Early movie theaters in Springfield

Amusements — vaudeville, stage shows, silent films and “talkies” — took up most of Page 8 in the Nov. 8, 1928, Illinois State Register (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Motion picture exhibition in Springfield began in earnest around 1905. That year, four local theaters were screening short silent films in addition to presenting live vaudeville acts.

Nickelodeon theaters, where movies were the prime attraction instead of a sideshow, became popular a couple of years later. (They were called “nickelodeons” due to their typical five-cent admission, a price nearly everyone could afford.)

In that era, screening silent pictures involved skill as well as constant upkeep of the projector. The devices had to be cleaned and oiled, and the nitrate-based film used at the time was extremely flammable. Flash fires, due to film literally going up in smoke, caused a few conflagrations in the city. That led the city council in 1909 to order theater owners to install fireproof projection booths.

(That wasn’t the first time aldermen had acted to regulate moving picture outlets. In 1908, the council declared “the playing of pianos, graphophones, phonographs, etc., the barking of ‘spielers’ etc. in front of moving picture shows a nuisance before the hour of 7 p.m.”)

There was an art to screening a silent film. A projectionist would hand-crank one reel across the projector’s lamp while using his (almost all projectionists were men) other hand to rewind the finishing reel. In a two-reel picture, as the first reel finished, the projectionist inserted a slide card into the projector to let the audience know on screen that the reels were being changed. As that happened, a second reel was quickly attached to the projector. Three-, five- and even seven-reel movies were shown this way, and speed and skill were needed to keep the screen action moving.

By the 1920s, sound-on-film led to motor-driven projectors replacing the hand-cranked efforts of old. Before the inclusion of sound, the frame rate of projected film varied, although silent film was ideally screened at 16 frames per second. Once sound, speech, and music were added, the frame rate needed to be exact; 24 frames per second was agreed upon as the new speed to maintain synchronization with sound. As audio systems became standard in both production and screening, the silent movie era became a relic of the not-so-distant past. (“Talkies” took hold in Springfield starting in 1928.)

This cartoon (caption garbled in the original) accompanied a story headlined “Hollywood Frantic Over Sound Films” in the Oct. 14, 1928, Illinois State Journal. (SJ-R)

Here is a non-exhaustive list of early motion picture houses in Springfield. A complete list is impossible. Many early movie outlets were extras offered by saloons, burlesque houses, amusement parks, etc.; only a few of those advertised in newspapers or made it into city directories. And showing films was a chaotic business: even some full-time theaters lasted only a few weeks or months.

Amuse-U (111 N. Sixth St.), opened in 1913 and originally managed by brothers Leo and Isadore Burnstine. Ben Rovin was managing the theater when it closed in 1930. The Amuse-U’s final film was, appropriately, “The Last Outlaw,” starring Gary Cooper.

Bijou Electric Theatre (416 E. Adams St.). Operated by Charles B. Warner of Springfield and Fred L. Kennedy of Centralia, the Bijou advertised itself in August 1908 as “the coolest place in the city.” The theater apparently operated only for about six months.

The Capitol (613-615 East Washington St.), opened in 1912 on the site of a former saloon. Owners were the Burnstine brothers and partner Joseph Shepherd. The Capitol was renamed the State in 1937, when the Frisina Amusement Co. took it over. The ownership and name changed again in 1971; as the Cinema Art, the theater showed X-rated movies until it closed in 1986.

The Casino (621 E. Washington St.) opened in 1909 and went out of business in 1916. Its building probably was the site of Springfield’s first full-time film theater. (In a 1912 advertisement, the Casino billed itself as “the oldest picture theater in town.”) The Casino’s first owner was John Karzin, who later formed a partnership with Gus Kerasotes to open the Royal theater.

Chatterton Opera House (128 N. Sixth St.), which opened in 1879, was for decades Springfield’s pre-eminent stage theater. By 1909, the Chatterton had added movies to its mix of vaudeville and other live productions – “3,000 feet (of) New Pictures,” said one advertisement of that era. The opera house closed in 1924.

Dunbar Five Cent Electric (710 E. Washington St.). A 1909 newspaper story said the Dunbar was owned by a man named “Bill Johnson” and catered to “colored patronage.” The Dunbar probably was associated with a pool hall next door at 706 E. Washington St. that, according to the 1909 city directory,  was operated by William Johnson. The directory identified William Johnson with a (c), indicating he was African-American.

The Empire Theater (415 E. Washington St.) was owned by boxer/hotelier Johnny Connors. The Empire was showing “high class vaudeville” along with moving pictures as early as January 1905. Conflicts with police over alleged gambling and vice at the Washington Street theater led Connors to move the operation back to his home base on Jefferson Street about 1907.

The Empress (1106 South Grand Ave. E.) opened in February 1915. It was renamed the South Town Theater in 1937, when the Frisina Amusement Co. purchased the building. The South Town (also often spelled as one word, “Southtown”) closed in 1961.

Empress Airdome (1126 South Grand Ave. E.). “Airdomes” were open-air theaters popular during warm weather in the 1900s and 1910s. The Empress Airdome, an offshoot of the nearby Empress Theater, was among a dozen or so airdomes that opened and closed (sometimes quickly) in Springfield during the period. Look for a followup entry soon on SangamonLink.

