Lights, Cameras, Action - September 2013

Who doesn't like going to a movie? I love going to a movie. I love the smell of the popcorn, loading up on a big drink and sitting back to relax and escape into another world for awhile. As we find with Greenfield our citizens were not ones to be left behind and that is so true with movie entertainment.

In 1895 Gants Opera House opened on North Street Henry Rottman built the building and John Felt was the architect. You could be entertained with a variety of musicals, plays and vaudeville performances. For many years the Anderson Opera Co. managed the performances. The Anderson Co. was owned by Ed Anderson and Kate Watson.  In July 1915 the building sold in a Sheriff sale to Alonzo Stewart and Owen Carr of Rushville. Leroy and Leora Shoniz and H.H. & Mary Rogers were the previous owners. This is the architectural rendering advertised in the newspaper of Gants Opera House. The building looked similar to this drawing when actually constructed. The Opera House was still doing performances in 1918 but no clear records could be found as to when the building stopped operating as an opera house.
 

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This is thearchitectural rendering advertised in the newspaper of Gants Opera House. The building looked similar to this drawing when actually constructed.


 

Greenfield first began showing Nickelodeons in the early 1900's. This new form of "movin' pictures" was located in the north side of East Main Street, in an outdoor area. Probably

close to Potts Ditch. This area was advertised as the Air Dome. You could still find ads for the Air Dome up to 1908. The Theatorium also entertained citizens in the mid-1900's. A  Nickelodeon is where a picture was shown on a screen and explained by printed captions, and accompanied by music. Local songwriter Earl K. Smith played piano at both the Air Dome and Theatorium.

The What's Next Theater opened in 1907. In December, 1908 The Why Not started showing short serial clips and tidbits or previews at a charge of ten cents. A piano player thumped out music synchronized to the film. A short time later the whole theater was called the Why Not.

 

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1907 What’s Next Ad

In 1918 construction began on a new building for the new Why Not Theater and construction was completed in 1919. It was located on 11 South East Street or today American Legion Place, on the east side of the Court House. The Why Not Corporation built a building that was 42 ½' x 100'. It included a balcony. The theater was built to accommodate large Saturday night crowds. There was a large canopy at the front entrance to the theater. The third floor had a row of windows matching the second floor.


You could attend a movie there for twenty-five cents, except on Saturdays when the theatre did a reversal from the Why Not back to its original of Whats Next to show tidbits and previews.

 

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A Why Not Theatre movie ad from 1915.

 

The Why Not changed its name to the Family Theater in 1920. The new manager was Ira Stephens.

On March 7th and 8th, 1921 the Why Not Theater featured the film "The Old Swimmin' Hole" starring the great Charles Ray. Mayer Ora Myers set aside the day as Riley Days, schools were dismissed at 3 pm, and the children of Greenfield were entertained by the picture. Many pictures were taken of local celebrities: Durbin and Isaac Davis, Riley Home, Brandywine nationally. The movie was advertised as "clean and wholesome, and it will never be without an appreciative audience."

The Why Not was also used for other memorial events. In December 1924 Miss Pearl Sitton and Carl Wellborn were united in marriage on the stage. Miss Sitton had been the ticket taker for the theater. Ira Stevens told her he would give her half the proceeds of the evening's sale of tickets if she would be married on the theater stage. Many patrons also brought gifts to the popular couple.

A movie called "The Greenfield Romance" was made to be shown at the new theater. The movie was made by Essence Studio of Chicago. The heroine was the late Mildred Duncan, a talented young lady who later made and sold your choice of two hundred tiny dolls, mostly Riley characters called Millie's Miniatures. Her hero dubbed Tom Brown was played by Joseph Glasscock. There were two villains: Bartender at the Gulch played by Herman Jackson; and Bouncer at the same establishment, Kenneth Millikan.
In September 1928, it was reported that the owners of the theater traveled to New York City to try to secure the new talking pictures and the Vitaphone for their patrons.
In 1929 a merger was made to combine Greenfield's three local theatres into one. The name New Riley Theatre was bestowed upon the business still managed by Ira Stevens. The name of course was a compliment to our famed poet.
 
Later in 1929 the talking pictures finally made it to Greenfield. Mr. Rembusch, owner of the theatre chain, had secured the Photophone at the expense of $2,500 to $3,000. Mr. Stevens promise had come true! At first, only on certain days sound pictures would be shown; but later, as more films were available, more pictures were shown. The Why Not closed its doors in December 1928.
 
The Riley Theatre, so named of course for the famous poet, with his permission opened in 1915. General A.L. New owned the state of the art theater. It was on the corner of West Main and Mount St. in the rear of the New Building. It was advertised as a new fire-proof building with auditorium for public meetings. The new addition was 60 x 90 with an exit onto Mount Street and one exit to Main Street. The addition also had steam heat and could seat up to 900 people.

 

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Ad for first show in September 1915.

 

It was sold in 1919 by Ira Stephens to Maude Gates and her daughter, Agnes. Employees were listed as follows: Orchestra, Kathleen Ogg and Maude Andrick, pianist; Miss Jack, violinist; Miss Abbott, ticket taker, and George Foreman, operator. With the 1929 merger of theaters it was at this time I believe the Riley moved from its original location and occupied the building that the Why Not was housed at 11 South East Street. It operated out of this location until it closed in 1953.

