Dayton’s Forgotten "Silent Movie" Theaters
There were no moving picture "palaces" in Dayton in the old days. Promoters would rent some empty store room, cram it with seats and flash an electric sign that told the world that the "Bijou Dream" or ‘The Jewel" was open. A phonograph from within, aided and abetted by a long tube, would play music to passers-by on the street, wailing such tunes as Sidewalks of New York and other "Tinpan Alley" abominations.
This type of theater was nicknamed ‘nickelodeon’. The word comes from the nickel they charged for admission, and the word odeon, which means a small hall for music or entertainment.
These store-front theaters were to dominate the movie industry for the next ten years. Many were thrown together quickly to profit from this new form of entertainment, but many closed just as quickly. Some closed due to bad management, others from damage caused by the flood that swept the city in 1913.
One thing is for sure, these ‘nickelodeons’ proved to be popular in Dayton. In 1913, it was estimated that over 2,000,000 dimes were spent each week on the movies in Dayton. Why were they so popular? An article that appeared that same year in the Dayton Journal gives us a glimpse at part of the answer.
"Time spent in a moving picture theater is well spent. It offers clean entertainment. At your very door, the wonders of the world are brought. The scenes of countries we can never hope to visit are shown. The feats of daring beneath the waves, above the clouds and on earth are as real as can be. Life in all its phases, in all its wonderfulness... The motion picture theater is with us for all time, its mission to amuse, its service to edify."
Motion pictures would eventually become the most important form of inexpensive entertainment in the country. The nickelodeon was the only type of theater that the average worker could afford to attend with his entire family.
Still, the typical nickelodeon was not made to serve a lot of patrons, according to Joseph Patterson, who wrote an article called "The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama" for the Saturday Evening Post in 1907.
"The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened."
Signs were posted asking the audience not to smoke and to remove their hats. There was good cause for the latter according to one Dayton old timer, Charles Goens, who complained that the ladies hats of the time "...were miniature models of a Ringling Brothers big top". The theaters would be opened in an old storeroom, the only requirement usually being that the room held enough people for the owner to make a profit.
"The average spectorium is... twenty feet wide and about seventy feet deep." stated Patterson in his article. "Last year, or the year before, it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket seller’s booth where the show-window was... and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet."
Most of the shows had musical accompaniment of some sort, usually a piano. Others played songs on a record player "which is just as apt to bellow out, "I’d Rather Two -Step Than Waltz, Bill", just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse" wrote Patterson.
Many of Dayton’s nickelodeons began to close downtown when larger theaters like Keith’s and Columbia were built and vaudeville theaters like the Dayton added additional movies to their schedule.
This chapter deals with theaters that were closed by the end of the mid 1930’s, when Dayton’s silent movie theaters were silent no more. When the Colonial introduced the first all-talking, full length picture Lights of New York on September 22, 1928, it sounded the death knell for many of the remaining small theaters. Without the funds to purchase the equipment needed for this new form of entertainment, the nickelodeon’s days were numbered.
By the end of 1928 there were 23,344 indoor theaters in the United States. This number would never be equalled again. In fact, even with the introduction of multiplex theaters with 6, 12 and 24 separate screens at one location, it wasn’t until 1991 before that many screens were available to show movies. In 1929 the average attendance to the movie houses reached 95,000,000 each week! This, too, would never be equalled. That’s almost 5 billion patrons a year, compared to less than 1 1/2 billion at present.
Theaters in this section are in alphabetical order (by the name they were originally opened under), instead of chronological order, for easier reference. It should also be noted that many of these theaters rarely advertised, especially when they first opened, depending on word of mouth to fill the seats. The years listed for theater openings and closings are as accurate as I can make them using city directories, film yearbooks, newspapers and local magazines.
E. M. Abbott - 308 Wayne Avenue (1911): Abbott was a piano tuner when he decided to open this theater on Wayne Avenue. Since a piano was essential during the silent movie era, he had a leg up on the competition. However, within a year the theater changed hands and was renamed the Herman Lehman Theater (1911-12) after the new owner. Cora I. Wells bought the theater next. Her ego wasn’t as big as the first two owners, so she simply renamed the theater Photo Play (1912-14), a nickname motion pictures had picked up, as in "a play told with moving photos". Cora was the last owner. In 1914 the building was used as a shop by the Standard Showcase and Fixture Company. The original building is gone, the site now a part of the land on which the Dublin Pub is located.
Annex - 32 East Fourth Street (1909-10): The Annex was located above the Auditorium Theater (See Auditorium). Benjamin G. Wheeler, owner of the Auditorium, bought the theater on the second floor in 1910, renaming it the Hippodrome (1910-13). The Hippodrome closed in 1914 and remained vacant until 1917, when it was converted into the Auditorium Hotel.
The Auditorium Hotel had the distinction of having the longest-staying, permanent guest any Dayton hotel had ever had. Carl Moser rented a room in 1919 and didn’t leave until 1968, when the hotel’s residents were moved out in preparation of razing the building.
"I feel a little bad and sad after living in one place all those years," said Moser after his move. "But, it’ll wear off."
The building is gone, the site now part of the grounds for the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Bijou Dream - 15 East Third Street (1907-13): "Daytonians may be pardoned now-a-days if they tilt their chins a bit higher than is their wont...for Dayton is now the possessor of the world’s most beautiful, most elegant and most luxuriously appointed moving picture theater in the world, the Bijou Dream." stated Dayton Daily News on July 13, 1907, when the theater opened its doors to the public. Harry Davis, owner of the "Nickelodeon" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the man responsible for the nickelodeon craze, was the proprietor of the theater.