The Gaiety Theater (322 S. Sixth St.; 509 E. Monroe St.) opened on Sixth Street in 1904 strictly as a vaudeville house. It moved to the 500 block of East Monroe Street in fall 1907 and began showing moving pictures shortly thereafter. Local theater impresario W.W. Watts took over the Gaiety in 1909. The Kerasotes brothers, who bought the theater when Watts retired, changed the name to the Senate in 1929. The Senate closed in 1983 to make way for the Lincoln Square apartments.

The Grand (509 E. Washington St.) opened in 1910 as a nickelodeon. It was operated by brothers Joseph and Adolph Kunz, who owned a short-lived movie exhibition company. The Grand closed in 1917.

The Lyric (223 S. Fifth St. at first, then 216-18 S. Fifth St.) was founded on the site of Loper’s Restaurant after the restaurant was burnt out in the 1908 Springfield Race Riot. The theater moved across the street in a trade between Lyric owner Harry Loper and W.W. Watts, who ran the Vaudette. Loper sold the Lyric to the Frisina company in 1929; renamed the Tivoli, it closed in 1952. For more, see First talking movie.

The Majestic (419 S. Fifth St.), built by John C. Pierik and his brother-in-law, Cornelius Giblin, opened in 1907 as a vaudeville theater connected to the Orpheum circuit. The Majestic was regularly screening movies by 1915. Renamed the Roxy after it came under the ownership of the Frisina Amusement Co. in 1935, the theater closed in 1978.

The Nickelodeon (512 E. Monroe St.) was the most prominent of several Springfield theaters with “nickelodeon” in their names. The Nickelodeon opened in the summer of 1908 and lasted until sometime in 1910.

North End Circle (801 North Grand Ave. E.) opened in 1915 and was up for sale by 1917. Its 525-seat house was at one time the largest in the city. The theater was first owned by Joseph Hann, general manager of Citizen’s Coal Mining Co. The North End Circle appears to have closed in 1919.

Olympic Theater (409-11 E. Jefferson St.) opened in 1905 as a vaudeville/burlesque house. While the Olympic screened silent movies, its main attraction was live theater along with its well-attended pool hall, billiard room, and saloon. Managed by brothers Edward and Cornelius McCann, the “Big O” was damaged in a March 1908 fire. The McCann brothers reopened as The Palms saloon on the same site.

The Palace (1836 S. 15th St.) catered to Eastern Europeans living on Springfield’s southeast side. Emanuel Wycoff/Wojkofka opened the theater in 1915. It showed movies until about 1927, then served as the homebase for immigrant clubs into the 1940s. In the 2000s, the building was a church.

Pantheon Theater (815 North Grand Ave. E.), opened on Jan. 1, 1926. Owners were confectioners Theodore “Teddy” Gray and Charles Coutrakon. The Pantheon closed in September 1964; it was replaced by an Eisner supermarket.

The Pekin (811-15 E. Washington St.), opened about 1915, catered mainly to African-Americans. It isn’t clear when it stopped showing films – it housed a boxing club and was a meeting hall in its later years – but it closed for good about 1940.

The Princess (329 S. Fifth St.) opened on May 29, 1914, with the movie “Samson.” W.W. Watts purchased the Princess from the Kunz brothers (Adolph, Edward and Joseph) in 1919 and redesigned the interior to seat more than 1,000 patrons, making it the largest house in the city. The Princess was later named the Fox Princess, the Fox-Lincoln and finally the Lincoln Theatre. It was closed and the building demolished for parking in 1976.

The Royal (214 S. Sixth St.), which opened in 1909, was the Kerasotes brothers’ first venture into movie presentation. It closed in 1921.

The Savoy (106 S. Sixth St.) opened in 1909 on the east side of the city square. W.W. Watts first operated the theater but later sold it to the Kerasotes brothers and their partner, Peter Coutrakon. Rebuilt after a fire in 1915, the Savoy closed in 1935.

The Strand (100 S. Sixth St.) opened in 1921 as a silent movie theater, with a $12,000 pipe organ to accompany its silent reels. It was converted to show “talkies” soon after. The theater, a Kerasotes operation, closed in 1967 to allow expansion of what was then Marine Bank.

The Vaudette (620 E. Washington St.; 216-218 S. Fifth St.; 223 South Fifth St.). There were two Vaudettes (or “Vaudett,” as the first incarnation may have spelled it) at three locations. The original Vaudett/Vaudette on Washington Street was operated by Manning Pletz, a self-described “promoter of amusements.” It closed in 1907 or 1908. Soon after, W.W. Watts opened a new Vaudette at 216-218 S. Fifth Street. In 1920, he traded buildings with Harry Loper, who had established the Lyric Theatre at 223 S. Fifth. The relocated, renovated Vaudette lasted until 1930, when it was closed to make way for the W.T. Grant variety store.

The Vogue (115 S. Fifth St.) was owned by Harris V. Hickox, Jr. It opened in 1914 and was closed by 1917.

More information: See “Historic Movie Theaters of Illinois: 1883-1960” by Konrad Schiecke (2006), available at the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library.

And more yet: This is the third in a three-part series about early movies in Springfield. Click here to see previous entries about local theaters and movie entrepreneurs.

Note: This entry has been edited. The title has been changed, and graphics have been rearranged. 

Hat tip: William Cellini Jr., whose research formed the basis for this entry.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 




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