Mason County Memories… Moving pictures and ‘talkies’

By Chris Rizer - Mason County Memories

The historic State Theater on Main Street in downtown Point Pleasant.

Chris Rizer | Courtesy

The original variety show, vaudeville shows were made up of a dozen or more acts by singers, dancers, comedians, strongmen, acrobats, lecturers, minstrels, and more that traveled the country in companies like A.L Fields’ Minstrels and The Bostonians. In 1896, while G.W.M. Hooff was building his new opera house here in Point Pleasant, vaudeville was the height of American entertainment.

Yet, that same year, 1896, was the beginning of the end for vaudeville. On April 20th, Thomas Edison’s Vitascope premiered at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. It was just a montage of short clips without any sound, each hardly any longer than today’s commercials, but this was the first display of moving pictures in the United States. Within a year, there were three major film companies cranking out new silent films: Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph.

It took about a decade before moving pictures made it here and began to replace vaudeville, which happened in 1907 when the Edisonia Moving Pictures Theater opened on Main Street. (This was in the Hein Building, now occupied by the Register offices.) Not much is known about this early theater, but the name alone tells me that it was licensed by and partnered with the Edison Trust, which later controlled rivals Biograph and Vitagraph. Here, Mason County saw Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks on screen in their earliest roles; watched the first movie adaptations of Frankenstein and Robin Hood; and were convinced to support the World War I war effort by war bond commercials.

About 1918, a second theater opened in Mason County, followed quickly by a third. These were the Hartford Theater and New Haven’s Star Theater. Again, little is known about the origins of the Star Theater, but the Hartford Theater was owned and operated at times by Lewis Juhling, John Ginther, Norman Wein, and Emil Knight and stood next to the present post office. Both of these theaters are still fondly remembered by the older folks of both towns.

But the real change came in 1922, when the Lyric Amusement Palace was built opposite Hooff’s old opera house. Custom built as a theater (as opposed to the Edisonia in an old saloon) and operated by Ross Filson, the Lyric was a catch-all for the entertainment of the day. Opera, concerts, vaudevilles, and moving pictures all had a home there, and it was wildly successful.

Such was Filson’s success that when the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and theaters were closing all over the nation, including the Edisonia here in Point, the Lyric Theater survived. In 1930, it was enlarged and rebranded the State Theater under the ownership of Ross Filson and Homer Smith. This was the beginning of the State Amusement Company, which lasted for three generations and ninety years.

Odds are, it was about this same time that the first “talkies” were shown in Point Pleasant. These were the first films with both picture and sound, earlier movies having been accompanied by orchestras, theater organs, and narrators. For the first time, moviegoers could hear Will Rogers, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford the same as if they were standing there on stage.

In 1936, trying to stay afloat in what was still the middle of the Great Depression, the State was sold to the Alpine Theater Company, with Ross Filson staying on as manager. It was a good move, and this popular theater showed the most popular movies of the day, including Gone with the Wind, the Wizard of Oz, and Walt Disney’s Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.

Then finally, in 1942, with the war boom and the Ordnance Works bringing thousands of people to Point Pleasant, came the theater that we all know today. Filson’s State Amusement Company reorganized and built the State Theater still standing, originally described as having over 700 seats (though only about 400 now), nearly double the size of the old Lyric-State-Alpine. It was a modern theater, completely up-to-date, and people absolutely loved it!

The new State Theater really put the old one to shame, and by 1946, had put the old one out of business. Filson then bought it back and remodeled it, renaming it the Park Theater. Not long after, he built the Mason Drive-In, and for quite some time, the State Amusement Company was operating three successful theaters in Mason County.

This business was passed down through co-owner Homer Smith’s family until finally being forced out by major multiplexes and theater chains, but even after closing, Lynn and Kevin Durst maintained the State Theater and have always made sure it’s open for special events like the Mothman Festival.

The State Theater sold in 2020 to Dr. Kyle McCausland, and plans are being developed to restore and reopen the theater.

Information primarily from the Weekly Register, Point Pleasant Register, The Film Daily, and the 1987 History of Mason County.

The historic State Theater on Main Street in downtown Point Pleasant. historic State Theater on Main Street in downtown Point Pleasant. Chris Rizer | Courtesy

By Chris Rizer

Mason County Memories

Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]

Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]