Saturday, 8 July 2017

Old Cinemas in Randolph County, Missouri

A 1938 playbill for the Roxy Theatre in Huntsville
My trip to the 4th Street Theatre on Thursday got me to thinking about the other cinemas that operated in Randolph County throughout much of the 20th Century.  Randolph County has a rich history of entertainment going back to the 19th Century.  The Semple Opera House in Huntsville was built in 1884 and continued to operate into the 20th Century.  That same year saw the construction of the Hagarty Grocery Store and Hagarty Opera House in Moberly (the grocery was on the first floor, the opera house on the second). With the advent of motion pictures it should then come as no surprise that several successful cinemas would operate in the county.

With all apologies to my friends who live in Moberly, I am going to discuss the cinemas in Huntsville first. My reasoning is is twofold. First, it is the older of the two towns (in fact, it is one of the oldest towns in the area, having been established as the county seat in 1831). Second, not nearly as much has been written about the cinemas in Huntsville. The movie theatres in Moberly are a bit more well documented. I will be discussing the theatres in chronological order, beginning with the oldest first.

The Capitol Theatre: This was the first cinema in Huntsville. It had begun life as the Malone and Dameron livery stable. It was in 1913 that Judge W. O. Doyle and G. P. Dameron (the two men who owned the building) remodelled it as the Capitol Theatre at a cost of $8000. It was equipped for sound in 1932. Sadly, the Capitol Theatre burned on March 6 1935 with every bit of equipment lost. According to the March 6 1935 issue of the Moberly Monitor-Index, it was either caused by the theatre's furnace or "electric wiring leading to the motion picture machines". It was never rebuilt and never reopened.

A Roxy Theatre ad
from the June 20 1947
issue of the Moberly
Monitor-Index

The Roxy Theatre: The Roxy Theatre is the best remembered cinema to operate in Huntsville. Unfortunately, I don't know exactly when it opened. I do know that it had to have been in or before January 1938, as that is when the earliest advertisements in the Moberly Monitor-Index appear. It was originally named the Vita Theatre, a name it kept very briefly.  By May 1938 it was given the name by which it would be best remembered, the Roxy. The Roxy was located at 118 N. Main Street, where the Masonic Lodge is currently located. Many Huntsvillians have fond memories of the Roxy and it operated successfully for years. Sadly, like many theatres, it would close in the Fifties. It shut down in 1954.

The Gem Theatre: The Gem was the most recent cinema to operate in Huntsville. For a very brief time it was in direct competition with the Roxy. It was located in what had formerly been the Semple Opera House. As noted above, the Semple Opera House was built in 1884. The lower levels contained stores, while the upper level was the opera house itself. The Gem opened on October 31 1950, showing Colt .45 starring Randolph Scott and Ruth Roman. The Gem Theatre apparently did not remain open long, as advertisements for it ceased to appear after 1951. A variety of businesses would occupy the old opera building for the next several years, the last being a video store. The Semple Opera House had been vacant for several years when a portion of it collapsed in 2014. Unfortunately, it had to be demolished.

That is all of the theatres in Huntsville. Now I'll address the theatres in Moberly, which are much better documented.

The Grand Theatre: As its name suggest, the Grand was the movie palace in the county. It began life as a vaudeville theatre. Patrick Halloran built the Halloran Theatre for the then princely sum of $80,000. It opened on December 14 1903. It was in 1913 the Halloran Theatre was sold to George Sparks Sr., who leased the building to Fred Corbett and Jack Truitt that same year. They changed its name to the Grand Theatre. It was at some point later that it became a motion picture theatre. In its history the Grand experienced two fires, one in 1914 and another in 1925. It was rebuilt and leased to the Sears Amusement Company, which represented Universal Pictures in the area. It was in the early Thirties that it, along with the 4th Street Theatre, would be taken over by Fox West Coast Theatres Corp.  They would continue to operate it until February 9 1960 when it closed, a victim of growing competition with television. The building then served as the J. C. Penney store until a few years ago.

Bijou Theatre: The Bijou was a theatre that stood at 314 W. Reed Street in Moberly. I do not know when it opened, but the earliest references I found to it in newspapers was 1908. Beside it at 316 W. Reed was the Gem Theatre, and the two operated side by side for a few years. Like most of the early theatres, it was a vaudeville house that also showed motion pictures. Just as I don't know when it opened, I don't know when the Bijou closed either. I am guessing it was either in 1917 or a little after that, as the last reference to it in newspapers is in 1917.

Gem Theatre: The Gem Theatre stood at 316 W. Reed Street, right beside the Bijou. It opened on February 18 1910 and showed films from the very beginning. In a newspaper article on its opening, there is a reference to "a program of moving pictures." It was owned by Everett Tritch. It was in an article in the July 15 1913 issue of The Moberly Daily Monitor that it was announced that the Gem was consolidating with the White Way, owned by Fred Selby. The new building would be built on a lot owned by Mr. William O'Keefe (one of the five O'Keefe brothers who operated a grocery in town) "between Perkins' store and the new garage on Fourth Street." Quite simply, the Gem Theatre and the White Way Theatre consolidated and closed to become the 4th Street Theatre.

