Historic Stillwater at the Movies

Aggie Theater interior, circa 1938

Story by Roger Moore

A small boy, bored while his mother shops in Depression-era downtown Stillwater, meanders up and down Main Street. Something catches his eye as he walks by an older building with a vertical sign displaying the letters M-E-C-C-A. The cartoon, Felix the Cat, one of Lawrence Johnson’s favorites, plays on a larger-than-life screen in a dark cavernous room. For the next thirty years, an obsession with everything related to movies and the theaters that played them occupied Johnson’s time.

The Mecca, formerly of 716 South Main, has been all-but-forgotten along with a handful of downtown movie theaters that graced the community during the twentieth century. By the beginning of the twenty-first century all that remained was the multi-screen complex located on North Perkins Road. Stillwater, like cities of similar size over the last century, has seen its downtown theaters move into suburban areas. Lamar Fields, real estate vice president for Carmike Cinemas in 1985, said, “Theaters are moving out of downtown and into Stillwater’s version of the suburbs, because that is in keeping with population trends across the country.”  Fields called downtown a “dying market.”

There was a time when the only “market” was downtown.

Earliest known photograph of the Grand Opera House located at 116 E. 9th Ave. Circa 1901.

Stillwater’s first entertainment venue, the Grand Opera House at 116 E. Ninth, opened in July of 1901 and was billed by The Gazette as the “most magnificent Princess Palace Playhouse in the Southwest” with tickets at 10 and 20 cents for the gallery and 30 and 50 cents for the balcony.  It can be argued that the first motion picture hit was 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Many communities showed the early films in tents, including Stillwater. Local historians give 1907 as the birth of theaters downtown, most likely the Pastime at 612 South Main Street opened by John Young and J.O. Slack. In late 1908 or early 1909, the Alamo was opened at 914 South Main and managed by W.H. Cox. A third theater, the Star, also opened downtown in early 1909. A fire department fundraiser in 1907 is believed to have included the first moving picture in Stillwater. It was shown at the Opera House.

Camera Theater

By 1913, nickelodeons operated at 716 South Main, 719 South Main, and 915 South Main. The Camera, at 719 Main, and the Mecca, at 716 Main, are remembered as the first two real movie houses downtown. The Camera opened as a theater in 1914 in the first brick building in Stillwater formerly housing the Yost Saloon. The theater remained in business until 1955, surviving as The Crest from 1952 to 1955. Lawrence Johnson, our bored third-grader, frequented either the Camera or the Mecca on Saturday mornings and was disappointed in not being able to see Bonnie and Clyde. However, he was thrilled at getting to see the bullet-ridden vehicle in which the infamous pair was killed; the car was on display at Eighth and Main during the showing of the movie at the Camera.

Across the street from the Camera, at 716 South Main, a theater originated as the Garden and became the Abbott Theater in 1921 under the ownership of Arthur Abbott. The owner gave “lifetime passes to all the ministers in town” and a pianist, Ruth Donart, was hired to play during the showing of the silent films. In 1926, Abbott sold the theater to Griffith Brothers for $10,000; it became the Mecca and would remain so until 1954. The theater catered more to the community’s youth, showing mysteries, westerns, and science fiction on Saturday afternoons.

In 1926, downtown added a new, modern movie palace, the Art deco styled Aggie at 619 South Main. Dr. D.H. Selph was the lead man in the razing of the on-site property with plans to build a new state-of-the-art theater and lease it to the growing Griffith Brothers chain. Among those in partnership with Griffith Brothers was Claude and Ralph Leachman. The brothers entered the business in 1919 when their father, T.C. Leachman, bought theaters in Woodward, Gage, and Mooreland for his sons to manage. When business boomed, Claude Leachman ended up in Stillwater managing two theaters for the next half-century.

In August of 1926, the Aggie Theater opened with speeches by Mayor F.R. Hassler, Reverend Alvin Hock and other city officials. A local band played the national anthem and the guests witnessed “ultramodern features.” Among the modern theater’s amenities was a small, closed-in, soundproof glass crying room for mothers to take their babies. Previously, local mothers were forced to miss parts of movies while attending to a child. The Aggie suffered a devastating fire in 1948 during the peak of American movie going. The fire not only destroyed the Aggie, but a number of supplies for a new theater, the Leachman, that was being built two blocks north. The Aggie re-opened four months after the fire and remained a downtown staple for the next thirty years. The Aggie experienced new renovations and had a fourth grand opening in October of 1969. In 1980, the Aggie became the Centre Twin and had a fifth grand opening. Kramer vs. Kramer and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two played on opening night on March 26, 1980 with a new marquee and an indoor box office. The theater closed in 1987.

Fifth and Main housed the Leachman Theater for three-plus decades. The first movie shown in 1948 was The Bride Goes Wild with Van Johnson and June Allyson, costing 50 cents with children under eleven entering for 10 cents. The two decades before World War II belonged to the Aggie; the three decades after the war belonged to the Leachman. A stroll through Furniture Showcase shows the original murals on the walls seen in historic photos documenting the theater.

Claude Leachman died in 1983. To residents he was much more than just a manager of movie theaters. A program for the 1948 grand opening of Leachman’s crown jewel read, “The opening of the Leachman theater climaxes Mr. Leachman’s outstanding career in the movie business and is a source of pride not only to his associates and to him, but also to the citizens of Stillwater.” The program also described Leachman as “an ardent booster” and as an “untiring civic leader who has contributed morally and financially to the betterment of not only Stillwater but also its entire trade area.”

Like Lawrence Johnson, this author frequented Stillwater’s downtown theaters and cried during Old Yeller and was terrified by Jaws at the Leachman. Yes, Stillwater has housed other theaters far away from downtown – where you eat hamburgers at The Garage, scarf down pizza at The Hideaway, and watch students walk in and out of Northern Oklahoma College’s Stillwater location. There was a time, however, when July meant escaping the heat in one of Stillwater’s downtown movie theaters.

 

Sources

Photos courtesy of Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Photo Collection

Stillwater NewsPress

Daily O’Collegian

Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, Thematic Survey of History of Movie Theaters in Central Oklahoma, Project Number: 04-401, 2004.

A Historic Walking Tour of Downtown Stillwater, City of Stillwater Public Library.

Doris Dellinger, “Stillwater’s Grand Opera House,” Payne County Historical Review, Spring 1984

  1. Earl Newsom, Stillwater History: The Missing Links, Stillwater: New Forums Press Inc., 2000.

Deborah Carmichael, “Main Street, Stillwater OK, Growing up with Hollywood CA: An Oklahoma Town’s Movie Theaters,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. LXXX, 1, Spring 2002. 62-83.

 

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