history of old movie theaters parkersburg wv - Mackeys Antiques & Clock Repair


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During the heyday of live professional touring theater entertainment Parkersburg had the reputation of being a good show town. Lying at the junction of east-west and north-south lines of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at a time when stage shows toured by rail. this was a convenient stop for the troupes, who played here for one night stands or several days. Parkersburg had many Theaters they were The Wonderland -- The Auditorium -- The Lyric -- The Camden Theater -- The Air dome later renamed  The Hippodrome Theater-- later renamed the Hipp Garden -- The Star Theater -- The Bijou Theater, -- The Strand theater -- The Broadway Theater -- The Burwell Theater -- The Hiehle Theater -- The Lincoln Theater --The Palace Theater -- The Parker Theater -- The Smoot Theater -- The Virginia Theater    

Judging by the accounts of veteran theater people, the playhouses here a century ago were rather make shift affairs, some of them located on the upper floors of business buildings in what is now the lower end of town, some of them merely adjuncts of saloons. At the same time, Parkersburg also was a regular stop during the warmer months of the numerous show boats that plied the Ohio River. It is likely that in this early period the entertainment was likely to consist of farcical comedies, crude melodramas, musical acts and minstrel shows. The entrepreneurs of these old show places were apt to be stow grandiose titles on them, such as Rose's Opera House and the Columbia Opera House, the latter located on the second floor of the 3rd Street building later occupied by the Chancellor Hardware Co 

The Academy of Music, which opened Sept. 4 1883 with Haverly's Minstrels, also was reached by climbing a stairway from street level in the building occupied by the Steak House at 503. Juliana St. A surviving program dated Sept. 1 1886, shows this theater was managed by M. C. VanWinkle' who was offering Dick Gorman's Dramatic Company in the "new sensational comedy drama, " "Conrad." This theater burned in 1896, but it was rebuilt and continued awhile longer About 30 years later Charles B. Hall opened a small movie theater, the Virginia, in the same building, so successfully that the 'following year, 1928, he built a new theater of the same name on Juliana Street opposite the Post Office, on land now part of the Commercial Bank parking lot.   

Parkersburg's First Theater was the Wonderland but the first really elegant legitimate theater was the Auditorium at 5th and Avery Streets in the building now occupied by the Parkersburg Office Supply Co. Clay Clemens a notable star of the period, brought in his repertory company for the opening performances Oct. 30-31, 1896. Contemporary newspaper accounts showed that the public was impressed by the acting of Clemensin "The Bells," as well as the lavish scenery and the citizens who, sat in the boxes. Not least was the novelty of the lighting by both gas and electricity. The Auditorium continued in operation until 1919, often in intensive competition to the newer Camden Theater located on the west side of the 700 block of Market Street opening Oct. 12, 1902, with Frank Daniels starring in "Miss Simplicity." The Camden was a beautiful theater designed in the European opera house style with a commodious stage a large orchestra section, rows of two tiered boxes at the sides, a balcony and a top gallery nicknamed "peanut heaven," seating altogether about 1,400 people. 

During the early years of that century the Auditorium and the Camden between them presented the brightest stars of the legitimate stage, great actors like Sarah Bernhardt, Maude Adams, E. H. Sotherm, Julia Marlowe, Otis Skinner, George Arlissand William Gillette and musical comedy performers like Lillian Russell, Harry Lauder, Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, Montgomery and Stone, Will Rogers, Blanche Ring and Vernon and Irene Castle. Opera stars included Geraldine Farrar, Mary Garden, Ernestine Schumann -Heink and Margarete Matzenauer. The competition or management changes or something closed the Camden for two years until the Smoot Amusement Co. took control in 1912 and began exhibiting movies with the slogan, "A Dollar Seat for a Nickel." But stage attractions also were booked there. From 1912 to 1919 stage attractions were presented at both the Auditorium, with a Klaw and Erlanger franchise, and the Camden, booked by the Shuberts. 

