Currently at Sousa

Spaces Speak: Sounds of Champaign-Urbana’s Music Venues, Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,  January 25, 2024 – present.

From spacious concert halls, to packed bars, people’s homes, sidewalks and local churches, the Champaign-Urbana community is filled with the sound of music. For the last one hundred years, all of these spaces have helped shape music tastes in the region—each of them speaking in their own unique way.

In the early 20th Century, entrepreneurs responded to the needs of the community and their own desire for sustainable income sources and began building multipurpose venues that could function as concert halls and theaters. Urbana’s Illinois Theater was used for many functions, including concerts, until it burned down in 1927. Opening in 1921, Champaign’s Virginia Theater was also billed as a multipurpose venue. And it wasn’t just entrepreneurs—public institutions like the University of Illinois used several lecture halls as musical venues, hosting internationally recognized acts like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Marion Anderson, Louis Armstrong, and Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1921, Smith Hall became the University of Illinois’ first dedicated concert facility, and in 1969, the University completed The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, one of the largest performing venues in the region. The KCPA continues to draw major acts like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and hosts events like the biennial Elnora Guitar Festival. Other community events take place in Parkland Community College’s Theater complex, which opened in 1987.

Although the records of bars, restaurants, and dance halls are much harder to find, these spaces have also been vital music sources for our community. In the 1960s, The Red Herring Restaurant supported rising folk music stars, such as Dan Fogelberg, who became a prominent figure in country music in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Champaign’s C-Street Pub (formerly “The Bar” and “Chances R”) hosted a vibrant progressive rock scene and served as the heart of the LGBT community. Mabel’s and Panama Red’s hosted rock shows throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The restaurants Nature’s Table and Treno’s, both on Goodwin Avenue, featured top-tier jazz performers like Guido Sinclair and Ron Dewar. By the 1990s, this scene had moved to Urbana’s Iron Post, and by the 2020s, it had moved to the Rose Bowl Tavern.
The community has also enjoyed music at large public gatherings hosted by sports venues, parks, and churches. Since it opened in 1923, Memorial Stadium has featured the University of Illinois Marching Illini, and in 1985, country music icon Willie Nelson chose the stadium for the inaugural Farm Aid concert. The University’s Assembly Hall, first opened in 1963 and now called the State Farm Center, served as the site for major touring acts like Jefferson Airplane; The Eagles; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; REO Speedwagon; Kenny Chesney; Prince; and Elton John. Area churches and religious centers have played host to non-worship events, including St. Matthew’s Church, even recording some of these events. And sometimes, a venue is so large, like the Altgeld Chimes, that listeners can hear the music from great distances.

In addition to these “soundmarks,” or sonic landmarks in the landscape of Urbana-Champaign, performers and musicians have created temporary music venues as well. One of the longest of these traditions can be found in the House Music concerts sponsored by the Tuesday Morning Musical Club, which began in 1914. In addition to transforming members’ living rooms into performance spaces, the organization has performed within several other non-traditional spaces. Organizers of the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival and Folk and Roots Festival have also used temporary soundstages and local businesses as venues, reclaiming municipal and commercial space through music. Finally, within the last three years, performers have made use of live-streaming software like Zoom to create imagined performance spaces.

Champaign-Urbana’s music venues have played and continue to play a vital role in shaping our community and its traditions, helping our community define itself. With every performance, these spaces are reinterpreted, their characters changing throughout the past hundred years. Although it would be impossible to discuss every space that ever served as a venue, this exhibit considers several types of music venues throughout Urbana-Champaign’s history through the lenses of the performers and audiences that have interpreted these spaces.


Singing Cities: Choral Directors Leading the Nation in Song, Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, October 25, 2023 – present.

During the Great Depression and World War II, American audiences predominantly listened and danced to Big Band performances. But during the post-war period, many Americans began listening to more choral music. People celebrated the war’s end by communal singing in churches, and in community, high school, college, and professional choirs.

Americans were already listening to choirs on weekly radio programs like Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians. During the late 1960s, Robert Shaw’s Choir in Atlanta became popular. The Winter Olympic Committee selected Charles Hirt, a choral director from Los Angeles, to direct a choir at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Following this, Walt Disney asked Hirt to conduct a series of concerts at Disneyland’s Main Square USA in the early 1960s.

Nearly fifteen years before the Civil Rights movement gained national visibility, Elaine Brown, the director of Singing Cities in Philadelphia, included African Americans in her choir. Brown as also the director of choral music at Temple University, one of the many universities where choral music grew in importance.

Meanwhile at the University of Illinois, Harold Decker established the first doctoral degree program for choral conducting, causing Decker and the University of Illinois to become leaders in the movement to educate generations of choral directors.

This exhibit presents some highlights from the work of these four mid-20th Century leaders in American choral music: Robert Shaw, Elaine Brown, Harold Decker, and Charles Hirt.