Capturing Columbia’s Cinema Century

From Haden Opera House to Hollywood Theaters, the city has a rich history of movie venues. Some marquees are long gone: the Airdome, Hippodrome, Elite and Star, the M Theatre and the Bijo Dream, to name a few. Several burned to the ground. The oldest survivor, the Missouri Theatre, is a fitting site for a local historian’s display of downtown movie venues going back 113 years and recalling a time when businessmen often spent their lunch breaks in Columbia’s “movie palaces.”

Venues come and go, movie magic endures

Venues come and go, movie magic endures

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“It was wonderful.”

That’s how Marian Ohman, 83, describes the days when there were a handful of “movie palaces,” in downtown Columbia.

Not cinemas. Not just places to see movies. These were ornate, whimsical, exotic gems of architecture with seating for 1,000 or more, and their popularity compelled one early movie theater mogul, Marcus Loew, to declare, “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”

These beauties — the three remaining and those that have been lost — will be celebrated in an exhibit to be unveiled next week at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

The display outlines the history of downtown theaters in Columbia and historical highlights of the vaudeville and film industry in the US. The project has been a longtime labor of love by Marge Berchek and the history committee of the Missouri Symphony Society. The society bought the theater in 1988, 60 years after it was built, and restored the structure in 2008.

The exhibit will be on display in the theater’s history lounge in an alcove at the rear of the lobby area, where other artifacts from the theater’s renovation are on display.

Marge Berchek works on hanging her exhibit on historic vaudeville and moving picture theaters in Columbia. On display at the Missouri Theatre, the exhibit will open in July.

Marge Berchek works on hanging her exhibit on historic vaudeville and moving picture theaters in Columbia. On display at the Missouri Theatre, the exhibit will open in July.

Haden to Hollywood

In her research, Berchek came up with a long list of theaters established in Columbia since the turn of the last century and amazing tidbits about movie-going habits.

A few examples:

• The first film shown in Columbia was at the Haden Opera House in 1897, and the first film to use a sound projector was The Jazz Singer, shown at the Hall Theatre in 1928. Businessmen often attended the movies on their lunch hour because movies were shorter in the early years.

• Berchek, during her voluminous research, came up with a local newspaper article from 1909 that quoted a theater manager saying he could count on his fingers the number of businessmen who didn’t drop in during the week.

Berchek also found that in 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest industry in the nation. By the mid-1920s, 50 million people attended the movies each week — at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.

Columbia residents shared the national pastime.

In 1909, there were approximately 3,300 theater seats for Columbia’s population of more than 12,000. These included the Airdome, the Columbia Theater, the Broadway Odeon, the Elite and the “M.” All of these are now gone or so transformed you wouldn’t know they’d been theaters unless it was pointed out to you.

Yet three remain in bricks and mortar in recognizable forms. These Ninth Street theaters truly reflect the move in the 1920s toward movie palaces. The Missouri Theatre, the Hall Theatre and the Varsity totaled 3,591 seats by 1930, when Columbia’s population had edged up to nearly 15,000.

Marge Berchek works on hanging her exhibit on historic vaudeville and moving picture theaters in Columbia. On display at the Missouri Theatre, the exhibit will open in July.

Marge Berchek works on hanging her exhibit on historic vaudeville and moving picture theaters in Columbia. On display at the Missouri Theatre, the exhibit will open in July.

Today, with Columbia’s population hovering at 100,000, four venues, the Missouri Theatre, which shows movies periodically; the Forum 8; the Hollywood Theaters Stadium 14; and the Ragtag Theater, provide 4,227 movie seats.

People can now watch movies via DVD rentals, Netflix mailings, on-demand cable and satellite services and online streaming. They can watch them on TVs, computer screens and even mobile phones.

Nevertheless, the number of people buying movie tickets has been fairly steady in the past 15 years, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. Sales rose to 1.2 million in 1995 and, after reaching a high of 1.58 million in 2000, dropped to 1.39 million in 2008 before moving back up to 1.42 million last year. And ticket sales are ahead of the 2009 pace so far this year, according to industry tracking sites.

The local theater storyline

From the construction of the Airdome in 1906 at 10th and Walnut streets to the opening of Ragtag Cinema in 2008, the local theater scene has seen its ups and downs.

