Magic of old movie houses

Magic of old movie houses

By Kevin Kelly - Contributing columnist

A couple of columns ago I mentioned coming across a photo of the Gallipolis Theater during the great flood of 1937. My love of old movies spurred me to look at the marquee to check what was playing at the time. The theater housed the original Ariel stage, leading me to envision what kind of movie showcase it had been in its heyday. While working on a production with the Ariel Players in the restored stage and seating area in 1996, I saw some of the arrangement and design allowing for live productions and then the exhibition of movies.

The end result of such observations was a newfound appreciation of movie house entertainment, the days of single and double features, a schedule of films that changed twice or sometimes three times a week, Saturday matinees for kids, popcorn and candy, the whole nine yards of the filmic experience in a downtown setting. True, you can get all of that and more at our local ans regional multi-screen complexes, or even create such an atmosphere yourself with a home theater system. But it’s fun to imagine what a movie palace of the classic period of American filmgoing was like.

Anyone who’s been to the Ohio Theater in Columbus has had a taste of the grandeur one experienced when major Hollywood productions were the normal bill of fare. Last week’s mail also informed me that the newly-restored, “real classic” Palace Theater in Canton, Ohio, will get into the Halloween spirit by screening the famous Frankenstein movies of the 1930s and ’40s on Oct. 13-14.

But memories of the small-town theaters and the kind of movies they showed still linger, even in revised circumstances. The onetime “picture show” that was the Gallipolis Theater has returned to its origins as the Ariel Theatre, with music again reverberating pleasantly against its walls. We are informed that its days as a cinema ended in 1963. The Colony Theater, opened in 1937, still showcases movies but is also a popular restaurant. The State Theater in Point Pleasant stopped presenting movies in 2003, but has since served as a site for live events, including lectures and discussions from last weekend’s Mothman Festival.

The heritage is still present in these structures, while newspaper ads, promotional materials and photos provide us with a glimpse at their time in the movie business. In 1937 as floodwater receded from the front of the Gallipolis Theater, the marquee informed us it showed the Paramount release “Valiant is the Word for Carrie” starring Gladys George and Harry Carey Sr. The distributor that supplied the Gallipolis with prints of current films must have had a connection with Paramount product, as the Gallipolis showed the horse-racing drama “Salty O’Rourke” with Alan Ladd and Gail Russell the week of V-E Day in May 1945, when World War II ended in Europe with the surrender of Germany. Ladd and Russell — both of whom died too soon — were Paramount stars of the time. A second feature scheduled for later in the week was a thriller from B movie studio Republic, “The Phantom Speaks,” starring Richard Arlen and Stanley Ridges.

Work on The Colony, barely footsteps away from the Gallipolis/Ariel, had begun in 1936 but was delayed by the following winter’s flooding. Upon its grand opening on Nov. 24, 1937, the featured film was “Vogues of 1938,” a Walter Wanger production issued by United Artists. It stars were Warner Baxter and Joan Bennett, who became Mrs. Wanger in 1940. Also prominently featured in the cast was Mischa Auer, whose breakout role as an eccentric artist in 1936’s “My Man Godfrey” catapulted him into an audience favorite for several years. “My Man Godfrey” was produced by Universal Pictures, and it was with Universal that The Colony appears to have been associated.

Retired OVP Executive Editor Hobart Wilson Jr. fondly recalled seeing the Universal chapter-play “Overland Mail” starring Lon Chaney Jr., Noah Beery Jr., Helen Parrish and Don Terry on its original run in 1942. An often-seen image of the downtown from a decade later reveals The Colony’s current offering was “Air Cadet” (1951) with Stephen McNally and Gail Russell. The studio was then known as Universal-International. And for completists, the movie playing there on the evening of Dec. 15, 1967, was Universal’s “Rough Night in Jericho,” co-starring Dean Martin and George Peppard.

A photo in the offices of Main Street Point Pleasant shows a side view of the State Theater around the time of its early 1940s opening. I noticed the film advertised on the marquee as then showing was “The Panther’s Claw,” a 72-minute murder mystery starring Sidney Blackmer, a stage and screen actor that my dad admired, as the sleuth on the case, and Rick Vallin, who then enjoyed a vogue as a secondary leading man in B movies, as his assistant. When I first saw the photo in 2003, Main Street Director Charles Humphreys asked me if the film was available anywhere.

I did know a VHS copy could be obtained from a specialty video company with which I was familiar, but what I didn’t know was that due to “The Panther’s Claw” having been made by a company (Producers Releasing Corp.) that went defunct in 1947, it was in the public domain and numerous DVD copies were in circulation. It can now be found on streaming services. Further research into the actual opening date of the State is necessary, but “The Panther’s Claw” saw its national release on April 17, 1942, making it at least one of the first films to flicker across the State’s screen. The State continued showing movies until 1980 (one of its last offerings being the same year’s “Humanoids from the Deep” with Doug McClure) and reopened as a cinema in 1994. Further digging into newspaper files no doubt will offer more tidbits of local cinema history for those of us who are fascinated by such information.

And news of the Sept. 19 death of Giacobbe “Jake” LaMotta reminded me that one of the first films I saw at the Spring Valley Cinema (now Silver Screen Partners VII) in the fall of 1980 was his movie biography “Raging Bull,” featuring Robert DeNiro’s Oscar-winning performance as the conflicted middleweight boxing champion of the 1940s and ’50s.

The smaller theaters served their purpose in providing local patrons with a place to go to satisfy their entertainment needs, and it is heartening to see that while film is not the featured source of diversion, the spaces are being used for related activity. And they also serve as reminders of a time before the advent of television when going to the movies a few times a week was not just an indulgence, but a habit — and a good one, too.
Magic of old movie houses

By Kevin Kelly

Contributing columnist

Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.

Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.