The nearly 90-year history of the Twilight Theatre is the history of the film industry itself. More than 1,500 miles from Los Angeles, the small ornate building on Main Street experienced the same ups and down as its Hollywood counterparts. From the early years of silent one-reeler comedies to the introduction of the “talkie,” the Twilight was there.
Local businessman Charles Spainhour officially opened Greensburg’s newest theater on April 16, 1917 with a stage performance of “Fine Feathers” by the Jack Benjamin Stock Company.
The next week it began showing films. The first film to screen at “the auditorium” (renamed the Twilight Theatre in 1923) is not known, but Kiowa County Signal and Greensburg Progressive advertising archives show a timeline of film screenings that span nearly all of film history.
In 1917, the year the Twilight theatre opened, films had matured at a lightning pace.
Production companies were making new movies every week and motion picture distributors shipped films all over the world.
Movies were being made in southern California after film companies wanted to take advantage of the endless Los Angeles sunshine.
The movie star grew out of the ever-maturing story lines, growing loyalty in audiences and increasing lengths of movies. But with expansion and success came growing pains.
The controversial blockbuster
Despite its abhorrent portrayal of African-Americans by white actors and its depiction of the Ku-Klux Klan as heroes, the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” was a financial and critical success in the United States and abroad. The 3-hour silent spectacle directed by D.W. Griffith, which tells the story of reconstruction in the post-Civil War south, had extensive battle scenes and used hundreds of actors and special effects.
In its first year it earned nearly $10 million (almost $212 million in today’s dollars when accounting for inflation) and earned $50 million over its first 35 years in theaters.
The movie is highly regarded by film scholars for its firsts, including filming night scenes, camera movement, split screens and camera angles.
The Twilight Theatre showed “Birth of a Nation” first on May 14, 1924 (nearly 10 years after its first release) at two showings.
Gerald R. Butters, in his book “Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship 1915-1966” (University of Missouri Press, 2007), explains the lengthy and highly politicized history behind the 10-year ban on the film.
The Kansas Board of Censorship, which at that time regulated films distributed in Kansas, Gov. Arthur Capper and his successor Gov. Henry J. Allen all fought to keep the film from being shown in the state.
“The only way to make that picture moral… is to eliminate everything after the title,” said Capper in a 1917 letter to the State Board of Appeals.
Page 2 of 6 - A November 1917 article in The Signal mentions that the theater would begin showing “super features”, including “Birth of a Nation” on Monday nights beginning in January 1918. Spainhour likely promoted the film after the state censorship board approved the release of the film in late 1917, but approval was reversed soon after.
Interestingly, Gov. Capper made a speaking appearance at the Twilight on Dec. 16 of the same year to promote a Red Cross blood drive.
Birth of a Nation, based on the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel “The Clansman,” would eventually screen throughout Kansas in 1924 after newly appointed governor Jonathan M. Davis approved release of the film.
In his book, Butters speculates that the political influence of the KKK in Kansas, which at the time numbered in the tens of thousands, may have played a role in the decision.
The Twilight showed the film a second time on Oct. 24, 1925. “This picture that was barred from Kansas for 10 years will be withdrawn from the state on October 26th, we are able to get it here for one day only,” wrote the ad, though it wasn’t banned again.
The Picture Show
In the early 1920s the Twilight was showing movies Monday through Saturday. Spainhour showed lots of comedies, including the wildly popular Mack Sennet films. Western film hero Tom Mix appeared to be a local favorite, with at least one of his films showing nearly every month.
Business must have been good because Spainhour closed the theater in March 1923 to renovate the interior.
In an article in The Signal a reporter wrote that “the building [will be renovated] and in various ways in improving the appearance of the theatre in every respect.”
Tickets were 10 cents for floor seats and 30 cents if you wanted to sit in the balcony.
Movies starred future screen legends like Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Richard Talmadge and Wallace Reid.
On Feb. 11-12, 1924 you could see Mary Pickford in “Through the Back Door.”
“It’s as wholesome as a healthy child and as charming as a burst of glorious sunshine.”
As with many theaters across the country, the Twilight played shorts before the features.
Most advertisements included “Aesop’s Fables” and “Pathe News” with feature presentations.
“Aesop’s Fables” were a series of animated shorts created and produced by Paul Terry, the founder of Terrytoons who would later create iconic characters Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle. “Pathe News” was a bi-weekly newsreel that showed people, events and news from all over the world.
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Spirit of Kiowa
Attendees at the 1927 Kiowa County Free Fair became movie stars when a cameraman filmed events of the day.