In 1909, when the Gem operated on the corner of Walnut and Ninth streets, an advertisement declared: “The Gem is already THE POPULAR AMUSEMENT PLACE.” It was the place to go for “pictures that talk and sing,” according to an item from Berchek’s display. New programs were unveiled on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. And you could get all this for 10 cents for adults, 5 cents for children. (So what is that worth today? According to measuringworth.com, 10 cents would be worth $2.43 in 2009 dollars.)

Movie theaters started as nickelodeons — a combination of the word odeon, which means theater in Greek, and a nickel, the price of watching anything from pictures accompanied by music and singing to short silent moving pictures. Some of the early theaters were simply stores filled with chairs or benches. By 1908, true short movies were being shown; the programs changed two or three times a week, according to a history developed by Paul Sturtz, co-owner of the Ragtag and co-founder of the True/False Film Festival.

Then in the Roaring ’20s, movie theater architecture centered on the idea that movie palaces should include luxury, whimsy and exoticism, which gave working people a peek at the trappings of the rich, according to the book Great American Movie Theaters by David Naylor. These movie palaces were a place to truly get away from it all — and people did. Some movie theaters offered child care so mothers could go to the movies during the day.

But moviegoers could not escape reality for long. The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, and the Great Depression lingered on. By today’s prices, tickets back then sound cheap — 35 cents for adults in 1927. But that would be about $4.34 in 2009 dollars.

However, Bill Crawford said people found ways to economize. The president emeritus of the Boone County Historical Society, Crawford moved to Columbia in 1938 and recalls going to the Varsity.

“It was beautiful,” he said, noting that on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays you could go to the movies there and see an advertisement, a news reel, then double feature and vaudeville, all for 25 cents. To save money, people would bring sandwiches to eat, and he recalls bringing brown bags and sacks of stuff from home to save money. The entertainment, he said, would last two hours, and you needed something to eat.

Although they were tough times economically, Crawford said people still attended the movies. “It was the only thing to do in town; nobody had cars,” he said, so the cluster of theaters drew people downtown.

Marian Ohman, who was born in 1926, recalled how she and her friends rode their bikes downtown to take in a show in the afternoon. One day she and a friend slipped out of Hickman High School to see a movie at the Varsity, but her teacher tracked her down, escorted her out of the theater and returned her to school for afternoon classes.

As the economy rebounded after World War II, downtown theaters were hit by two new trends: television and the mass move to the suburbs. Families moved west of what had been the far end of town, West Boulevard, and kids could no longer walk or ride their bikes to downtown theaters like Ohman used to do.

Where are they now?

Of the downtown movie palaces, only two retain their mission of entertainment: the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts and The Blue Note. The other glorious movie palace is now a restaurant.

The Missouri Theatre shows movies periodically and is a venue for the True/False documentary film festival but more typically is a venue for a multitude of musical events and some modern dance performances.

The theater is used for productions of live music and theater for about 50 days a year, which is not nearly enough, according to R. Eric Staley, MTCA chief executive officer. The MTCA still needs to raise $2.5 million for the recent $10 million renovation of the building. About $400,000 remains in dispute and awaits a decision from an arbitration judge.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Missouri Theatre showed two or three movies each week, but Staley indicated there are no plans to revive those cinematic practices. His focus in the nine months he’s been on the job has been to streamline the MCTA’s business model and develop a schedule of productions to keep it in the black.

The other two movie palaces built in the 1920s still have the doors open, but one is offering sandwiches while the other brings top-notch live music to Columbia.

The Blue Note began life as the Varsity in 1927. It was built for roughly $100,000, or $1.2 million in 2009 dollars, according to measuringworth.com. The site was previously the home of The Star, built in 1916 and razed to make way for the Varsity. (It had seating for roughly 1,000 people but no provisions for African-Americans to attend. In contrast, the Missouri Theatre offered African-Americans a side door and part of the balcony prior to the erasure of segregation.)

The Varsity became the Film Arts Theatre in 1966, the Comic Book Club in 1988 and then The Blue Note in 1990.