 White Way Theatre: I cannot be absolutely certain, but it appears to me that the White Way Theatre was on the corner of W. Reed Street and N. Clark Street. I also cannot be certain when it opened. The earliest newspaper references I could find to it are from 1912, but it could have existed earlier. At any rate, it clearly showed movies, as in the above cited article about the consolidation of the White Way Theatre and the Gem, both theatres are referred to as "picture houses". The White Way closed after its consolidation with the Gem, the building afterwards being occupied by a grocery.

The Amy Lou: The theatre that would be known as the Amy Lou in the end has perhaps the most complicated history of any cinema in the county. It was also one of the oldest. I am not certain when it opened, but the earliest advertisements for it date to early 1913. It was built by John A. Haworth, who owned and operated it in its earliest years as the Princess Theatre. In 1915 Mr. Haworth retired, and its operation was taken over by J. Oliver Bradley. At some later point it would be bought by T. R. Fiorita. When a fire burned down the Grand in 1925, the Princess would be renamed the Baby Grand and would take over the movies planned to be shown at the Grand until that cinema was rebuilt. At some point the theatre was leased to Fox, just as the Grand and 4th Street would be.

Sadly, the Princess or Baby Grand was not profitable much of the time. The April 28 1931 issue of the Moberly Monitor-Index included a news story on a Moberly City Council meeting at which a tax on theatres was debated. Theo Davis, who managed the theatre for Fox, questioned why the theatre tax should be doubled. He described the lease on the building as only being a "short term lease which the company intended to release as soon as a business could be found to occupy it." Mr. Davis said, "It has been the history of that house that the man who runs it lost money."

It was in 1936 that Louis Sosna leased the building that formerly housed the Princess Theatre. Mr. Sosna and his brother had operated a cinema in Manhattan, Kansas and would open a theatre in Mexico, Missouri as well. Mr. Sosna had a deal with Warner Bros. and Mongram for all of their first run films. He gave what had been the Princess Theatre its third name, the Sosna Theatre. As will be seen later, this would cause confusion for many local people later on! Mr. Sosna operated the Sosna Theatre on Williams Street until 1946, when the building was leased to Dickinson Operating Co. This did not mean Louis Sosna was out of the theatre business in Moberly, as he would open a new theatre on 4th Street (more on it later).

As might be expected. Dickinson renamed the theatre again, this time calling it the "Dickinson". Dickinson Theatres, as the company would finally be called, was a major chain in the late 20th Century. They eventually ran theatres in seven different states, including ones in Little Rock, Arkansas, Columbia, Missouri, and Springfield, Missouri.  It was in 2014 that Dickinson Theatres was sold to B&B Theatres. B&B had originated as Bills Theatres, which was founded in Salisbury, Missouri. In 1980 it would merge with Bagby's Travelling Picture Show, a local company that operated what was essentially a travelling movie theatre that traversed the state of Missouri, and became B&B Theatres.

Of course, years before B&B Theatres acquired Dickinson Theatres, Elmer Bills,(the founder of B&B Theatres) leased what had been the Dickinson Theatre. He renovated it and then reopened it as the Amy Lou in 1960. Sadly for the Amy Lou Theatre, the city of Moberly had other plans for the land on which it sat. The city purchased the property from T. R. Fiorita with plans to tear it down for a parking lot. The Amy Lou closed in 1962. Where it once stood at 112 North Williams Street there is now a parking lot.

The 4th Street Theatre: I wrote a detailed post about the 4th Street Cinema yesterday, so I won't repeat myself. You can read it here

State Theatre: When what had once been the Princess Theatre and later the Sosna Theatre was leased to Dickinson Theatres, Louis Sosna did not leave the theatre business in Moberly. In July 1946 he opened a new theatre, the Sosna, at 209 N. Fourth Street. This was the theatre that would come to be known as the "State" for many Randolph County residents. It was also the theatre I frequented the most as a child and young adult besides the 4th Street Cinema. Of course, the fact that it was originally called the "Sosna" would create confusion among Randolph County residents, local people confusing what was once called the Princess Theatre and was called the Sosna with what was once called the Sosna Theatre and what would become best known as the State.

It was in November 1949 that Louis Sosna leased the Sosna Theatre to the Dubinsky Brothers, who ran a chain that included cinemas in Iowa and Illinois. It was the Dubinsky Brothers who renamed the theatre, "the State". They operated the theatre until 1955, when it closed down. Fortunately, Louis Sosna would reopen the State in 1960, whereupon he remodelled it and renamed it the "Sosna State". He operated it until 1962 when it was taken over by Elmer Bills. It was once more renamed the "State". In the Eighties, B&B Theatres turned the State into a twin theatre by taking the balcony and turning it into another auditorium. The lower floor was then the "State I" and the upper floor the "State II". B&B Theatres continued to operate the State Theatre until March 1997, when it closed with the opening of the Moberly Five & Drive.

Highway 63 Drive-In Theatre: While I love drive-in theatres, I am not sure that I think of them as cinemas. To me a cinema means viewing a movie in an actual building. To be complete, however, I really have to talk about the Highway 63 Drive-In, given its importance in theatre history here. Bills Theatres opened the Highway 63 Drive-In in June 1950. It would open every summer until closing in 1985. It would remain closed until B&B Theatres struck upon the rather singular idea of not only re-opening the drive-in, but building a multiplex beside it. It was the first time ever that a multiplex was built with a drive-in theatre in mind. The multiplex portion of the Moberly Five & Drive opened in March 1997. The drive-in theatre reopened a little later that spring.

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