The Smoots purchased the Auditorium in 1919 and closed it so that all traveling shows would play the Camden. A few years later the Auditorium building was converted to business use. The Camden continued through the 20s, playing both stage shows and the mere important films until it was destroyed in a fire Nov. 30, 1929. that razed almost the entire block. That was the end of the legitimate professional theater in Parkersburg. Meanwhile there had been seasonal theater for a time at the Terrapin Park, where in 1914 Ricardo Cortez, later an important film star, and Helen Ware appeared in stock productions. Also movies had become established as an inexpensive form of entertainment. Apart from the "nickelodeons " that occupied store rooms in the first decade of the century, the Hiehle brothers, Edward J. and Reinhold (Riney), built an open-air theater in 1910 for a combination of vaudeville and movies on 5th Street where the Smoot now stands. To continue it through colder weather it was rebuilt with a roof, and the name was changed from the Airdrome to the Hippodrome. the movie houses sprang up through the city the Strand on Market Street in the building now used by Burger Chef and the Palace on East 7th Street.

The movie theater with class was the Lincoln, built by the Smoots specifically for photoplays and opened in April , 1920 with Mary Pickford in "Pollyanna." The Smoots also had acquired the Hippodrome from the Hiehles and in 1926 they opened their handsome new theater that is still in use as the Smoot. When it was new it was intended for the vaudeville movie combination and in the summer of 1927 the well known Stuart Walker Players, a stock company from Cincinnati, played there for several weeks. Among the actors were two who became well known in Hollywood, Arthur Lake of the "Blondie" movies and Charles Starrett, who specialized in westerns. Riney Hiehle built a theater at 703 Market St. Later was Radio Station WADC, calling it by the family name. opened in December, 1930, and thereafter for many years presented many of the popular Frank Capra productions from Columbia. About the same time Warner Brothers acquired the Smoot interests as well as the Strand. The Lincoln was closed in the middle 1930s and the building was converted into a department store by the J.  C. Penney Co. which occupied it from 1936 to 1972. The structure at 8th and Market Streets then was purchased by the Actors Guild and was re-opened as a theater.  

The Burwell Theater at 19th Street and Dudley Avenue was opened in 1938. For several years Mrs. Rose Thomas operated the Parker Theater in the 700 block of Market Street. All through these years of professional theater in Parkersburg amateurs had been putting on plays and musical programs of various kinds. They used to be called "home talent" shows. Examples were the annual Elks Minstrels, revue-type shows similar to the more recent Lions Club entertainments. Although groups of people got together through the years to stage popular shows and musicals, apparently there was no organized community theater until the early 30s, when the Parkersburg Players began putting on shows. It had been formed by Laurence Ludwig, a professional actor who had played the Christus in touring Passion Play production at the Smoot Theater. He returned here some months later and cast a play called "Grumpy" with himself in the leading role and the rest of the characters filled by towns people. Then he left the city to resume his career but the group continued for several years. The name was changed to the Theatre Guild later on, but it was basically the same group. It disintegrated during World War II.  

The next was the Actors Guild which was organized in May, 1956. At first this group offered only sporadic productions most of them staged in school auditoriums, but in 1959 it set up tiny theater at 2208 1/2 Dudley Ave. in an empty store room. The following year the Guild was reorganized and for the first time season tickets were sold for a series of five major productions. The group was faced with an important decision. The Dudley Avenue building, owned by A. V. Criss, who had donated it was needed for other purposes and has since been demolished. After a search the board of directors held its collective breath and in 1961 signed a lease for quarters on the second floor of the Fraternal Club building at St. Marys Avenue and 14th Street. At one time it had been the White Star Laundry. Fortune smiles and patronage and public support increased rapidly during the next years growing from four or five performances of each play to as many as 12 performances over a period of three weekends. During most of these years the Actors Guild explored numerous ways to acquire a larger and better located theater, regularly setting aside a part of its income into a building fund. 

The building at the corner of 8th and Market Streets, which had been the Lincoln Theater became available if the Guild could raise the purchase price of $85,000 A campaign for contributions was so successful that when the proceeds were added to what the organization had saved itself the structure was bought in 1974. Renovation funds then were sought from patrons, citizens, business and industry, foundations and government agencies. The new Actors Guild Playhouse was opened. The first season there has just been completed with the largest subscription in the group's history more than 1,500 season tickets.

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