Davis spared no expense in decorating the Bijou Dream. Three hundred plush upholstered modern opera chairs were installed, a far cry from many of the other theaters at the time that offered only kitchen chairs. A graduated floor was also installed, so that patrons in the back could comfortably watch the movies.
Since Davis controlled several theaters across Ohio and Pennsylvania, he was given first run prints of most of the new pictures being made, a nice change from the usual film that was scratched and dirty after being shown for months in another city.
Pictures were changed three times a week "...so that those who acquire the wholesome habit of visiting the Bijou Dream may go three times a week and never see the same picture" stated the owner. Admission was kept low, five cents for everyone anytime of the day, in the hopes that entire families would attend.
The theater would eventually be taken over by the Gebhart Realty Company, whose offices were next door at 17 East Third Street.
After closing in 1913 the building sat empty for a couple of years, then was finally opened to become the Snyder Hat Co. The National Center City building is now located on the site.
Comet - 1580 Germantown Street (1913-15): Homer Williams, owner of the Oasis saloon, decided after the 1913 flood that he should open a theater. Williams converted the pool room connected to his saloon into the Comet Theater. In 1915 he sold the saloon to a fellow named Kern and the theater was closed. The building still exists, and is now St. Mark’s Lodge #165.
Comique - 24 Valley Street (1914-17): After several movie houses closed in North Dayton due to the 1913 flood, Sam H. Thal decided that the time was right to build a new theater. Gustave A. Niehus was hired as the architect. The exterior included stonekote facing, with a Spanish Mission design and a red tile roof. The interior included enough seats for 410 patrons, a heating and ventilation system and rest rooms for both sexes.
Unfortunately, the Comique lasted only three years, before closing down in 1917. The building was razed shortly after and nothing was built in its place. It is still an empty lot.
Criterion - 1802 East Fifth Street (1909-10): William A. DeVena was a cabinet maker when he opened the Criterion Theater. The word Criterion meant a standard by which to judge others. It must not have been much of a standard. In 1910 DeVena sold it to Stella Brennan, who closed it for good less than a year later.
Crystal Palace - 12 Valley Street (1908-12): William and Jessie Seely owned a second-hand store on Valley in 1908. When the fad of opening motion picture theaters came to be, they quickly jumped in and started the Crystal Palace. The theater then became the Bridge (1912-13), the name probably coming from the fact that it was located near the bridge that crossed Mad River to downtown Dayton.
The theater was then sold to Gus. G. Kinzeler sometime in 1913. Kinzeler changed the name of the theater to Funland (1913-15). Before buying the theater, Kinzeler had been a draftsman for the Barney & Smith Co. It is quite possible that he was let go from the company after the 1913 flood. The flood accounted for a considerable amount of damage and loss to Barney & Smith, which eventually helped lead to its demise.
Kinzeler also began managing the Elite theater on Troy Street the following year. Funland remained open for less than two years before it closed for the final time in 1915. Kinzeler would go on to become the proprietor of the Wyoming theater three years later.
As with so many other theaters on Valley Street, as elsewhere, the building was razed a number of years ago. Nothing but grass marks the site of the old theater.
H. E. Curtis - 227 South Main Street (1907): For several years before this theater opened, it was the Majestic Roller Rink. Patrons would be entertained by a live band as they roller-skated on the wooden floored rink. Henry E. Curtis, probably hoping to make a buck from the new moving picture craze, closed the rink, filled it with chairs, and named the theater after himself. It wasn’t long, however, before he left the business, selling out to Peter Rayburg, who renamed it the Pastime (1907-09).
Many of these earlier theaters ran pictures with suggestive sounding titles to draw more patrons. In Thomas Edison’s film entitled How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed, it was definitely the salad that had no dressing, not Bridget. Unfortunately, this type of hype probably did the theaters more harm than good.
In 1907 it was reported in the Saturday Evening Post that, whatever the locality of the theater, children made up about thirty-three percent of the audience. Many middle-aged and older women were steady patrons who never, when a new film was to be shown, missed an opening. Since no mother would take her children to see a film that might be considered in any way immoral, I would think that this form of advertising must have lost theaters a lot of patrons, especially if the parents came to believe that the theaters might not be a good place for their children to attend alone.
Perhaps that was the fate of the Pastime. Attendance at the theater slowly died and Rayburg closed the theater in 1909. He was back in business within a few months, opening the Globe Theater on South Jefferson Street.
The site of the old theater is now one of Dayton’s many parking lots.
Eagle - 15 East Springfield Street (1911-15): This unusual theater seems to have been located on the first floor of a house. Albert H. Nolte was the original proprietor. When he sold it to Charles A. Essinger a couple of years later, Nolte still made his home above the Eagle. Robert Hall was the final owner in 1915. When the Eagle closed, it was listed as a place of residence for two different families. The Eagle probably was remodeled into an apartment-type dwelling.
Edgemont - Northeast corner Germantown and Williams Street (1911-32): Named for the section of Dayton in which it was located, the Edgemont’s original proprietors were Charles E. Stilwell and James A. Kennedy. The two men were well acquainted before their partnership in the theater, as both were local grocers. Stilwell, in fact, owned and operated a store across the street from the theater.
Their venture together was short-lived, both men sold their interest in the business to Dr. Horace Q. Alexander in 1912. Dr. Alexander kept up his practice as a physician, and ran the Edgemont for fifteen years, when he sold it to Edson E. Osborn in 1928. Osborn tried to make a go of it, but eventually sold out to Rudolph C. Rieck, a real estate dealer, in 1930. Perhaps Rieck saw this as a way to speculate in real estate while making money, just as drive-in owners would do in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. At any rate, the Edgemont theater patronage slowly dwindled, as talking pictures became the rage after 1930. To wire a theater for sound cost $20,000 and, understandably, many of the smaller theater owners did not want to invest that type of money in a neighborhood nickelodeon.
