Coming to a theatre near you

By RUSS HATTER Asst. Curator Capital City Museum Published:

One hundred and four years ago today Thomas Talley opened the worlds first permanent commercial movie house, the Electric Theatre in Los Angeles. Until that day, promoters would take films from town to town for one-night shows. I thought it would not only be nostalgic but fun to retrace the theatres that have served the public over the years here in Frankfort.

Before motion pictures our Frankfort theatres were live-acting presentation venues.

Frankfort High School drama instructor and later assistant professor of English and coach of debate and dramatics at Centre College, West T. Hill, Jr., wrote in his informative The Theatre in Early Kentucky 1790-1820 that Frankforts first plays were performed in 1809 at the Love Tavern, then located on the southwest corner of Wapping and Wilkinson, and at Prices Friendly Inn at the Sign of the Buck on the southwest corner of Ann and Montgomery Street (Main). While traditional history assigns the first theatrical entrepreneur in Kentucky as Samuel Drake in 1815, Hill begs to differ.

Frankforts first permanent theatre was erected by Luke Usher in 1811 and located on the southeast corner of Market (Broadway) and St. Clair Streets. The site today houses Serafinis Restaurant. Traveling troupes would work the theatre circuit through Cincinnati, Louisville, Frankfort, and Lexington.

The theatre operated in Frankfort when the General Assembly was in session guaranteeing a good return for its investment. Hill writes: It was a second-floor theatre in a three-story buildingopposite the old Capitol. An Englishman named Barstow who operated a store on the ground floor owned the building.

Facing north on Broadway, the building measured fifty-eight feet, four inches; it had a depth on St. Clair Street of forty-two feet, six inches. These dimensions indicate that the Frankfort Theatre was small, but later descriptions show that it had a pit, theatre-boxes, a gallery, and a bar. The theatre was built by citizen subscription to counteract an evident propensity for gaming and other dissipations which had become alarming to the hopes and prospects of many of our citizens.

Shakespeares Hamlet was performed here on Dec. 9, 1811. Admission fees were $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. Doors opened at 5:30 p.m. with the show at 6.

Jacob and Philip Swigert purchased the theatre in 1847 and the building was later destroyed by fire in 1854.

Other popular theatres in Frankfort included Metropolitan Hall, owned by brothers Mason and Orlando Brown, located on the old Marcus Furniture site on St. Clair.

It was in operation in the 1860s burning in 1867. Major Hall, referred to as the Opera House, opened in 1869. It was named for the Kentucky Yeoman newspaper editor and Frankfort Mayor S. I. M. Major. This building was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1882. A few months later a contract for a new Opera House was arranged with architect Oscar Cobb of Chicago and Frankforts John Haly was selected to erect the building.

The Opera House at 209 West Main, after 1908 known as the Capitol Theatre, also served as offices for City Hall and even the post office at one time. Among the famous personages that trod the boards: Blackstone the Magician, Houdini, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Lily Langtry, Mary Anderson, Maurice Barrymore, and George Arliss. The theatre also was the site for early Frankfort High School graduation exercises, Elks Memorial Services, and once William Jennings Bryan gave a Temperance lecture here.

It was in the 1920s when motion pictures became a popular entertainment form in Frankfort. Author Carl Kramer tells us that the Capitol Theatre management installed projection equipment and alternated movies with legitimate stage plays and other productions before eventually switching entirely to motion pictures. The Chakeres Theatre Group (brothers Phil, Louis, and Harry of Springfield, Ohio) bought the theatre in the late 1940s. Two of their long time Frankfort managers were Gene Lutes and later Jack Frazee.

The first house devoted exclusively to movies was the Grand Theatre at 308-310 St. Clair. Owned by William Pattie, as Kramer tells us, the Grand operated as a legitimate stage beginning around 1911. During the 1920s, with assistance from Louis LeCompte, Pattie converted the house for use as a motion picture theatre. For years the Capitol and the Grand were Frankforts leading movie houses. The Grand would close in the early 1960s and the Capitol fell to the wrecking ball around 1978.

Many will recall some of the other movie houses. There was the Crystal Theatre at 125 St. Clair in 1908. The Gem Theatre was at 215 St. Clair (Richards Insurance Building site) and was listed in Frankfort City directories in 1910 and 1912. African Americans had their own theatre somewhere on Washington Street in Craw in the 1920s.

In 1926 on the southeast corner of Lewis and Main (adjacent to Magees Bakery) was the Piccadilly Theatre at 217 Main. From 1914-26 this theatre was called the Columbia and in 1932 it was called the State Theatre.

The New Theatre on Main Street, located where todays courthouse annex is, shows up in the city directories in 1942. In 1948 it is then listed as the Franklin Theatre. I also have been told of theatres called The Strand and the Ohio but have not been able to verify their locations.

My early theatre-going days began in Elmwood Place in Cincinnati. Once, at age five, I found a shiny penny while my mother was engaged in washing clothes and hanging them on the line in the backyard. I wondered off by myself with intentions of walking to the Vogue Theatre several miles away.

I can still recall that penny clutched tightly in my hand as I eventually realized I was lost and the tears began to flow. Through the kindness of a stranger I was taken to the police department and returned to my frantic mother. And Ive been going to the movies on a regular basis ever since.

Research for this article came from the following sources: Frankfort State Journals; Marilyn Castos Actors, Audiences, & Historic Theatres of Kentucky; West T. Hill, Jr.s The Theatre in Early Kentucky 1790-1820; Carl Kramers Capital on the Kentucky, Vic Evinss Downtown Frankforts City Directory on DVD; and The Daily Celebrity Almanac.

Corrections and Additions

In last weeks recent acquisitions section under the Paul Van Hoose donation I should have said it was from his grandfather Vernon M. Jones, not his father.

In the 1936 Bridgeport School Girls Basketball Team photo Carol Wilson called to say that the unidentified man was her uncle, Coach Neville Hulette.

The photograph of the old frame house that once was the Bridgeport School did not burn down! It is presently the residence of Sunny and Cathy Cardwell at 780 Bridgeport Rd.

I will make corrections and additions as needed when the public notifies me of my errors. I can be reached at (502) 803-1808 or The Capital City Museum, 325 Ann St., is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is handicap accessible.

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