The Hall Theatre, with its name still emblazed in gold, still exists as the Panera Bread Company. Built in 1916 at a cost of $65,000 — $1.3 million in 2009 dollars — the Hall opened as a vaudeville and movie theater. It operated as a movie theater through 1973. It was the first true theater in Columbia, rather than a nickelodeon, and only one of three in Missouri to install a sound system at that time, according to Sturtz. “On July 27, 1928, the Hall showed The Jazz Singer, the first Vitaphone ‘talkie’ movie shown in Columbia,” Sturtz said via e-mail.

The downward slide

In 1959, the first year for which the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce has comparable figures, people spent $11 billion (in 2005 dollars) going to the movies.

It would be more than 40 years before US consumers would spend near that much again.

As Great American Movie Theaters noted, the rise of legions of movie theaters in the 1920s led to a glut of demolition. In 1948, there were nearly 18,000 screens; in 1963, it had dropped to 9,150 screens. The number of screens has rebounded, until in 2008, there were 38,034 screens, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Yet, each screen offers fewer seats.

As the nation went, Columbia followed.

The Hall Theatre limped along until 1973. The Varsity struggled on in different forms until Richard King took it over in 1990. The Uptown Theatre on Broadway stopped showing movies in 1985. The Columbia Theatre at 1103 E. Broadway burned in 1975 and lost its top two floors. Today the limestone first floor houses the law offices of Van Matre, Harrison and Hollis.

The Missouri Theatre continued to show movies, but it took public protest to prevent its then owner, Commonwealth, from turning it into a multiplex.

In 1992, The Forum 8 was built in the Forum Shopping Center. Owned by Michigan-based Goodrich Quality Theatres, the multiplex has 1,327 seats, with one screen offering 3-D projectors. The Forum plans to go all digital in the near future in addition to an upcoming renovation of its concession stand. The Hollywood Theaters Stadium 14, built in 1997 and owned by the Hollywood Theaters headquartered in Portland, Ore, has 2,700 seats, with five of its 14 screens featuring digital projectors and 3-D capabilities.

Success on the small screens

“Don’t get too weepy mourning the ghosts of the Star and the Elite and the Cozy — they are the composted humus that sprouted the new Ragtag,” Sturtz said.

In 1998, the Ragtag Film Society began showing films at the old Varsity Theater. In 2000, the Ragtag opened in a storefront theater at 23 N. 10th St. Then in 2008, exactly 100 years after Columbia opened its first theater devoted to motion pictures, the Ragtag, Uprise Bakery and Ninth Street Video opened its two-screen cinema at 10 Hitt St.

“It is the first theater built downtown in more than 60 years,” Sturtz said in an e-mail.

The Ragtag is a cozy place compared with the massive movie palaces. One screen provides seats for 70 on coaches and chairs. The other “big theater” offers 130 fixed theater seats. In 2008, the Ragtag showed 185 first-run films to 55,000 patrons, according to its website. It focuses on new releases and art house titles.

The multiplex owners are equally upbeat about the future of movie theaters.

The National Association of Theatre Owners recently said in a news release that the downturn in the economy probably won’t hurt movie theaters. “During the last eight recession years since 1965, movie theaters’ box office and admissions increased during six of them,” the association said.

Perhaps, as Gene Kelly wrote in the forward of the book Great American Movie Theaters, where you see the movies really is as important as the movie.  V

1. Long Gone: The M Theater operated from 1909 to 1914 at 8-10 N. Ninth St. and had 400 seats. Across the street was The Elite, which opened in 1908 a few doors from The Star. Photo courtesy Historical Society.
1. Long Gone: The M Theater operated from 1909 to 1914 at 8-10 N. Ninth St. and had 400 seats. Across the street was The Elite, which opened in 1908 a few doors from The Star. Photo courtesy Historical Society


