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Kiowa County Signal - Kiowa County, KS
  • 'This will mark a new era in the line of our entertainments'

  • It was a windy January afternoon in Greensburg on January 7, 1913 when lawyer L.W. Batman peered across Main Street and saw the roof of O.J. Wymer's restaurant engulfed in flames.
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  • It was a windy January afternoon in Greensburg on January 7, 1913 when lawyer L.W. Batman peered across Main Street and saw the roof of O.J. Wymer's restaurant engulfed in flames.
    "It required but a momentary glance to convince the most optimistical that all the frame buildings between the brick [building] occupied by Sieg's jewelry store, Taylor's [store] and the brick building on the south of the block were doomed," read a Jan. 9 story in The Kiowa County Signal.
    More than 10 buildings, including Thompson's variety store, H.C. Minckemeyer's shoe repair shop and a vacant building owned by C.M. Weeks of Independence, were damaged in the fire.
    The Signal speculated in an accompanying news story that it had been fueled by tinder-dry pine-built merchant buildings, constructed "in the early day's of the city's history."
    Merchants and neighbors rushed to remove the contents of the building.
    Groceries from Thompson's were strewn across Main Street along with furniture, clothes, household goods and whatever else could be saved from the businesses and offices as the hard north wind spread the fire along the east side of South Main Street between Florida Street and Kansas Ave (later U.S. 54).
    It took the local fire department about an hour to extinguish the fire and it was reported to have done an estimated $15,000 in damage, which, accounting for inflation, would be about $325,000 in today's currency.
    "Already some talk is heard looking towards the erection of brick buildings in the Spring," said the story. "It is a strong probability that next year will see a solid brick front in the fire zone."
    It would be three years before construction would begin on the site of the fire when, in the Fall of 1916, business partners H.W. Wacker, and H.L. Miller would purchase most of the block and begin construction on a number of buildings including "a modern opera house" which was first mentioned in a Sept. 7, 1916 Greensburg Progressive news story.
    The Signal reported just a week later that excavation for a new auditorium had begun at 156 S. Main Street.
    "The building is to be of brick, with pebbledash front, self supporting dome roof, cement floor and will be practically fireproof," said the news story. "The building …will be furnished in the most up-to-date style."
    As contractors W.W. Stewart and J.W. Whitehead continued construction on the building through the winter of 1916, Miller and Wacker struck a deal with local businessman Charles Spainhour to lease their new auditorium. The agreement, which would mark the beginning of a multi-generational relationship between the Spainhour family and the building then-known-as the Auditorium, came soon after Spainhour had become the owner of the nearby Empress Theater.
    Page 2 of 4 - Spainhour had purchased The Empress from businessman C.C. Perry. It had been one of the more popular film houses in Greensburg and showed all of the popular films of the day. A news story in The Signal, which reported on Spainhour as the new owner of the Empress and his lease agreement with Miller and Wacker for the new auditorium, wrote that it was "[Spainhour's] intention to maintain the same high grade films used by Mr. Perry."
    The story mentioned a weekly film schedule that included Keystone Comedies, a series of short films produced by Mack Sennett featuring a bumbling troop of police officers. Tuesday and Friday nights featured the films of Paramount Pictures, which was producing highly regarded literary adaptations, and on Saturday nights you could see Charlie Chaplin and a short feature.
    At least two other theaters are known to have existed in Greensburg in some capacity.
    Local history buff Ed Schoenberger said a theater called the Airdome Theater was located next to the Anderson Bros. grocery store building. Both buildings, located along the same stretch of Main Street as the new auditorium, would later become the Main Street Café.
    Schoenberger also said there was a theater called The Electric Theater in Greensburg and that Jesse Caplinger had told him that there might have been an Electric "Light" Theater in town at one time, although he had not been able to find concrete evidence that such a business existed.
    Though more than one theater in a small Kansas town seems unrealistic in the modern era, the population in Kiowa County had exploded from 2,365 people in 1900 to 6,174 people in 1910, according to the U.S. Census. Many business owners believed at the time that the population of Greensburg and the county would continue to rise, although populations peaked in 1910 and have steadily declined ever since.
    A number of news stories commented that Miller and Wacker were determined to invest money in Greensburg.
    "Spainhour went to Kansas City to buy a new motion picture machine and fixtures for the opera house," read a Feb. 15, 1917, Greensburg Progressive news story. "He intends to provide his patrons with the latest and most scientific machine."
