Moving pictures

Sunday, February 27, 2005
The Orpheum theater, which was razed in 1993, was where the first color movie in Cape Girardeau was shown in 1909.

On any given night in Cape Girardeau, people can drive a few miles down the road to watch a film on the big screen in climate-controlled comfort and stereo or digital sound. But that hasn't always been the case.

In fact, less than a century ago, such a thing would have been unheard of. Yes, the moving pictures have changed a lot over the years.

The story of movie theaters and Cape Girardeau starts on a spring night in 1907 in a pool hall across from the old St. Charles Hotel on Main Street, where businessman Bob Literer had installed a nickelodeon. It failed after less than one month, clearing the way for the Dreamland Theater at 108 N. Main St. An 80-seat theater, it was owned by F.A. Barrasso of St. Louis and H.A. Biedy of Memphis.

Watching a film at Dreamland was a much different experience from going to the Cape West 14 Cine or the Town Plaza today. The theater was an old storefront, converted by a few carbon filament bulbs and a phonograph out front barking movie titles. Adults paid 10 cents to enter, while children paid a nickel.

The films were silent, even though they would sometimes be accompanied by piano or a small group of string players. The Dreamland was an ill-fated venture, though, as Barrasso sold his interest in the theater after only a month. The Dreamland would continue to operate with one owner for a while but would be put out of business by the Lyric, a movie theater opened by John T. Sackman and Herman Bock that same October at 23 N. Main St.

Before the closing of the Dreamland, the Lyric had been offering live vaudeville acts in addition to picture shows. But that ended with the Dreamland, and the Lyric became exclusively a movie house showing silent films with big names like Flora Finch, John Bunney and the immortal Mary Pickford.

First talking pictures

The Grand Theater, which opened in 1910 on Good Hope Street, carried on the vaudeville tradition a little bit longer. At the time, it was the only theater in town that boasted fire exits and a fireproof machine room housing the film reels and projector. It would later become the New Circle Theater, then The Orpheum, where the first talking pictures were shown.

The Southeast Missourian even opened its own theater, the Park, on the vacant lot east of the newspaper building -- then located on Broadway -- in 1913 because none of the three other theaters in town would advertise. It was opened in 1914 as the first "modern" theater in Cape Girardeau.

But modernization would really come with the Orpheum, where the first color movie was shown in 1909 and the first talkie was shown in 1929. After five months, the Broadway Theater would follow suit by showing another talking picture, "Alias Jimmy Valentine."

In the years in between, numerous theaters opened, closed or changed ownership. And during that time, new types of theaters would hit the scene.

Open-air theaters where customers could watch movies under the stars started in Cape Girardeau in the 1920s. They included the Liberty Airdrome, Aladdin Skydome and the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome, located on Broadway, showed both picture shows and "polite vaudeville."

The Aladdin, another Broadway theater, also showed movies. It had its grand opening postponed due to rain in 1927.

Those would be forerunners of a craze that would sweep the country in just a few decades -- the drive-in theater.

Cape Girardeau's first drive-in was the Cape Drive-In, which opened in 1949. It was followed five years later by the Star Vue Drive-In. Unlike theaters themselves, drive-ins wouldn't last long. The Star Vue had closed by 1984.

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association listed only 13 drive-ins in Missouri as of July 2004. One still exists in the region, the Pine Hill Drive-In in Piedmont, Mo., which shows family-oriented features from May to September.

Other novel theater ideas would come to Cape Girardeau, such as discount theaters. The Esquire Theater, which had opened, closed and changed ownership numerous times, re-opened on Broadway in 1985 offering second-run movies at discount prices. It didn't last long, as it went out of business later in the year, leaving downtown Cape without a theater. The theater had been operated before as part of a chain until 1984 and had offered classic movies, children's matinees and late-night shows in addition to second-run features.

Some movie theater moves haven't been welcomed.

Back in 1914, local residents jammed the Common Pleas Courthouse to argue against Sunday shows. They circulated a petition that garnered 2,300 names, and the city council subsequently turned down a proposal to allow the shows.

They would resume in 1916, but not without some unhappy locals registering their hostility toward the idea.

Some films shown in Cape Girardeau have produced that same kind of hostile reaction. One such example was "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988. The movie depicting Christ marrying Mary Magdalene in a hallucination created an uproar.

Letters to the editor poured in deriding the movie, calling it sacrilegious. Wehrenberg refused to show the film at its West Park Cine, which was housed in what was then West Park Mall.

Subject matter wasn't the only complaint. The advertisements that annoy so many moviegoers today aren't a new phenomenon. As one Southeast Missourian reader wrote in 1975: "It seems to us when we pay the price to see a movie, we should not have to watch paid advertisements."

But people still love going to the movies, a point potently illustrated last year when all the seats at Town Plaza's weekend showings of "The Passion of the Christ" were bought out by churches for weeks.

"Years ago people said movie theaters wouldn't last," said John Fischer, the Town Plaza Cinemas general manager and veteran of 30 years of experience in the movie theater business.

"But when the right movie is playing, they'll still pack the theaters."

335-6611, ext. 182


* Lyric

* Princess

* Esquire

* Dreamland

* New Circle

* Orpheum

* Park

* Grand

* Broadway Electric

* Liberty Airdrome

* Hippodrome

* Fox

* Opera House

* Little Family Theater

* Roxy

* Aladdin Skydome

* Royal

* New Broadway

* Rialto

* West Park 4-Cine

* Town Plaza

* Town Plaza Cinema II

* Cape West 14 Cine

* Star Vue Drive-In

* Cinema I

* Gem

* Cape Drive-In

SOURCE: Southeast Missourian

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