2. The Originals: The first motion picture shown in Columbia was screened in 1897 at the Haden Opera House, which was built three years previously and was destroyed by fire in 1901. The former manager of the opera house salvaged scenery and equipment and in 1906 opened the Airdome Theater, a canvas structure just south of Wabash Station on the northeast corner of 10th and Walnut, according to the book Historic Downtown Columbia. After a brief move to the 600 block of Broadway downtown in a building with a moveable steel roof, the Airdome returned to the original site in 1909, expanded and was named The Hippodrome. The structure, the city’s largest theater with 1,455 seats, was destroyed by fire in 1919. Photo courtesy Historical Society.
2. The Originals: The first motion picture shown in Columbia was screened in 1897 at the Haden Opera House, which was built three years previously and was destroyed by fire in 1901. The former manager of the opera house salvaged scenery and equipment and in 1906 opened the Airdome Theater, a canvas structure just south of Wabash Station on the northeast corner of 10th and Walnut, according to the book Historic Downtown Columbia. After a brief move to the 600 block of Broadway downtown in a building with a moveable steel roof, the Airdome returned to the original site in 1909, expanded and was named The Hippodrome. The structure, the city’s largest theater with 1,455 seats, was destroyed by fire in 1919. Photo courtesy Historical Society.

3. Columbia Theater, with 1,100 seats, opened at 1103 E. Broadway in 1907 and was ruined by fire in 1929. The first floor remains and houses the Van Matre, Harrison and Hollis law office. Another former movie house is now occupied by Slackers. From 1907 to 1927, and again from 1935 to 1985, it operated as a movie house under various names: Bijo Dream, Broadway Odeon, Cozy and Uptown.
3. Columbia Theater, with 1,100 seats, opened at 1103 E. Broadway in 1907 and was ruined by fire in 1929. The first floor remains and houses the Van Matre, Harrison and Hollis law office. Another former movie house is now occupied by Slackers. From 1907 to 1927, and again from 1935 to 1985, it operated as a movie house under various names: Bijo Dream, Broadway Odeon, Cozy and Uptown.

4. The Varsity, on 17 N. Ninth, was built in 1927 on the site of the razed Star theater and had 640 seats. The name was later changed to the Film Arts Theater, and the building operated as a theater until 1988. The yellow-brick structure later became The Blue Note, a concert hall that occasionally shows movies and is a venue for the True/False Film Festival. Photos By: Todd Berchek.
The Varsity

5. Hall Theatre: Tom C. Hall closed the Star theater, which had 640 seats, razed the building on 17 N. Ninth St. and built the Hall Theatre a block south at 102 S. Ninth St. The Hall Theatre, with 1,291 seats in 1915, was used to screen The Jazz Singer in 1928. Hall used a Vitaphone projector, the only sound projector in Missouri outside of St. Louis and Kansas City. The building is now occupied by Panera Bread Co. Photos courtesy Historical Society.
Hall Theatre

6. The Missouri Theatre opened in 1928 at 203 S. Ninth St. In 1953, the building was leased to Commonwealth Theatre and operated as a movie theater until 1987, when it was purchased by the Missouri Symphony Society. The structure was renovated in 2008. Photos courtesy Historical Society.The Missouri Theatre

7. Modern Venues: Forum and Hollywood: The Forum was built in the 1960s and originally was a one-screen theater. In 1992, the Forum 8 behind the Forum Shopping Center was built, and Goodrich bought the business in 1998. Hollywood Theater’s Stadium 14 at the eastern end of Stadium Boulevard opened in 1997 with 2,700 seats. Photo by Jennifer Kettler.
Modern Venues: Forum and Hollywood

8. The Arthouse: Ragtag Cinema: The Ragtag Film Society started showing films at The Blue Note in 1997, became the Ragtag Cinema in 2000, located at the Oddfellows building, 23 N. 10th St. The nonprofit independent movie theater moved in 2008 moved to 10 Hitt St., an historic building that had been a Coke bottling plant. There is a 130-seat screening room and a lounge theater with 75 seats. Photo by Jennifer Kettler.
The Arthouse: Ragtag Cinema

Timeline

1884-1901
Haden Opera House. Destroyed by fire; it showed Columbia’s first film in 1897.

1906
Airdome, at 10th and Walnut, then 609-611 Broadway, then 10th across from Wabash.

1907-1927, 1935-1985-present
Today, the location houses Slackers, but from 1907-1927, it was the Bijo Dream, Broadway Odeon, Cozy, Uptown. It was then used as retail space until 1935-1985, when it was a movie theater.

1907-1929
Columbia Theatre. Built in 1907, the top two floors were destroyed by fire in 1929. Today, the remaining portion of the building at 1103 E. Broadway is a law office.

1909-1916
The Star, 17 N. Ninth, 640 seats. The Varsity, which later becomes The Blue Note, is built on this lot.

