News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 19, 2006

Historical Treasure: Entertainment demand grew with Terre Haute’s population

By Freida Murphy

As Terre Haute grew in population, so did its demand for entertainment.

In the 1850s and ’60s, there were several halls available for concerts, minstrel shows and amateur activities. The Terre Haute Opera House was built in 1870. Many stars of the day, including Edwin Booth and Lily Langtree, performed there. It was purchased in 1882 by Wilson Naylor and renamed the Naylor Opera House. It burned in 1890 and a new Grand Opera House was built in 1897 at Seventh and Cherry streets. It became a movie house in the 1930s.

I remember going there to see Shirley Temple, who certainly brightened the days of the dark Depression. I also stood in a long line in 1940 to see “Gone With the Wind.” We were told not to skip school to see the movie, but some of us did. The Grand was demolished in 1960.

The Indiana Theatre was opened on Saturday, Jan. 28, 1922 at Seventh and Ohio streets. It is the only theater still standing in downtown Terre Haute.

In 1906, the Lyric Theatre opened at 720 Wabash Ave. It was a vaudeville house with films as well. There were rumors that a murder took place in the Lyric and it was closed for some time. It later reopened as the Orpheum and was a movie house only. These are the three main theatres that were downtown as I was growing up. But as Terre Haute spread out, many other theatres sprang up in the neighborhoods.

The Liberty theatre opened on Sept. 15, 1918 at Eighth Street and Wabash Ave. It closed in 1958.

The American Theatre opened in 1918 at 817-19 Wabash Ave. It had a pipe organ and a nine-piece orchestra. When talking pictures came along, the musical programs were dispensed with. The theatre closed in 1952.

Apparently 1918 was a banner year for theater construction in Terre Haute. The Savoy Theatre was opened at 332 Wabash Ave. It primarily showed westerns and closed in 1950. The Fountain was at 432 Wabash Ave. and offered feature films, comedies and newsreels and closed in 1953.

The Lyceum at 13th Street and Wabash Avenue was in business from the 1920s until the 1950s.

The first movie house built after the Depression years was the Idaho at Hulman Street and Lockport Road. I saw a lot of movies there because it was close to where I lived. My sister and I were at the Idaho on Dec. 7, 1941. We saw a film titled “Love Finds Andy Hardy” staring Mickey Rooney.

In 1915, the Swan Theatre ticket price was a nickel. Movie projectors were cranked by hand in those days and a 14-year-old boy named Leroy Wilson used his good right arm to crank the projector. He later became the president of AT&T.;

Also, next to the Swan was Sam, the popcorn man, who sold bags of popcorn with celery salt for a nickel a bag. There were other theaters around town: Rex, Little Virginia, Best, Garfield, West, where people of all ages could enjoy their favorite stars. The advent of television caused most of them to close their doors.

The photograph shown, from the Vigo County Historical Society’s collection, is of the American Theatre. The marquee shows that a double feature was playing. The shows were “Lights of New York” and “Singing Three.” If any reader remembers the year of these movies, it would be interesting to know.