coming to the theatre that benefits the community, visitors, and artists alike. “We have every confidence that The Dixon will be a beacon for the arts from Chicago to Des Moines and from Rockford to LaSalle, just as it was in 1922,” Boles said.
Main Office Phone: (779) 250-9951
Box Office Phone: (815) 508-6324
Box Office Location
93 S. Hennepin Ave
Dixon, IL 61021
Box Office Hours
Tues & Thurs 11 am – 6 pm
The 2nd & 4th Saturdays of the month, 11 am – 2 pm