No doubt you’ve heard the dire prediction that the demise of the movie theater is now just a matter of when and where we will hold the last one’s funeral. There are just too many other entertainment options – theaters can’t possibly survive. Guess again. That gloom and doom warning has been around since 1925 when theaters showing silent films encountered competition from stories on the radio. Yet here we are in 2017 with an increase in box-office receipts, an increase in the number of young people attending movies, and more than 39,000 theaters (and 500 drive-ins) still in existence. Both the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners are positive about their futures.
My husband and I love to go to the movies and have many fond memories of theaters in California, Texas, and Oklahoma. We’re old enough to remember when “going to the movies” included musical entertainment while everyone was being seated by the ushers, then movie previews, a newsreel, cartoons, and finally the feature film. And of course, there was popcorn, candy, and soda. Saturdays were prime days for the “double feature.” And let’s not forget the drive-in experience: Crowd everyone into a vehicle, wear whatever you want, and adjust the sound to your liking. Most drive-ins charged by the “car load,” provided playgrounds for the children, and had great snack bars.
A recent trip to the REXII Theater in Caddo, prompted a discussion of the theaters we’ve attended and I began to wonder about the theaters that previously entertained our ancestors in Bryan County. My research turned up 24 theaters in Durant’s history and at least seven in the county.
Most folks are surprised to learn that “moving pictures” have been around since the late 1890s. Great thinkers and inventors had experimented with photography for many years prior to Emile Reynaud’s first public exhibition of a motion picture in 1892. More years of perfecting the film, machines, and production processes finally led to Edwin S. Porter’s famous film, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and the public was hooked.
Prior to statehood, entertainment in Bryan County was provided by saloons and opera houses. Statehood and prohibition forced many saloon owners to look for other ways to entertain the public and the appeal of the new moving pictures prompted renovations of existing opera houses to include “photo plays” as they were aptly named. I’m not sure when Durant’s Wilson Opera House first remodeled their stage to enable them to show moving pictures, but they were doing so by January of 1906. In 1907 the Royal, located on Main Street in Durant, offered three shows daily for 10-cents admission. In 1908 Forrest and Harvey Johnson and Earl Hockaday ran the Empire Theater, but moved to a building next door to the Bryan County Democrat and dubbed it the Airdome. The Durant Theater, a grand opera house in 1911, was showing movies by 1914. In 1915 it was remodeled and became Durant’s post office. By 1926 there were 14,600 theaters in the U.S. and Durant had already enjoyed the benefits of more than a dozen. In 1912 Durant had four “show houses”- The Gayety, Orpheum, Princess, and Durant. In the fifties patrons had their choice of The Ritz, Metro, Plaza, Savage, Sky-Vu or Ship.
Of course, the first movies were silent, and quite “tame” by our standards, but it didn’t take long for concerned citizens to question their value to society. In 1906 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union voiced concerns about the “influence of movies on the health, well-being, and morals of impressionable youth.” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was formed in 1922 and in 1930 they created the Hays Code – “A Code to Maintain Social and Community Values in the production of Silent, Synchronized, and Talking Motion Pictures,” and condemned movies that “lower the moral standards” of viewers.
The films were not the only problems created by this new form of entertainment. Public displays of affection were illegal in many states and considered “disorderly conduct.” Violators were evicted from theaters and often fined as well. In 1930 a couple evicted from a Chicago theater for passionately kissing sued the owners in court and were awarded $1,250 because they were married, and therefore excused for being affectionate. In Durant there was an ordinance against showing movies on Sunday evenings. It was first enacted in 1917, but repeal was requested, and denied, as late as 1951 by Shipman Bullard, owner of the Ship Drive-In. In later years he attended several council meetings in defense of showing “R” rated movies at his theaters.
During the years that the theaters showed both plays and moving pictures, they had their share of problems with the live stars. In 1916 Manager Burns of the Bungalow Theater was forced to cancel his scheduled engagement of a traveling show when three female members of the company were involved in a “drunken row” with four men in Denison.
Most managers found ways to help the community. Benefits and plays and “senior night” were commonly held at the theaters, and the Presbyterian Church even held services in the Orpheum while their building was under construction in 1914. In 1920 the Queen Theater (Crowned with Public Favor) showed “The Last of the Mohicans” and 20% of the tickets sold to students was donated to the schools. In 1922 manager Carl Lee treated all of the Durant Democrat carriers to a free showing of “The Sheik.” Theater managers also provided their stages for political candidates, local speakers, and community events. Shipman Bullard took his popcorn machine to the local schools and gave treats to the students.
Theaters also provided employment for many locals. Miss Luna Brown Mattox played the piano at the Orpheum in 1914. In 1932 Bus Bryant was the projectionist at the Ritz and Thelma Hailey was the cashier at the Liberty. Elzie Landers was the head usher at the Plaza in 1936. My father was an usher at the Rex Theater in Caddo in the forties. He had fond memories of carrying a flashlight and leading patrons to their seats.
The Plaza, opened in 1936, is probably the best remembered theater in the area. The attractive sign still towers over the current businesses located on Third Avenue. The newspaper praised T. Miller Davidge and declared “nowhere in Southern Oklahoma can a more completely appointed theatre be found…” Claude Dilden did the tile work on the beautiful building designed by W. Scott Dunne of Dallas. T. Miller Davidge was the second generation of his family to entertain Durant citizens; his father was one of the early purveyors of silent films.