    The auditorium, which was reported to have "every convenience that money and skill could procure," was billed as a modern, luxurious building. It could seat 750 people in modern opera chairs and was "beautifully painted." The Signal reported the estimate cost to be $20,000, which, accounting for inflation, is about $337,000 in modern currency.
    "On either side of the entrance is a splendid room. The one on the north is called The Lobby and is occupied by Paul Mattingly with an up-to-date barbershop, while on the south side The Greensburg Music Store is displaying the famous Steger line of pianos. Both of these places are in keeping with the building of which they are part."
    Page 3 of 4 - The auditorium officially opened on April 16, 1917.
    Attendees could reserve their tickets at the nearby McKinley's Drug Store.
    Season tickets were $3, single night tickets were $0.75 and gallery tickets were $0.35.
    The Jack Benjamin Stock Company, a traveling theater troop, performed a variety of plays each night during their weeklong engagement.
    Fine Feathers, a moral play written by New York author Eugene Walter was the first official performance in the new building.
    An April 19, 1917 Signal article praised the performances, but expressed concern over attendance.
    "Their interpretations of the plays we have seen to date is all that could be asked for. Wacker and Miller made a wise selection when the selected the Benjamin Company for the opening of the new auditorium. The attendance has not been what it should, considering that we have one of the finest opera houses in the southwest."
    On Thursday April 26 the new auditorium showed their first film, although the name of the actual film shown in the theater is unknown.
    Spainhour announced in a number of advertisements that he would offer free admission to its first film, which was to feature Mrs. Vernon Castle (aka Irene Castle) and the first 200 ladies through the door would receive a free photo of her.
    Castle was one of the top stage performers of her era. She took her husband's first name during her early film career as a dedication to him, a World War I fighter pilot in the Royal UK Air Service. Though the name of the supposed film was not listed in the advertisement she starred in two films during the early part of 1917, "Stranded in Arcady" and "The Mark of Cain."
    A story in The Signal the following week noted that the original film had not arrived on time and instead "a fine war picture was shown," but did not mention its name.
    "The new auditorium makes an ideal movie house for there is plenty of room for everyone and the seats are altogether comfortable," wrote the story. "The house is sanitary and the arrangement for ventilation is all that could be desired."
    The new auditorium continued its weekly film and theater schedule for the next few years. Local plays and well-known films were common.
    The auditorium closed briefly during the winter of 1918 "on account of the flu epidemic" but reopened in February 1919 showing "The Claw" a romantic tragedy starring Clara Kimball Young.
    Referred in news articles and locals by lots of different names, the "auditorium" "opera house" "movie house" and "new theater" finally received its namesake in April 1923.
    Spainhour, who had been known in the community as an honest and community minded business owner, took the naming of his theater to the people of Greensburg.
    Page 4 of 4 - He had extensively renovated the auditorium in March of that year, installing two brand new Powers 6B projectors and remodeling the interior of the building.
    The auditorium reopened on Monday April 3, 1923 with a performance by the Greensburg High School Orchestra and a vocal number from Pauline Cox, Jaunita Winters and Floyd Alton.
    "A number of paintings on the walls add to its attractiveness," read an April 5, 1923 story in The Signal. "A new lighting arrangement using colored lights is another pleasing feature. Manager Spainhour is to be congratulated upon the beautiful appearance of the house."
    Spainhour also showed "Smilin' Through" a film adaptation of the Jane Cowl play about an Irish immigrant and her domineering guardian who keeps her from marrying her true love. "Patrons were surprised when the picture was thrown on the screen because of its wonderful detail and depth," continued the story. "The projection in their theatre is equal to any in a city theatre."
    Spainhour had taken out a number of advertisements in the prior weeks, asking guests to put name suggestions in a box and the "name that has the most support will be the one given the theatre."
    In April 5 edition of The Signal Spainhour placed an ad for the upcoming weeks films under the title of The Twilight Theatre.
    In a quite matter-of-fact tone, a small news item was published along with the advertisement in that week's newspaper.
    "The Auditorium, as a name for our picture show has ceased to be. It's the Twilight now. A ballot box was provided at the theatre and the above name had the most support. Remember it's the Twilight now and not the Auditorium."
    editor@kiowacountysignal.com
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