1909-1914
The M Theater, 8-10 N. Ninth St., 400 seats.

1908-1909
The Elite, 13 N. Ninth St.

1913-1919
The Hippodrome theater showed movies at the site of the old Airdome at 10th and Walnut. A wood-frame building with 1,455 seats, it was the city’s largest theater. It burned to the ground in 1919.

1915-1973-Present
Hall Theatre, 1,291 seats. Built in 1915 by Tom C. Hall. In 1928, The Jazz Singer was shown there using a Vitaphone sound projector. Now Panera Bread Co

1927-Present
The Varsity, 17 N. Ninth St. Opened as the Varsity, it then became the Film Arts Theatre, then the Comic Book Club, now The Blue Note. Operated as a movie theater until 1988.

1928-Present
The Missouri Theatre, 203 S. Ninth St. In 1953, leased to Commonwealth Theatre. Operated as a movie theater until 1987, then purchased by the Missouri Symphony Society and renovated in 2008.

1929
Missouri, Hall and Varsity begin to show movies on Sundays, despite protests at Methodist Church.

1948
17,811: the number of indoor screens, according to National Association of Theatre Owners. This is the first year for which figures are available.

1949-?
The Columbia Broadway Drive-in Theater, at site of today’s Gerbes on Broadway.

1953
Missouri Theatre leased to Commonwealth Theatre.

1954
The number of screens hits 14,716, a loss of more than 3,000 screens in six years, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

1959
$10.9 billion: the amount of money spent by people on going to movie theaters (in 2005 dollars), according to Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce.
This is the first year for which figures are available about expenditures on attending movies.

1960s
The Forum one-screen theater is built in the 1960s. In 1992, the Forum 8 at 1209 Katy Parkway is build and purchased by Goodrich in 1998.

1962
The number of indoor screens bottoms out at 9,150, down from 14,716 in 1954, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

1966-1998
The Cinema, at 1729 W. Broadway, next to drive-in. Its 50-foot widescreen is the city’s largest. It had 800 seats.

1966
The Varsity, now The Blue Note, becomes Film Arts Theatre.

1973
The Hall stops showing movies.

1973
$7.1 billion: the amount people spent going to movie theaters in 2005 dollars, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce.

1976-1998
The Biscayne III in the Biscayne Mall, once a prime shopping area with 30 stores, now completely razed and replaced with a new shopping area.

1984
18,327: the number of movie screens tops the 1948 figure of 17,811, according to the
National Association of Theatre Owners.

1985
Uptown on Broadway stops showing movies. Today it houses Slackers.

1986-2000
The Columbia Mall 4.

1987
Commonwealth Theatre threatens to turn The Missouri Theatre into a triplex and stops showing films there.

1987
$7 billion, in 2005 dollars: a new low in the amount people spend attending movies since 1959, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce.

Jan. 7, 1988
Last movie shown in the Missouri Theatre, which is sold a few days later to Missouri Symphony Society.

1988
Theater at The Blue Note location stops showing movies and becomes the Comic Book Club.

1990
The theater at 17 N. Ninth St. becomes The Blue Note, a live music venue.

1992
The Forum 8 at 1209 Katy Parkway replaces the one-screen Forum and is bought by Goodrich in 1998.

1997
Campus 1&2, 1102 E. Broadway, closes.

1997-Present
Hollywood Theater’s Stadium 14, 2800 Goodwin Pointe, opens with a total of 2,700 seats.

1998
Ragtag Film Society shows its first film at the Varsity, now The Blue Note.

1998
The Forum 8 is bought by Goodrich.

2000
Ragtag Film Society moves from the Varsity and opens storefront theater at 23 N. 10th St.

2008-present
The Ragtag Film Society opens a two-screen cinema at 10 Hitt St.

2008
$8.7 billion, in 2005 dollars: the amount of money spent on going to the movies, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce. It is still below the $10.9 billion (2005 dollars) spent in 1959.

2009
38,605: the number of indoor movie screens according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Sources: US Consumer spending on movies, Personal Expenditures on movie theaters, billions of 2005 dollars/source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce; Number of indoor screens/source: National Association of Theatre Owners; Sources for history: Paul Sturtz of Ragtag, Marge Berchek of the Missouri Symphony Society Historic Committee

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