Nothing replaced the theater after it closed. The building was razed in the mid 1930’s. The site is now a vacant lot.
Electric - 31 South Ludlow Street (1907-08): This nickelodeon is sometimes confused with the Electric Theater that opened on East Third. (See Rothleder & Schwalm Electric Theater). Quickly opened by W. E. Shepherd and C. W. Griesbaum, this theater did not do well, closing its doors after only a year or so. The location became The Billy Burke tailor shop afterwards.
As it is with most of the theaters that were once located downtown, the building is now gone. Dayton Daily News is now located on the site of the old theater.
Many of the people who opened a nickelodeon in the early days did not realize the expense it took to run it. In 1907 it was estimated that when you took into account the wages of the manager, projectionist, doorman, musician, the rental of the films, the building and other miscellaneous costs, the average week’s expense of running a small theater was $190. That meant the theater would have to have a weekly attendance of 4000 just to break even if they were charging a nickel for admittance. Competition was fierce, especially downtown, leading to the quick demise of any theater that was not properly managed.
Empress - 1016 East Fifth Street (1911-14): Grant Snyder ran a confectionery located at 1018 Fifth Street. Seeing the success of other theaters in the area, he opened a movie house next door. The theater changed hands several times during its short history. John W. Harshman and Harry A. Lewis purchased the theater a couple of years later. Probably tired of the theater business, Snyder went on to open a saloon with the money. The next owner was Cornelius Cornelssen, who lasted less than a year before the Empress closed. After selling to Cornelssen, Harshman broke his partnership with Lewis and went on to buy the Olympic Theater on East Fifth Street in 1914. The Empress sat empty for a number of years, then was reopened as a printing supply company. The building is gone, the site a part of the Dayton Towers complex.
Forest - 624 Xenia Avenue (1911-17): Jacob Kappel opened this small theater at 624 Xenia Avenue in 1911. A sashmaker by trade, Kappel eventually sold out to Joseph Rayburg, who in turn sold it almost immediately to Jacob F. Busche. The Forest didn’t do well under Busche’s management, closing less than a year later. The theater was converted into a grain store after it closed. The original building still exists and is in use as a storage area.
Gem - 451 North Main Street (1911-15): Charles O. Weaver was the original proprietor of this theater. It changed hands within a year, Weaver selling out to S. M. McConnell. In 1913 the theater changed hands again, with McConnell selling the Gem to a fellow furniture packer, George W. Bush. The theater closed in 1915 and was immediately reopened as a confectionery store by C. W. Hendrick.
Grand - 22 South Jefferson Street (1907-08): Thomas A. West was the original proprietor of the Grand. This theater was the typical ‘nickelodeon’ of its day, being modeled after Rothleder & Schwalm’s successful theater on East Third Street that had opened the year before. It was so successful that Rothleder & Schwalm bought the theater in 1908 and renamed it the Jewel (1908-13).
The Jewel was run by the Jewel Amusement Company in 1909, with Charles W. Bieser (owner of Everybody’s Bookshop) as President; Clem Kerr as Vice President and manager; J. Bert Kline acting as Secretary and Treasurer.
By 1912 the theater had a new owner, Benjamin C. Wheeler, who the year before had managed the Auditorium Theater.
The Jewel seemed to be somewhat successful under Wheeler’s management. Part of that success came from offering talking pictures. That’s right, talking pictures. Many years later Charles Goens, of Dayton, reminisced about how this was done.
"Several people were stationed behind the screen and did the talking, in addition to doing the sound effects." Goens remembered. "It took some rehearsing on the part of the talkers before the films were shown in public, so that the voices and sounds would be properly synchronized to the pictures. Movie actors and actresses names were not known to the audience then, and the audiences didn’t care who they were; they were too intrigued with pictures that moved and talked."
The "talkers" were known as the Jewel Theater Stock Company. Unfortunately, this inovative idea came to an end when the theater was destroyed by a fire that gutted the building during the 1913 flood.
C. J. Kilian - 502 East Fifth Street (1907): The city directory of 1907 states that C. J. Kilian opened an "amusement parlor". The following year Kilian’s was listed as having "moving pictures", with the name of the theater changed to Dreamland (1908-17).
Dreamland was one of the first theaters in Dayton to offer hand-colored motion pictures to it customers. Kilian sold the theater in 1909 to Wilbur Rayner. Warner H. Miller was next in line to purchase the theater, only to turn around and sell it almost immediately to Homer V. Guy in 1915. That same year, however, saw the opening of the new Grand Theater at 601 East Fifth, just a block away. Unable to compete against both the Grand and the Olympic Theater at 418 East Fifth, Dreamland finally closed its doors in 1917.
The building still exists, wonders of wonders, and is now the home of Bonnet’s Bookstore. A little known fact is that the red and black carpet in the bookstore was rescued from the Colonial Theater.
Hal Bonnet, who opened the bookstore sixty years ago, has a special memory of the Colonial.
"Back in 1930 I worked at the Colonial nine hours a day, 6 days a week, for $13." says Hal. "After six months I got a job at Reynolds and Reynolds for forty cents an hour, which was quite a raise in pay."
Lyceum - 138 South Main Street (1909-15): Oram B. Weaver was the owner of the Dayton News Company, a news depot service located on Fifth Street, when he spent $15,000 and opened the Lyceum just a short distance away. Lyceum’s grand opening was held the first day of the Wright Brothers Celebration in 1909 that finally honored Orville and Wilbur for their success in inventing the airplane.