 

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The Riley Theater entrance doors. These doors led you from the lobby to the theater. They are solid wood doors covered with leather and bottom tucked. The original brass handles and original door closer still operate the doors.

 

Today this building is home to National Road Insurance owned by Rob Young who was very gracious to give a tour of the building. The projection room is still intact today. With it's concrete floor, still studded walls and ventilation exhaust. Although covered on one side the projection windows are still visible from the projection room.

 

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This building at 11 American Legion Place (South East Street) was home to the Why Not and Riley Theaters.

 

By the early 1930's theatre going was a regular event to the average person.

In October 1933, the new State Theatre was constructed by Kiteman Brothers of Noblesville with Exhibitors Exchange, Inc. of Indianapolis installing the electronics. Howard Ellis, manager, announced that the film "Melody Cruise" would be the opening attraction on October 19th. Other attractions for the opening weeks included "42nd Streets"; Betty Davis in "Parachute Jumper" and Mae West in "I'm No Angel." Howard Ellis was the manager of the theater located on South State Street. The theater was of course advertised as the most state of the art theater in Indiana. It had carpeted aisles, rest rooms, drinking fountains and modern heating and ventilation.

 

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Opening Night Ad for the State Theater in October 1933.

 

The State Theatre was sold in September 1939 by Howard Ellis of Greenfield to J.B. Sconce of Edinburg. New Cushioned seats were to be installed. In 1939 the State featured a movie called "A Life in Greenfield." Scenes included the County Basketball Tourney, Saturday shopping, churches, the Boys Club, Tri Kappa, Kiwanis and the Lions Club.

In 1945 the theatre was damaged to the extent of $10,000, but was rebuilt. An overheated flue or furnace was said to have caused the disaster. The theater closed in Mid-1948.

Opening on November 1, 1946, was the new $100,000 Weil Theatre, built by Walter "Pug" Weil and seating 720 people. First attraction was "Caesar and Cleopatra" with Vivian Leigh and Claude Rains. The Weil would become the most elaborate of all the theaters in town. In could accommodate 720 people. With the war just ending and people looking for sources of entertainment Mr. Weil found a way to provide it. The Weil was an art-deco showpiece that housed both cinematic and live performances. Walter Weil died suddenly in January 1956. Mr. Weil also owned the Weil Lumber Company, Greenfield Ice and Fuel Company, was a stockholder in the Greenfield Banking Company and had extensive real estate and farm interest.

The Weil continued on and in the 1980's, it changed owners and became the Village Theatre. In 1988 the Village Theatre was the focal point for the premier viewing of yet another movie filmed right here in Greenfield, "Pushed to Far." The movie starred Claude Akins, written and filmed in Greenfield by John Kleiman. I had the opportunity to be an extra in this movie. All I had to do in my film debut was run, screaming across the Courthouse Plaza as a sniper shot from the bell tower of the Courthouse. Hey...everyone has to start somewhere!

 

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Movie poster for Pushed Too Far.

 

In the early 1990's Allen and Linda Strahl purchased the theater, which by this time had been neglected and needed major renovations. They divided the one large auditorium into two smaller venues.

 

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The Weil Theater today know as the H.J. Ricks Center for the Arts.

 

In June 2003 the theatre closed. But it wasn't closed for long. In 2005 the Stahl's realizing the theatres historic value and the negative impact to the downtown area should the building be razed donated the property to the Hancock County Visitors Bureau. Assisted by the Hancock County Arts and Cultural Council and the Greenfield Parks and Recreational Department a vision to resurrect the landmark took flight. Through grants and donations the theater began its restoration. Today a variety of shows and concerts take place in the theatre which is today known as the Ricks Theater.

Three theatres were in operation in Greenfield in 1947: The Riley, The Weil and the State. All were showing shows for 25 cents. The manager for the Riley and the State was Charles R. Jackson. Jackson would run for mayor as a Democrat in the 1948 election.

How neat would it be if the movies "A Greenfield Romance", "Life of Greenfield" and "The Ole Swimmin" Hole" could be shown again in Greenfield? I don't know about you but I would sure attend. It would also be a great treasure to find the show poster for those movies. What a great conversation piece that would make?

 

The former home of the Jerry Lewis and Northgate Cinemas. Today home to RCG of Greenfield.sep-2013-13 sep-2013-14 Current Legacy Cinemasep-2013-15
1990's ad for Northgate and Village Theaters

The Jerry Lewis Cinema opened its doors in 1972 continuing the traditional of modern theatres. This theater was located in the Northgate Shopping Center at 1021 N. State Street. The theater changed its name to Northgate Cinema in 1974. This theatre was owned and operated by Allen and Linda Strahl. This theatre operated until 1998.

It was at this time that Greenfield continued yet again with advancing our theater needs when the Stahl's opened a new six screen complex know as Legacy Six Cinema. This theater is located at 2347 W. Main St. In 2002 the theatre expanded to its current nine theaters.

So the next time you attend a show in Greenfield just keep in mind that we've always been on the cutting edge of movie technology. Heck sounds like to me Greenfield is due to have another movie made and filmed here. Anyone have any ideas? So sit back, enjoy the popcorn, lights, camera, action!

 

Greg Roland

References:
Greenfield Reporter
The Hancock Democrat
Greenfield Phone Directory
Rob Young National Road Insurance

More Greenfield History