The Plaza Theater was one of the few built for that purpose. Most of the theater buildings in Durant were remodels of existing buildings. In 1915 James Dowen and Fred Harle remodeled their jewelry store and real estate office to create The Colonial Theater on Main Street. In 1921 Mr. Rowley opened the Lyric Theater after remodeling the Dunlap Brothers’ building on Main Street. During the years from 1906 to 1940 many theaters simply changed names and owners, sometimes more than once in a single year.
When Miss Leah Bea Vert bought the Gayety Theater from W. A. Roberts in 1914 she held a contest to re-name it and judges S. W. Stone, B. A. McKinney, and Mrs. Lillian Bartlett declared Miss Bess Nolen the winner; her choice was to simply use Miss Bea Vert’s name. However, in the fall the Bea Vert was leased to “Mr. Rose and Miss Williams” who changed its name to the Wilro. After just a fortnight they left town owing many unpaid bills. Miss Bea Vert took over operations and once again it became the Bea Vert until she sold it to Brown & Greene in 1915. They changed the name to The Grand and featured a seven-piece orchestra.
In 1931 Mr. Davidge remodeled the Queen Theater and opened it as The Ritz. In 1932 John Terry bought Robb & Rowley’s Liberty Theater on north Third and renamed it the State Theater. Terry Theatres also owned the Metro on Second Avenue, managed by Chester McSwain. Terry promised movie goers “all the pictures manufactured by the nine largest and leading film companies.”
Just as today, movie “stars” captured the hearts of audiences and their influence on the growing industry was evident. In 1920 the United Artists Corporation was formed by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, reigning stars very familiar to Durant audiences. It’s amusing to read reviews of early films such as the original “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” starring Johnnie Weissmuller. Durant’s unnamed “movie fan” and reviewer declared the new film “the most thrilling, most fascinating, most daring picture” he had ever seen and he was most impressed by the fight scenes with blood.
Durant theater owners spent lots of time and money remodeling, updating, and improving their establishments to compete with each other, theaters in nearby cities, and other forms of entertainment. In 1920 The Queen Theatre boasted a new piano and a new picture machine, after wearing out two. Mr. Davidge bragged that the machine was the latest produced, and used only in the “largest cities.” In 1935 he put in a new “cooling system” at the Ritz that prompted the Democrat’s editor to suggest patrons wear “ear muffs and foot warmers.” In 1948 Shipman Bullard purchased 350 “upholstered seats” for the Savage Theater and in 1949, after more extensive remodeling, he amazed customers with a new Cycloramic screen, “the first major movie theater screen improvement in 30 years.” Mr. Bullard promised that it would “add clarity to black and white and startling realism to color” films.
Other small towns in Bryan County that enjoyed their own theaters included Bennington, Bokchito, Caddo, and Colbert. The Dreamland Theater advertised in the Bokchito News in 1916. Showman and entertainer Vinson A. Scott, known as “Mr. Scotty” by the locals, began his movie theater career with “Scotty’s Hollywood Tent Theater” that traveled all over the county. He stated in a 1975 interview that “my biggest night was in Bennington.” Mr. Scott later purchased a building in Bokchito and operated the Hollywood Theater for six years before selling out to Jerry Easter in 1956. Caddo residents found entertainment in the Airdome, Electric, Royal, and REX theaters and currently enjoy movies at the REXII, which has been operated by members of the Nesbitt family since 2000.
In 1966 workers who were remodeling the Stephenson Furniture Company on Evergreen discovered a stash of old postcards depicting scenes on Third Avenue. The newspaper stated that the postcards showed “The Gayety Theatre … located where the Locke Plumbing Company is now located, and the Orpheum Theater, with the electric clown, was located where the Liberty is at present.” A. J. Allison owned both the Peoples Theater and the Orpheum Theater in 1911, but the Orpheum was his favorite and he spared no expense to make it the best in town. He purchased an electric sign which contained nearly 500 lights. It was five feet wide and eight feet high and depicted a clown, which by the on-and-off sequencing of the lights, appeared to be juggling.
The “drive-in” was a movie concept popular in the fifties and sixties. The first one in the country opened in New Jersey in 1933. The first one in Durant was opened in 1949 by Miller Davidge. The Sky-Vu offered the “very last word in customer comfort and convenience, as well as entertainment” and was named by contest winner, Mrs. J. D. Spradlin, who was rewarded with a one-year free pass. The drive-in, located on 10 acres south of the city limits, included a children’s playground, a snack bar and patio with metal chairs, modern restrooms, individual car speakers, a 35’ by 45’ screen, and a brand-new ramp system with numbered rows and a red light that flashed when a row was full. The snack bar offered hot dogs, popcorn, cold drinks, candy, and coffee. There was even a “bottle warmer” to encourage parents to bring their babies to the show with them. In 1952 Shipman Bullard opened the Ship Drive-In on North First, with features comparable to those of the Sky-Vu.
These days fans of the big screen can travel north to the REXII in Caddo or south to The District at the Choctaw Resort. No matter which direction you choose, it’s much more exciting than sitting in your living room.
Mary E. Maurer is an avid local historian who has previously written for the Democrat.