The Lyceum was the first in several ways, too. It was the first theater to install a Simplex projector, which made it possible to show a two reel movie without interruption. With a 450 seat capacity, it was one of the largest movies-only theater in Dayton when it opened.
After showing independent films for the first two years, the service was changed to General Film Company pictures, which included offerings from Vitagraph, Edison, Biograph, and other big name studios of the time period.
In 1915 the Lyceum was also the first downtown theater to offer Renfax Musical Talking Motion Pictures. These first-run pictures came with a record that could be played along with the action, the music and words synchronized with whatever was being shown on the screen.
Weaver sold out to Valentine Rayburg the same year. Rayburg, also the owner of the Orpheum Theater on South Main Street, renamed the theater the New Lyceum (1915-25), probably to reflect the change in management. Rayburg decided to retire from the business in 1920, selling the theater to I. Frankel. Frankel remained until the theater closed in 1925. Records seem to indicate that the building was demolished shortly thereafter. The site is now part of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Majestic - 377 East Springfield Street (1911-25): This theater originally began as a saloon owned by Patrick McCullough, who took a chance and converted it over to a theater in 1911. In spite of the sparsely settled community, the Majestic packed them in night after night. McCullough would go on to sell the theater a couple of years later, only to rebuy it in 1915 when it was at the point of closing its doors. The Majestic then turned into a ping-pong ball, bouncing from owner to owner; starting in 1918 when bought by Wendell Pfeiffer, who sold it in 1919 to Alex Graton, who in turn sold it to Kenneth Lett. The Majestic finally sputtered to a halt for good in 1925. The building later became an auto parts store in the late 1920’s, but was once again in the dark by the mid 1930’s. The building was finally razed and is now the parking lot for Techmetals, Inc.
Midget - 1019 West Third Street (1913-28): The Midget Theater was erected by Harry Morey for the express purpose of leasing it out as a theater to Sherman W. and Benjamin F. Potterf. Built at a cost of $33,000 the 300 seat theater was named in honor of Sherman, who was a "midget" and in the show game, before taking over the managership of the theater. "Home of the quality photo plays", the theater took advantage of Sherman’s height by advertising that there was "Nothing small about the Midget - Only the manager". Just as many people went to the Midget’s grand opening on September 6, 1913, in the hopes of getting a glimpse of Sherman, as there were ones to watch the movie being offered.
The theater was quite successful. Patrons of the two story building sat in comfortable opera chairs. A rest room was provided for the ladies (when rest rooms actually meant a place to rest), and toilet facilities were provided for both sexes.
The Midget was equipped with its own electric generator that provided power to both the lights and the projector. The stage area where the screen stood had beautiful green velvet drapes and drop curtain. The curtain that hid the screen was in itself unique. On it was a painting of the original Third Street bridge which had been razed around the turn of the century. It was surrounded by advertisements from other West Side businesses.
Music for the silent films was provided by a Wurlitzer orchestra piano. This also came in handy for when the occasional singer would be employed for a change of pace.
Business really boomed when the brothers began showing Renfax Musical Talking Motion Pictures in 1915. The Renfax pictures were synchronized with a record disc that could be played so that the movie actors could be heard to "talk". The only problem with this was that the film projectors might show the film just a little slower or faster than it was filmed, which would cause the film to be out of sync with the sounds being played.
The brothers sold their interest in the theater to William E. Riceanson in 1917, who almost immediately resold it to Julius Leopold, owner of the Mecca Theater at 1217 West Third Street. Leopold sold out his interests in both the Midget and Mecca theaters in 1927 and became a ticket seller for a steamship company. The Midget’s last owner was John Lahm. Lahm’s term as owner lasted less than a year before the theater closed its doors for good, probably due to the stiff competition from two new neighborhood theaters, the Classic and the Palace, both of which were built in 1928. The building that housed the Midget still stands on West Third, one of the few remnants left of the days of the nickelodeon theaters.
Mirror - 726 Xenia Avenue (1912-28): Erected by Edward G. Banker, the Mirror was one of the most commanding of the old-time show houses when it opened in 1912. Unfortunately, Banker died on September 5, 1918, from injuries he received when his car overturned in an accident. The theater was then run by Edward’s wife, Emma. Their son, Paul, took over the Mirror in 1922 until it was sold to Charles W. Sharp in 1926.
Movies were sometimes hard to get during this time period. Owners of the Mirror came up with a unique way to make sure that they always had a good movie.
"The World (on Richard & St. Paul Street) and the Mirror theaters would sometimes show the same epic movie, at the same time, by having a young man on a bicycle transport the reels of film back and forth throughout the evening," according to A. J. Espy.
In 1927 Sharp sold the theater to George J. Hembold. It didn’t do well under Hembold’s management. The Mirror closed in 1928, probably due to the introduction of full-length talking pictures that same year. Many of the smaller theaters around the country began to close since they could not afford to install a sound system.
After the Mirror closed, the building was converted into resident housing. The theater has since been razed. Ray’s Drive-Thru carryout now sits on the site.
Museum - 240 Valley Street (1910-11): John L. Wood was a caretaker of the Mad River lock on the Miami Canal near Findley Street when he opened the Museum Theater in 1910. He sold out the following year to Mathias Waysnas, who renamed it The Mystic (1911-13). It is very likely that The Mystic was put out of business by the flood of 1913, since the theater was located just a short distance away from the river banks of the Mad River.
Nothing marks where the Museum once stood. It is now an empty field.
