Watseka (pop. 5,600) is located in the most lightly populated county in Illinois. Corn and soybeans for as far as you can see. When I was just 17, back in 1967, all I wanted was out. The Summer of Love was going strong in San Francisco, and I was stuck in Watseka!
My exile from my hometown in 1968 was confrontational and bitter. The farmers and factory workers, macho WWII vets, were outraged by my anti-Vietnam War op-eds in the local newspaper. Once, as I was standing by the side of the road waiting for the bus to take me back to school in Champaign, a brick tossed out of a passing car whizzed by my head.
When I returned home for a family reunion recently, I was amazed to see the marquee on the old movie theater on Walnut Street advertising an upcoming Ricky Skaggs concert! My sister and I watched many double feature cowboy movies and Loony Tune cartoons at that theater when we were kids. For decades, the theater had been abandoned and empty, along with half the shops in the downtown business district.
A Ricky Skaggs concert in Watseka! The middle of nowhere! How in the world did that happen?
I made a couple of phone calls. Soon I was waiting outside the new Watseka Theatre for Chuck Gomez, the owner. Chuck was a road warrior for decades in the Chicago and midwestern music scene. He’s got a lot of stories to tell, like playing sax with the Count Basie Orchestra and working for Jim Henson’s Muppet empire, and he loves to tell them.
Chuck gave me an exuberant tour of the renovated Art Deco theater. Louis Skidmore of Skidmore, Owens and Merrill, one of the great architectural firms of the Chicago school, designed it. Chuck and his wife, Debbie completely renovated the theater and re-opened in 2007. They’ve returned the theater to its 1931 pristine glory. At every stop along my tour, Chuck had stories to tell. Digging beautiful old brick walls out from under misguided concrete renovations…Debbie’s long effort to reconstruct the proscenium curtains…recasting Art Deco decorative moldings out of plastic foam…