In 1920, Leonard G. Rorer, then manager of Dixon’s Family Theatre, announced he had purchased the site of the old Opera House in downtown Dixon “for the purpose of erecting the finest show house to be found between Chicago and Des Moines and from Rockford to LaSalle”. The Dixon Opera House had opened in 1876 and was the entertainment center of the area until it was destroyed by fire in early 1920.
On March 15, 1922, the Dixon Evening Telegraph announced in its headline the opening of the new Dixon Theatre. A large picture of the theatre’s façade had a prominent position on the front page and several columns were devoted to a description of the interior features and decorations.
In 1922, the Dixon Theatre cost $200,000.00 to build and the local architect was William J. McAlpine, who also designed the Lee County Courthouse, the Old Post Office, and the Dixon National Bank among other public buildings.
The entire community watched the construction of the theater with pride and was impressed with the permanent construction, being entirely constructed of fireproof materials, brick, terra cotta, concrete and steel. “Quality throughout” was the slogan of the management in planning and erecting the fireproof theater. The building differed in design from most theaters of the time in that it had an apartment above the entrance lobby and the stores on either side of the lobby.
The architectural treatment of the interior had an understated elegance with finely detailed decorative features. The crowning feature of the theater was a large dome in the center of the ceiling with the effect of the sky.
Early show bills featured several vaudeville acts, a seven-piece orchestra and frequently a motion picture. A fine organ accompanied the early silent films and talking pictures arrived in 1929. Live entertainment soon ended.
The Rorer family owned and operated the theater for nearly 30 years. In 1984, the final movie was shown and the theater closed. In October 1985, Dixon Theatre Renovation, Inc. signed a lease-purchase agreement and the Dixon Theatre once again became a showcase for the performing arts. The DTRI group knew the necessity of using the old theater to prevent further deterioration while plans went forward to renovate the building.
The “quality throughout” slogan stood the test of time in many respects. That and the almost continuous use of the theatre have prevented major damage to the structure.
The theater, which was designed for vaudeville and later used as a movie theater, has a large stage, orchestra pit, beautiful domed ceiling which is phenomenal for natural acoustics and many other amenities necessary for the performing arts.
For several decades, the Dixon Theatre offered the Dixon area a beautiful, grand facility. Many people from this area have fond memories of dates to movies, and many area young people were introduced to plays, opera and ballet at the Dixon Theater.
Among the most famous events was the premier showing of the film of Ronald Reagan’s “International Squadron”.
Over the past 20 plus years, volunteers, along with generous contributors, spent a portion of time renovating the theater and returning it to its position as a fine showhouse that the entire Sauk Valley area can enjoy.
By the mid 90's, the Theatre was only being utilized a handful of times per year and eventually a new group of Trustees was put into place. Along with that came new "issues" with the building, but also new volunteers that not only saw a need for the many repairs, updates, and cosmetic needs, they saw the "diamond in the rough" that this facility truly is!! This TREASURE that Dixon is so BLESSED to have.....so back to work they went.
The first group of improvements to the building over the years included the following: new roof, complete paint job in the interior, renovation of the apartment, new stage curtains, polishing of the brass, renovated seats in the entire auditorium, completely renovated men’s and women’s restrooms, lighted sign on the South exterior end of the building, rebuilt South wall, air conditioning installation and floor restoration in the lobby and mezzanine areas.
More recently, a brand new lighted marquee was placed on the front of the building, a new boiler system was installed, all the stage and balcony lights were replaced with new, state of the art lights, new sound system that is now in place which includes 12 wireless microphones, and a commercial Power Point Projector unit which allows capability for not only presentations, but also the viewing of any DVD/VHS movies on our full-sized movie screen. In April-June of 2007, the electrical service to the building was been upgraded from 400 amp to 800 amp, balanced system. Most of the internal electricity has been removed and replaced with new as well. Add all the above components together and you have yourself a pretty modern facility, yet in a Historic Building. You can't find that in too many places, which also makes us quite UNIQUE!
WATCH FOR THESE PROJECTS STARTING SOON: New windows on the front of building, new Emergency Exit door on the North side of bldg., dome ceiling repair, interior South wall repair, & more.
FUTURE PROJECTS: Projects we HOPE to be underway include fundraisers for desperately needed future ongoing plasterwork & paint, dressing room renovation, tuck-pointing and cleaning of the exterior and just normal maintenance that must occur on such a large building.
The Theater is currently a rental facility and provides a place for organizations to hold all kinds of events at user-friendly prices. Several times a year, fundraisers for the theater help to defray expenses. The auditorium accommodates live stage productions, concerts, opera, ballet, classic films, lectures, meetings, seminars and conferences.
The Dixon area can be proud that the theater operates independently from local government and, with the help of private donations and rental fees, is self-sufficient.
It costs thousands of dollars each year to operate the theater because of fixed expenses for utilities and insurance.
The Historic Dixon Theatre is owned by the Lee County Civic Center Authority, a unit of government created by a resolution passed by the Lee county Board under the authority of the Metropolitan Civic Center Act. The board of trustees was appointed by the Civic Center Authority to manage the facility, including rental and fund-raising activities of the theater as well as setting policies for the maintenance of the facility.
The market area for the Historic Dixon Theatre is basically Lee County and adjacent areas in Ogle, Carroll and Whiteside counties. Approximately 1/3 of the people attending the current events are from outside Dixon. The two most desired types of productions currently are Broadway Musicals and Plays. We hope to broaden the horizon of happenings at the Dixon Theater in the very near future.
The Historic Dixon Theatre is alive and well!