Museum - 218 Valley Street (1911-17): Hardware store owner Charles Cammerer opened the Museum in 1911, but almost immediately sold out to Charles E. Wood. Although Charles retained ownership of the theater, it was several years before he changed the name to Wood’s (1917-21) in 1917.
Many of the smaller theater like the Museum owed their success to the fact that they were located in neighborhoods that had a large number of immigrant citizens. Shut out from many forms of entertainment due to their inability to speak or read English, they rejoiced in this form of silent entertainment that needed no words to be understood.
Wood did eventually sell the theater in 1921 to H. Lee Trisler and Charles W. McCafferty, who almost immediately sold it to George Habel. The George Habel (1921-22) theater closed its doors less than a year later.
The building sat vacant for a number of years before it reopened as a furniture store in 1926. The site of the Museum is now an empty lot.
Nabob - 261 Cincinnati Street (1912-15): Very little is known about this theater. Shoe store owner Clifford E. Ludlow opened the Nabob in 1912. The following year the fledging theater was bought by James M. Powell, who in turn sold it to George Williams. Williams tried to make a go of it, but the Nabob closed in 1915. Records list it the following year as the residence of Henry Becker. The building is gone, the site now a part of Route 35.
Nickel Dome - 745 Troy Street (1911-14) This theater probably got its name from the nickel the original owner, James F. Robinson, charged for admittance into the theater. The Nickel Dome changed hands many times during the short period it was open, averaging at least one new owner every year. By 1912 Harry VanAtta, a piano tuner, was in charge, who gave over the theater in 1913 to Louis Burkhardt, of the Henry Burkhardt Packing Company. Burkhardt must have found the packing business more profitable, for in 1914 he sold his interests in the theater to Daniel Miller. Miller began advertising the theater as the Northern (1914-15), since it was located in North Dayton. The name change didn’t seem to help. The Northern closed less than a year later. Herbert Braun remodeled the building and opened a bakery the following year.
The building now houses a shop called Mud Dobbers Ceramics. It has been such a long time since it was a theater that no one in the neighborhood can recall it ever being one.
Odeon - 215 South Jefferson Street (1905-08): This theater, named after the word odeon, which means a small hall for music or entertainment, might very well have started out as a nickelodeon machine amusement place. Originally called the Odeon Theater and Cafe by its owner, Laurence Bergman, it was listed as a movie theater by 1907. That same year saw a change in ownership, with George Clark taking over the reins. Records state that by 1909 the theater was gone, having been bought by Gustauv H. Sander and remodeled into the Odeon Stag Hotel.
Old Glory - 933 Brown Street (1913-24): John A. Kastel opened this theater, naming it after the U. S. flag. It wasn’t long before Kastel sold the theater to Robert J. Hirsch in 1915. The theater seemed to thrive under Hirsch, but for some reason he decided to move on in 1922, selling the property to William H. Aue. Unfortunately, the theater slid into decline by the time of its closing in 1924.
"It was located on Brown Street, catty-cornered from my favorite theater, the Sigma." recalled Lauretta Meyer of Bellbrook. "It later became a bar, I think. But as a theater, it was somewhat of a ‘rat hole’".
The original building has since been razed. Part of the Miami Valley Hospital now sits on the site.
Olympia - 2022 East Fifth Street (1909): Grocery store owner Burt Fiala was the proprietor of this small theater. It flopped in less than a year’s time, a record, even for this type of theater. Burt would later buy the Alhambra Theater. The building is long gone, the site is now part of a park.
Small theaters like the Olympia never failed to entertain, no matter how short a time they were open. Barton Currie wrote an article on the nickelodeon craze in 1907. In "The Nickel Madness" Currie spoke to a cigar store clerk about his fondness for the small theaters and the pictures they showed.
"I enjoy these shows," the clerk said, "for they continually introduce me to new places and new people. If I ever go to Berlin or Paris I will know what the places look like. I have seen runaways in the Boys de Boulong and a kidnapping in the Unter de Linden. I know what a fight in an alley in Stamboul looks like; have seen a papermill in full operation, from the cutting of the timber to the stamping of the pulp; have seen gold mined by hydraulic sprays in Alaska, and diamonds dug in South Africa. I know a lot of the pictures are fakes, but what of it? It costs only five cents."
Olympic - 418 East Fifth Street (1913-19): Sam Gelman opened this theater in 1913 after many of the theaters downtown were trying to recover from the flood. In 1914 John W. Harshman, having sold out his interest in the Empress Theater at 1016 East Fifth Street, bought the Olympic in partnership with Rose Heiser. The Olympic had a lot of competition for the small selection of movie-goers who lived in the area now known as the Oregon district. There was the Dreamland, located only one block east on Fifth Street. In 1915 the Grand Theater was built less than two blocks from the theater, causing even more headaches for the owners.
Undaunted, C. J. Donlin agreed to buy the movie house from Harshman and Heiser in 1915. Unfortunately, the Olympic was unable to compete with the newer theater. Dreamland succumbed first in 1917. The Olympic held out for another two years, but finally closed its doors in 1919. A Piggly Wiggly grocery store opened there immediately afterwards.
The original building was razed a number of years ago. Newcom’s Tavern now sits on the site of the old theater.
Orpheum - 19 South Main Street (1913-17): Records state that the Orpheum was originally owned by Valentine Rayburg and G. Edward Finke. Both men were no strangers to the theater business. Rayburg had sold the Royal Theater on East Fifth Street the year before, while Finke had owned the Star Theater that had been wiped out earlier in the year by the flood.
Unfortunately, G. Edward Finke, who had been sick for some time, passed away on August 22, 1913, only a few months after buying the theater. It was thought that stress, caused by the flood and the loss of the Star theater, had hastened his death.
