Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Building Detective: The Grand Theater

Then The Strand. Even, briefly, The Casino. But who would guess now that this building four doors south of the alley on the square's east side now owned and occupied by the South Central Community Foundation started life as a theater? The only exterior hint, visible in the tunnel-like entrance to foundation offices, is what appears to be a fragment of the brightly-colored terrazzo floor of the original lobby.

I still have a lot of questions about the building to answer, so this post is a ploy. I'm going to post a link to the "If you grew up in Chariton, you remember ...." page and see if any among its more than 1,000 members remember a theater here. Some do, I think.

The heydey for theaters in Chariton was a brief three-year period --- from 1927 until 1930 --- when three were operating. The earliest of these was The Temple (later Lincoln), located on the ground floor of a three-story building that once stood on the site of what now is Hammer Medical Supply. The Grand was built in 1913. During 1927, Harry Cramer built The Ritz, which still looks like a theater although it now houses The Connecticut Yanke Pedaller bicycle shop.

For three years, all were fully operational --- showing movies interspersed during the early years with vaudeville acts. But in 1930 a major south-side fire destroyed the Temple/Lincoln Theater building and heavily damaged the new Ritz, which then was rebuilt behind its distinctive blonde brick facade. Only two theaters were left. Although The Grand continued to operate as The Strand, I'm not sure for how long. I remember this only as a commercial and office building.

The following three articles from Chariton newspapers deal with The Grand's beginning.

The Chariton Leader, 5 September 1912

A gentleman from St. Joseph was here on the first of the week and contracted for the erection of a theatre building on the Riebel lot, just north of the Star Bakery. It is to be especially erected for a theatre, one story, 20x100 feet, with raised floors and asbestos curtains. He said he would give bond for a long term lease and if he does so the building will be built immediately.

The Chariton Leader, 6 March 1913

The Grand Theatre building on the east side of the square is nearing completion and is a thing of beauty and we hope a joy forever. the inside walls are artistically finished in blending colors and present a charming effect. The stage at the rear is 20x20 feet with dressing apartments below. Mr. Banning has moved his family here from Des Moines, and expects to open up the theatre some time in April. He is an experienced show man and owns several motion picture shows in various parts of the state. While the Temple Theatre has always pleased, competition is the life of trade, and both will probably do better by another being here.

The Chariton Herald-Patriot, 20 March 1913

Chariton has a second picture show, the Grand theater under the management of J.D. Banning being thrown open to the public last week. The room was especially arranged for a moving picture show with high ceilings, a loft in the rear for the operator's booth and orchestra, while 240 comfortable opera chairs are arranged for the public. A suction fan will be placed at the east end of the building and four 14-inch fans will be installed to provide pure air for a crowded house. The booth for the operator is constructed of steel with asbestos lining, thus minimizing the danger of fire, while a side door and two doors near the stage provide quick means of exit in case of accident. Screen, lenses and machinery are rapidly being brought into excellent condition and only the best and cleanest pictures will be shown. The new theater and the building in which it is located is a credit to the east side of the square. Mr. Banning expects to make his permanent home in Chariton and has already secured a suite of rooms in the Smyth block.
The Star Bakery, mentioned in the first article, is now headquarters for Meyer Law Firm. When The Grand was built, the three lots separating it from the east-side alley were vacant. And here's a puzzle --- the first article states that the new theater was to be built as a one-story building. So did the builder change his mind and build it as a two-story building? Or was the second floor added later? And why did whoever built it use for its second floor a design almost identical to that of the 1904 Lockwood Building on the west side of the square --- complete with distinctive bay window?
Whatever the case, J.D. Banning didn't last long. The Herald-Patriot of May 8, 1913, reported that "The Grand Theater was sold last week by Mr. D.J. Banning to Mr. E.P. Shipley, of Corydon, who took possession Friday. Mr. Shipley expects to make some improvements and will conduct an up-to-date moving picture show and theater. He expects to furnish the best films and attractions that are to be had."
Shipley, who rechristened the theater The Casino, didn't last long either. By the end of 1913, the theater had been sold to Chariton businessmen Ralph Bowen and Ralph Becker, who moved aggressively to improve it. The Chariton Leader of Dec. 11, 1913, reported as follows:
The Chariton Leader, Dec. 11, 1913
The Grand Theatre building will be extended east to the alley, and work of excavation has begun. This will give them double floor space to accommodate the crowds that attend the movies nightly. They have been giving three shows an evening and then could not accommodate all. An orchestra has been added and good music will be a special feature.
The results of that expansion were reported upon by The Herald-Patriot of Jan. 1, 1914, and this is where I'm going to leave this Building Detective installment for the time being:
The Chariton Herald-Patriot, Jan. 1, 1914
The Grand Theater is a growing and a going concern under the management of Becker & Bowen. The building was erected less than a year ago for occupancy by a gendleman who announced himself an experienced theater manager. It was opened on April 1st and after a few weeks during which it made no money it was sold to a second man who also failed to please the public. Messrs. Becker & Bowen then assumed direct charge of the theater and from the first have made it successful financially because they spent their money freely and judiciously to make it a place of real entertainment for the public.
Since cool weather set in, the crowds have been too great to accommodate them in the small room and a short time since it was decided to enlarge the room. This has been done by extending the building to the alley, making the seating capacity 500 or just double what it has been.
At the rear of the addition a loft for the accommodation of fire proof scenery and curtains has been erected, while at the front of the stage an orchestra pit has been equipped where the musicians are practically hidden from the audience. The floors are given a greater pitch than the room formerly had and an inclined entrance will be fitted up to give the desired elevation without climbing steps as is so often the case.
One of the best improvements, however, is a Gold Radio screen, the only one of its kind in this section of the state. This screen presents the picture in the clearest possible manner and is guaranteed not to injure the eyes, a fault of many ordinary screens.
A new drop curtain will be placed in position, while electric fans will be used to get a current of fresh air through the entire building. The walls will be handsomely decorated and the enitre theater fitted up as cosily and completely as possible. It is expected all these improvements will be completed in a few days and next week will se them all in use. The management is to be contratulated upon the success they have made of the theater business.

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