Story by Roger Moore
There was a time when Cowboy Mall, at the corner of Monroe and Hall of Fame, was the place to be. Food, arcade, movies, and parking. Since the 1970s, just about anything and everything was available. The demolition began in late July and all that remains are old photos, memories of good and bad movies, all those late-night Pizza Shuttle orders, and that time you finally got through that difficult and frustrating level of Tempest.
It almost seems like ancient history, back to a time when movies were cheap and Friday nights included a pocket full of quarters.
Stillwater’s first theater outside downtown, the Campus Theater, opened in 1939 as Claude Leachman, the community’s patriarch in the field, felt something closer to campus would prosper. Thirty-six years later, in 1975, the Campus Theater, now part of Hideaway Pizza’s location at the corner of University and Knoblock, closed with the Satellite Twin opening in Cowboy Mall; it was part of the nationwide rise in mall society and, with the accompanying businesses, allowed for a full Friday night.
Imagine planning on seeing the movie Star Wars in 1977. Not really knowing what to expect – this is before the massive blockbuster summer releases of “modern” times – you head to Cowboy Mall. But, like every other human within 60 miles, you arrive to find a line snaking all the way to Monroe and then north even farther. The Satellite Twin showed its last flick in February 1999, and in between, there were plenty of $1 movies with half-empty theaters. The theaters morphed into classrooms for Northern Oklahoma College and remained so for the next two decades.
Imagine having to leave the house to play video games. A “Golden Age” of video arcade games began in 1978 and Cowboy Mall’s arcade, across from the entrance to the movie theater, was usually packed on Friday and Saturday nights. It could get expensive, especially if you were not among the talented gamers of the time. A quarter in Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Defender, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, Joust could take seconds, minutes, or if you were good, half-an-hour. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the arcade was a hangout, a babysitter, a place where everybody knew your name. Space Invaders hit the public in 1978 and was a far cry from modern versions of Call of Duty or Fortnite. Small pods of teenagers gathered around those who figured out advanced levels. Some “players” had entourages, those who could dominate Defender or Tempest. Is this the night he breaks the scoring record? How many levels will he destroy? It was a social culture that has since moved online.
Looking for something to eat? The choices were many.
For a snack stop into the convenience store, Quick Trip for most of the 1980s or Aggie Stop for two decades that closed in 2012. Maybe House of Greek for lunch or 7 Knights and eventually Leo’s Peking Restaurant for dinner. The best part of 7 Knights was the armor-clad knight that greeted you upon entering. The best part of House of Greek? Everything.
For the college sect, there must have been thousands upon thousands of $5 Pizza Shuttle orders. Was it the best pizza? Probably not, but for cash-strapped collegians it was gold. And they delivered well into the evening to cure late-night munchies. The Eskimo Joe’s expansion began in 1984 with Stillwater Bay Oyster Company that morphed into Mexico Joe’s when Stillwater Bay moved downtown to a location now home to a bike shop and upstairs apartments.
For some, life-changing decisions were made at Cowboy Mall inside the Armed Forces Recruiting offices. NOC’s facilities also helped with transitions from high school to college for many, a chance to figure a few things out and perhaps provide a few career choices.
Cowboy Mall, like many community malls of its size across the country, had a short life if half-a-century is considered short. The move from downtown to the fringes of cities allowed for more elbow room and more parking. The architecture was usually not part of the equation and often one could take a picture of a small mall in one place and not distinguish it from another in another state. As moderns attempt to refurbish, recycle, and hold nostalgia in high regard – see fashion, music, moviemaking, downtown attempts at bringing back the “good ole days” – places like Cowboy Mall provide an example of the planning of the early 1980s with little long term forethought. Was the location ever aesthetically pleasing? No. Did Cowboy Mall’s existence provide bountiful memories for those who lived through its forty-five years? Yes. Let us hope today’s and the future’s city planners attempt to combine the two and build spaces that not only build those memories of staring down that knight or conquering Tempest but produce architecturally-pleasing areas that are not in need of demolition sooner than later.