Homer V. Guy, owner of the struggling Dreamland Theater on East Fifth at the time, bought the Orpheum from Rayburg in 1916. Rayburg used his profits to buy into the New Lyceum Theater on South Main Street. Guy sold the theater about a year later to John W. Lyons. The Orpheum closed less than a year later. The building was eventually razed and is now the location of the One Dayton Centre building.
Palace - 2426 East Fifth Street (1912-16): The Palace Theater was the brainchild of Frank E. Tharp and Charles L. Passmore. Records seem to indicate that the Palace was fairly successful at first, probably due to the fact that only one other theater, the Royal at 3016 East Third, was located in the neighborhood at the time.
Since many of the more successful nickelodeons always had more patrons than they did seats, the solution was to sell "standing room only" tickets. This sometimes led to overcrowding, in some instances the aisles would be completely blocked by standing spectators. This led to another type of problem, poor ventilation. The air would quickly become foul, especially in the summer, when the only circulation of air would come from the open front door. In many places an attendant would make the rounds with a big pump atomizer and spray perfume to allay the odor of so many people being crowded into such a small place.
The overcrowding and poor ventilation also contributed to the transmission of diseases. When an epidemic of influenza hit Dayton in December of 1915 the city’s health department issued a set of rules to the theater owners in the hope of trying to combat the deadly disease. Theaters not having a ventilating system approved by the board of health had to open all their doors and windows for at least five full minutes every hour and a half. Patrons were warned when it was time to open the windows so that they could put their coats back on.
Unfortunately, business began to slow at the theater as the years passed. The Palace was just a memory by the end of 1916.
Polish White Eagle- 406 Valley Street (1920): The Polish White Eagle Building Company bought an old fire engine house at Valley and Light Streets, rehabilitated the structure and turned it into a moving picture place. The following year the theater was turned over to Alfred E. Espy, who renamed the theater The Valley (1921-24). A year barely passed before Charles Peiffer bought the Valley and remodeled the building again.
At the peak of its heyday in 1924 Peiffer sold it to J. Delwin Fornshell, only to see it fail under less competent hands.
Peiffer reopened the theater, changing its name to New Valley (1925-32) so that patrons would know it was under new management. In 1930 he again sold the theater, this time to cabinetmaker John Virag. Unfortunately, the theater didn’t prosper under Virag and Peiffer once again bought the New Valley a year later.
The third time wasn’t the charm for Peiffer. The theater wasn’t equipped for sound. Silent films became harder to find as more ‘talkies’ took over the market. By 1932 the theater closed for good.
After sitting vacant for awhile, the building was remodeled by the Kosciusko Polish Literary Society . Patrons sat and read books where once they watched motion pictures.
The site of New Valley is now nothing but an empty lot.
Portola - 3114 East Third Street (1914-16): The original owner of the Portola is unknown, but records indicate that by 1916 Charles A. Kelly, machinist by trade, was the new owner. Kelly almost immediately resold the theater to Alex Graton who renamed the theater Eastwood (1917-30 & 1933-36).
When Graton decided to sell the theater in 1924, it would begin a chain of events that only a person with a scorecard could keep up with. In 1924 Walter Partner was the new owner. The following year the theater had been sold again, this time to Irvin Cotter. Cotter made a hash of things and sold the theater the following year (1927), to Harold S. Buck, John C. Stout and A. G. McDill. The partnership didn’t last. By 1928 the theater again changed hands, this time to Charles Berecy. Berecy had his hands full, so he sold it in 1929 to Elton C. Baumbach, a head teller at Dayton Savings & Trust Company. Baumbach, having worked at a bank, could see the numbers on the wall, and sold out to Cleo H. Hangen in 1930. Hangen found that he could not stop the decline in sales due to the installment of sound equipment in the larger theaters downtown, so he closed Eastwood’s doors in 1930.
But the theater wasn’t quite dead yet. After sitting vacant for nearly three years, the Eastwood was reopened in 1933 by Otto Peters. Peters, a barber by trade, wisely continued his practice of cutting hair while he tried to make a success of the theater. Unfortunately, Peters couldn’t cut it in the theater business, so he sold out to Emil Weber in 1934. Weber, miracle of miracles, kept the theater going for almost another two years.
But the time of the small nickelodeons was over. The larger theaters were offering bigger and better shows in air-conditioned comfort. The Keith’s theater had even begun to show Technicolor movies. After a valiant struggle, the Eastwood passed away into history, closing in 1936. Along with it passed the last silent theater in Dayton.
Princess - 546 Xenia Avenue (1911-12): Saloon owner Stephen Sierschula opened the Princess Theater in a lean-to next to his saloon. A year later the theater had been renamed the Pastime (1912-15) by its new owner, one-time grocer John H. Foster. After the theater closed in 1915 the building sat vacant for awhile before becoming a barbershop.
In 1926 a new building was built on the site to house the Federation. (See Federation).
Frank Radford - 306 East Fifth Street (1907-09): Frank Radford, president of Boyer-Radford Manufacturing Company in 1907, decided that making levers and buggy jacks wasn’t enough, and invested in the equipment to open his own theater. After the novelty wore off, he sold out to Richard E. Alexander and Noah Bert Tyler, who renamed the theater Lafayette (1909-15). By 1911 Alexander had bought out Tyler’s share of the theater. The Lafayette hung on until 1915, at which time Henry Focke converted the building into a grocery store. Alexander went on to work as a secret service officer for the County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
You guessed it. The building has long since passed away and is now a parking lot.
