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The Illinois Theater

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Rock Island must have congratulated itself in March of 1901 when it sold out every single seat and all eight boxes for the opening night of its new theater. Only a few details remained: finding a proper site, designing the theater, choosing a name, and building it.

The advance sale of tickets was the idea of theater promoter, George Johnston, of St. Louis. He had come to Rock Island at the request of the Rock Island Argus and the Rock Island Club, who had been promoting the idea of a modern theater for Rock Island for three years. Realizing that finding investors would be difficult in Rock Island, he proposed selling the opening night tickets for $10 a seat and $100 a box in order to raise the $10,000 needed to begin.

When all the seats had been sold, Johnston agreed to build the theater, control its bookings for two years in order to ensure quality drama, and then sell, lease, or rent it to local investors.

Plans for the new theater went well and rapidly. The Argus held a contest for the name in April, and citizens chose The Illinois.

Johnston had promised Rock Island the finest theater in Illinois outside of Chicago. When Rock Islanders saw the plans on March 26th, they agreed. The Illinois was a three-story stone building with a parquet, balcony, and gallery. The first floor was to contain shops and stores. There were eleven dressing rooms, eleven scenery sets, and the latest in indirect lighting.

In June, Johnston and the theater committee selected a site at the corner of Second Avenue and 16th Street, and construction commenced. By December, the new Illinois Theater was ready for opening night on December 26th. Those who had tickets drew numbers for each five tickets they held, and then were allowed to select seats, lowest numbers first.

Opening night was a gala social affair in Rock Island as 1,400 patrons got their first look at the magnificent theater. There was only one sour note: the play. Johnston had not booked far enough ahead, and had to take what was available, an awful farce horribly acted, called "Are You a Mason?" "Fortunately," said the Argus, "people came to see the theater, the play was secondary."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.