News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 5, 2008

Historical Perspective: Theater Vignettes from the New Year 1913

By Mike McCormick

TERRE HAUTE — When the New Year dawned in 1913 – 95 years ago – Albert F. “Buck” Brentlinger and Frank J. English proudly boasted that the Orpheum Theatre on the north side of Wabash Ave. near Eighth St. was “the finest in the state.”

Brentlinger and English were pioneer Wabash Valley motion picture operators.

Nearly a decade before acquiring the Lyric Theater in about 1911 and converting it from a vaudeville arena into a cinema house, the two men owned The Theatorium at the southeast corner of Fourth and Cherry streets, a small venue with a music box that “tortured the audience while it tried to decipher pictures projected onto a muslin sheet.”

The pair next owned the Elk Theatre on the south side of Wabash. The Elk was sold for a profit and the hall was renamed the Nickledom, razed in 1911 to make way for the Tribune Building.

There was no muslin sheet at The Orpheum in January 1913. Its gold fiber screen was “the finest in the city.” There were 600 opera chair seats, too, a far cry from the straight back chairs used in prior cinema theaters.

Six scenic paintings by a muralist from Chicago named Rockwell covered the walls and soundproof linoleum blanketed the floor.

The Orpheum Orchestra consisted of eight musicians who, according to promotions, made the theater “a synonym for fine music.”

Claire Edwards, who played the theater’s $3,000 Kimball pipe organ, created much favorable comment and Jane Locke Parks was hailed as one of Terre Haute’s finest pianists. Beatrice Vickroy and Arethea Millet were the violinists.

Every advertisement promoting The Orpheum included reference to the organ.

Avis McDonald was billed as “a skilled percussionist,” a drummer, xylophonist and “manipulator of cathedral chimes, bells and other effects.”

Composer Frank J. Holland, a tenor soloist, was the master of many crafts. A veteran of the vaudeville stage, he had acquired a considerable reputation for writing original parodies, usually bearing on topics of local interest.

Soprano Anna Magdeline Lyons earned praise for performances in amateur musical productions. Soloists Anna Hancock Hoffman and Pearl Ellis made occasional guest appearances.

Brentlinger and English were not hesitant to laud film operators Ernest Kirk and Edward Pulliam, as well as cashier Helen Turner.

On Dec. 27 and 28, 1912, actor King Baggott, an important figure in the motion picture industry during its formative years, appeared on The Orpheum’s stage to promote Universal films.

A native of St. Louis, Baggott appeared in 1906 on Broadway in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” and made his first film three years later at age 30. His fame elevated when he played dual title roles in Herbert Brown’s cinema version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Baggott appeared as an actor in well over 100 films during his career. “Ivanhoe” and “The Corsican Brothers” were among his big early successes.

When age started to catch up with him, Baggott concentrated on directing. He is credited with navigating the classic western “Tumbleweeds” for William S. Hart in 1925.

Awarded a lifetime contract by MGM, he appeared in movies after World War II without credit. He died in Hollywood on July 11, 1948 at age 68.

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Maurice Less came to Terre Haute from Toledo in 1905 to open a clothing store in the Lyric Theater building at 720 Wabash Ave.

Less was acquainted with Herbert and Harry Miles, known throughout the industry as “The Miles brothers,” distributors of silent films from their New York and San Francisco headquarters to nickelodeons throughout the nation, beginning in 1907.

Convinced the motion picture industry was in its infancy, Less founded Lyric Film Co. at 27 S. Seventh St. in 1909 as a distributor for Midwest theaters. By 1912, he was supplying film to more than 100 theaters within a 50-mile radius of Terre Haute.

Lyric Film also had accounts in the south and southwest. Less had an ownership interest in about 20 theaters and, in 1914, built the American Theater at 817-19 Wabash Ave. in Terre Haute at the present site of Morris Plan.

In January 1913, Less told the Terre Haute Tribune that it was possible to buy all equipment necessary to open a motion picture theater for less than $1,000.

“An operator must have at least two projectors, which cost $250 each,” Less said.

“A picture screen costs between $50 and $300, depending on the quality. This is an important feature. Each year the cost of presenting an attractive motion picture increases.

“I doubt if pictures in kinemacolor will become popular for a year or two. They require a special machine with more electric power. We do business with Universal Production Co., Majestic Film Corp. and New York Motion Picture Patents Co., the original motion picture trust, and offer films from about 40 studios and film companies.

“It is enough to keep three stenographers busy full-time. It is our policy to offer films that can be presented for five cents but there will be a few important photoplays in 1913 which will cost a little more.”

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The Christmas 1912 matinee at Terre Haute’s Grand Opera House was “Carter the Great,” the largest magic show on the road.

With a retinue of 30 people and three railroad cars of scenery and electrical effects, former lawyer-journalist Charles Joseph Carter presented “The Lion’s Bride,” called “the world’s most unusual illusion.”

“Carter the Great,” a biography of the magician by Mike Caveny, was published in 1995. “Carter Beats the Devil,” a fictionalized account of his life, was written by Glen David Gold in 2001.

Carter died Feb. 13, 1936. His home in the Seacliff District of San Francisco is now used as a foreign consulate.