Reliable - 635 Wayne Avenue (1911-12): Opened by George E.Banker, it wasn’t much more than a year later that the theater was sold to George W. Middlestetter and Daniel G. Fox, who changed the theater’s name to Rex (1912-14). In 1914 Charles L. Theobald, part owner of Theobald Brothers, cigar manufacturers, decided to also become a theater owner and bought the Rex. He should have stuck to cigars it seems. The Rex closed its doors the same year. The building sat vacant for a couple of years, but finally was remodeled and opened as a grocery store by J. & R. Sacksteder by 1917.
The original building is gone, the site is now an entrance to Route 35.
Rothleder & Schwalm Electric Theater - 40 East Third Street (1906-09): Rothleder and Schwalm were from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After seeing the success in that city of the Nickelodeon Theater in 1905, the two gentlemen opened their own theater in a converted storeroom in Dayton, Ohio. This theater was the first in Dayton devoted exclusively to showing motion pictures at all times, instead of the films being relegated as a small part of a vaudeville program.
This palace of silent films prospered after patrons got over their natural fear that the darkened interior might hold a terrible fate for them. According to legend, the last half of the first reel of the first picture shown at the theater depicted an on-coming train, the puffing and snorting engine seeming to advance straight at the audience. Reports have it that strong men paled and women and children shrieked when the engine grew larger and larger on the screen.
The theater was sold to Clyde Kerr in 1909, who changed its name to the Electric (1909-19). Records of ownership of the Electric are unclear from 1911 until 1918, the year it was purchased by Peter Dobras. Managers for the theater during this time period included C. E. Ramby from 1911-15, Gus. Chifos in 1916 and Theodore Chifos in 1917. It continued to be very successful during this period, with no other improvements made except for adding a few more seats in the rear.
When the theater closed in 1919, Dobras remodeled the building and opened a shoe repair shop, which he personally operated. Much of his business probably came from the American Shoe Repair Company that was located directly across the street at 41 East Third Street.
The site is now, (what else?), a parking lot.
Royal - 16 East Fifth Street (1911-23): John A. Fetterly, owner of Fetterly Piano Manufacturing Company, opened the Royal in partnership with Valentine Rayburg, who had been acting manager at the Globe theater the year before. Fetterly bought out Rayburg’s interest in the theater two years later. After Fetterly died in 1914, his widow, Grace, sold the theater to the Gem City Amusement Company. Gem City Amusement was privately owned by Henry Rott, Henry Osterfield, George Matt and Victor Frye. They continued to own the Royal until its closing in 1923. The building would later become the site for the National Clothing Company. It was later razed to make room for the Convention Center.
Royal - 3016 East Third Street (1911-15): House painter Edward Tibbles opened this theater in 1911. The following year he sold the Royal to Joseph Kite and Charles Hein. By 1915 Kite’s interest in the theater had been bought by Otto W. Weidner. The Royal began to lose business under Weidner’s management, and closed by the end of the year.
The building sat vacant for a while, then was converted over and became the Eastwood Garage.
J. L. Sapp Family Theater - 30 West Fifth Street (1906-08): This theater was originally a saloon owned by Sapp. In 1906 the American Biograph Company presented some of their pictures and "illustrated songs" there several times.
Illustrated songs were usually hit songs of the time, which were illustrated with hand-painted, glass slides that displayed images and words of the song. These would be projected onto a screen with a "magic lantern", a device somewhat like a slide projector. These glass slides were also often used to project an image on the screen while the projectionist changed movie reels.
The Biograph pictures proved to be so popular that Sapp converted the space into a motion picture theater. The newness quickly wore off, however. Patronage to the theater began to decline and by 1909 the theater had been remodeled and reopened as a combination cafe and billiards room.
The original building was torn down many years ago. The Dayton Barber College is now located on the site.
Shank & Hale Amusement - 1121 West Third Street (1907-08): Orion L. Shank and Frank B. Hale opened this theater in 1907. Piano tuner Harry L. VanAtta bought the property by 1909 and changed the name of the theater to Wonderland (1909-14).
A year later the property had changed ownership, when Charles V. Mohler took over the reins. George A. Mohler purchased the theater in 1911, and Charles took over as Wonderland’s manager.
In 1912 Darwin H. Thompson was the owner, but only for a little while. Thompson, having been offered a chance to buy the Muse-Us theater, decided that the price was right, and sold Wonderland to J. C. Warvel in 1914. The theater closed less than a year later, becoming a printing shop by 1915.
The printing shop is now gone, as is the building. Only an empty lot remains.
South Park - 906 Brown Street (1912-17): This theater, named for the section of the city in which it was located, was opened by Robert J. Kastel.
Movies called "actuality films" were quite popular in the early theaters. These were movies that were filmed at local locations in and around the Dayton area. Scenes might include a parade down Main Street, or the 1913 flood. Few of these films still exist. One such film, now owned by the Montgomery County Historical Society, shows scenes taken during a regatta held by the Dayton Canoe Club in 1914. At one point the camera catches a glimpse of the crowd of over 25,000 people that lined the banks of the Great Miami River to watch the canoe and swimming events.
Signs outside the nickelodeons would read "See yourself in the movies". People were fascinated by this concept and packed the theaters trying to spot a familiar face among the flickering picture of the crowds.
By 1916 C. J. Donlin, owner of the Olympic theater, convinced Kastel to sell South Park to him. Perhaps Donlin found that running both theaters was too much. For whatever reason, South Park closed in 1917. Kastel, in partnership with John Vance, rebought the property and opened a billiards room there the following year. The original building has since been razed. A Rally’s Restaurant is now located on the site.
Star - 132 East Third Street (1911-13): George Heiser was the manager of the Dayton White City Company before he opened the Star in 1911. The theater was sold within a year’s time to G. Edward Finke.
During the 1913 flood the water rose almost halfway up the two-story building where the Star was located. The projectionist of the Star was stranded in his booth near the second floor. Records state that the flood waters rose so high that Billy Denton, floating in the water after falling out of a canoe, ducked just in time to keep from crashing into Star’s small marquee. Luckily, Denton was pulled from the water as he passed by the Lowe Brothers Paint Store located on the southwest corner of Third and Jefferson. However, his luck didn’t hold out for long. Some burning material, from a fire that was raging along the north side of Third Street, floated through a missing window of the Lowes store, where it happened to drift near a paint can that had overturned and spilled its contents. The paint caught fire immediately. In only a short time another can exploded from the heat, showering flaming paint everywhere. Soon the entire building was racked by more explosions as the fire spread. Denton, along with several others, escaped the fire, but by the time it burned itself out every building from the north side of the alley at Jefferson Street to the southwest corner of Third and St. Clair was badly damaged or destroyed, including the Star Theater.
A new building was eventually erected, but the theater never reopened. Finke went on to buy the Orpheum theater on South Main Street.
The site where the old theater stood is now the home of Bird’s Engraving.
Theatorium Electrical Theater - 1026 West Third Street (1907-10): Another typical nickelodeon, the Theatorium changed owners several times during the few years that it was open.
The original owner, Charles Booher, would go on to sell the theater in 1909 to confectioner George A. Mohler. Mohler must have decided that, although he liked the theater business, he didn’t necessarily enjoy owning one. He sold the theater to real estate dealer Thaddeus W. Wheeler in 1910 and went on to manage the Wonderland theater. Wheeler immediately changed the name of the theater to Enterprise (1910-11). It didn’t take long for Wheeler to decide that selling real estate was more his style. The theater again changed ownership when Peter L. Showen purchased the Enterprise in 1911 and changed its name to West Side (1911-12). By the end of 1912 the theater was known as Pekin (1912-14), with William B. Lawhorn as acting manager. Toward the end the theater also started including vaudeville acts on the program in a desperate attempt to stay open. It didn’t work. Pekin closed in 1914. The building has long since been torn down and nothing was ever built to replace it.
Tivoli - 200 South McClure (1910): Saloon owner Andrew Fries opened this short-lived theater in partnership with Buckeye Film and Projecting President Richard D. Hanish in 1910.
Fries and Hanish picked the wrong year to open a movie house. Across the country, theaters were attracting the working class by the thousands, drawing money away from vaudeville and the churches. Newspaper editorials began to appear, linking movie houses to juvenile crime and social unrest. Many cities begin giving police the power to ban a movie prior to its first showing. "PICTURE SHOWS ARE DECLARED AN EVIL" exclaimed an article in the Dayton Daily News in 1910.
A joint convention of the Miami Conference Sunday School Association and the Miami Branch Christian Endeavor Union was held at the Belmont United Brethren Church In Dayton, Ohio. The two organizations, representing one hundred-fifteen schools and sixty-five Endeavor societies, passed a resolution urging local churches and public schools in the city to discourage children from attending movies.
"Whereas, we recognize the educational value of many moving pictures exhibitions; we also recognize and deplore the fact that there is manifest an increasing tendency among the
proprietors of these places to exhibit pictures that are foul and corrupting in their suggestive influence upon the minds of our young." read a resolution passed at the convention. "We would, therefore, ask our pastors and teachers that they...discourage our young people from attending pictures where, by the aid of moving pictures, prize fights, train robberies and other suggestible immoral practices are made to appear less offensive than their real character prove them to be."
For whatever reasons, the Tivoli Theater was not successful, and was sold to Dayton Oil in 1911, who opened a bottling works there.
The building was razed many years ago, yet another victim of Route 35.
Twilight - South side of Germantown Street, between Calm and Broadway Streets (1912-14): Almost nothing is known concerning this theater on Germantown Street. The Dayton directories do not list the name of the owners. It was opened as a motion picture theater for almost three years, before it closed for good in 1914. It is now an empty lot.
Washington - 985 Washington Street (1911): Gus Stockert and Albert Surmin opened the Washington in 1911. Less than a year later it was renamed the Orpheum (1911-13). The Orpheum was closed in 1913, possibly due to the flood, since the location would have been quite close to the Great Miami River. The site is now a parking lot for Reynolds and Reynolds.
Westwood - 1721 West Third Street (1911-16): This theater was located in a new plat called Westwood that had just opened in 1911. Thomas Stilwell would remain the owner of the Westwood for the first four years, before finally selling it to Ralph A. Stoddard in 1914. Stoddard was unable to keep the theater going and closed it in 1916. The site is now an empty lot.
World Electric Museum - 35 South Jefferson Street (1907-08): J. W. Teach owned the Market Dining Room in 1906. The following year Teach converted the building into a motion picture theater and, along with William Clark, opened the World Electric Museum Theater. Unfortunately, the theater was not a success, and closed in 1908. The site is now a parking lot.
Wyoming - Southwest corner of Wyoming Street and Gunkel Avenue (1914-29): The Wyoming was one of the most successful silent film theaters in the city. The Wyoming was erected by Albert Staehlin, a baker by trade, in 1914. A year later real estate investor Gus. G. Kinzeler bought the theater. Kinzeler, one-time owner of Funland Theater on Valley Street, did quite well during the decade he owned the theater. When attendance began to decline, Kinzeler sold his interest in the Wyoming to Samuel D. Crumbaugh in 1925.
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