An advertisement in an October 1927 Kiowa County Signal read “If the weather conditions permit the taking of the Moving Picture tomorrow — Watch For Dates — It will be shown later at the Twilight Theatre.”
A film titled “Spirit of Kiowa” was shown Oct. 17-18, 1927 with the normal schedule.
It is unknown if a print of the film still exists.
A small notice in the previous weeks Signal mentioned that Miss Luella Branstetter of Greensburg starred in the film. Luella (Branstetter) Williams was a lifelong resident of Greensburg and a member of the Greensburg High School Class of 1925. She passed away September 2011 at 103 years of age.
While Greensburg residents were sitting into the Twilight, watching themselves on the silver screen, a popular entertainer captivated Hollywood audiences when he spoke the words “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”
Before the invention of the sound film, theaters had accompanying pianists. Local musicians would choose a “theme” to play. The songs could differ from town-to-town or even screening-to-screening. But musicians could be expensive especially when a typical theater could have 12-15 shows per week.
Spainhour’s entry in the Kiowa County History Book, written by his daughter Suzan Stremel, says “Della Mae (his first wife) sold tickets and operated the Edison music box.”
The theater likely had an Edison diamond disc player, produced between 1912-1929. It was operated like a modern record player and could have provided musical accompaniment to most Twilight Theatre films.
An October 1925 advertisement mentions that the film “The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. Demille, would include an “Orchestra with Picture.” Very few films were advertised with orchestral accompaniment and were probably uncommon.
Al Jolsen’s three spoken lines in “The Jazz Singer,” which debuted on Oct. 6, 1927, may have brought more attention to “talkies,” especially considering his already well-established fame, but the migration of the film industry from silent to sound took years.
Some argue that movies released in the late 1920’s were some of the finest silent films ever made. Fritz Lang released his futuristic silent masterpiece “Metropolis” that year.
Clara Bow starred in “Wings,” which won a Best Picture Oscar at the first-ever Academy Awards, held in 1927. It was the only silent film to win a Best Picture Oscar until 2012’s “The Artist.”
Page 4 of 6 - “Wings” played at the Twilight on April 22-25, 1929 during its second release.
“Positively only one show each evening,” wrote an advertisement. “Owing to the length of Wings, which is in 15 reels and takes two and one-half hours to show, there will be only one show each evening.”
But audiences wanted sound, and theater owners, resistant to changing their established profit models, were forced to change.
Spainhour had committed to converting the Twilight to a sound theater in 1929 and spent the first half of the year quietly investigating and researching sound equipment.
A small news brief in the June 13, 1929 Kiowa County Signal, broke the story.
“[Spainhour] is experimenting at present but remaining safe from any definite tieup until he is sure of his ground,” it wrote. “If the pictures suddenly talk out loud some evening, don’t be too shocked.”
As with any new technology, owners who wanted to show sound pictures had to make decisions on equipment. Most were undecided on which of the two competing sound projectors would be the best investment.
The Vitaphone system, owned by Warner Bros., synced a record player and a projector together. The Jazz Singer had used the Vitaphone system, though its debut was nearly a year earlier in the 3-hour long Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. It was cheap to produce the disks and required less complicated machinery, however it was prone to becoming out-of-sync and the discs needed to be replaced regularly.
Movietone, which would eventually win out over the Vitaphone system, was a sound-on-film system that would record sounds on the same strip of film as the picture. The Fox Film Corporation owned the Movietone system. It is very similar to the technique still used today.
On Wed. June 27, a Twilight Theatre advertisement in the Kiowa County Signal, alongside a schedule of films, announced “They will TALK to you, July 8-9-10.”
On July 8, 1929, the Roland West-directed “Alibi” was Greensburg’s first “talkie” and played for three days at the Twilight Theatre. The black and white drama starring Chester Morris and Regis Toomey told the story of a murder suspect who kidnaps a policeman’s daughter.
“At last we are able to offer the public talking pictures,” declared a full-page advertisement announcing the milestone. “Will our equipment work perfectly? No. Will we ever get out of synchronization? Yes. Because talking pictures are not perfected things at this time. But we do claim to be able to show talking pictures as good as anyone and better than many, because we have waited and have profited by others’ experiments. We could have started two weeks ago, but we preferred to wait till we had our equipment right. We pronounce it ready and we invite the public to our first talking picture.”
Page 5 of 6 - As upgrading to sound was an expensive process, theater owners usually chose either the Vitaphone or the Movietone. Spainhour purchased one of each.
With both systems, the Twilight was able to show almost every film available.
Even though The Twilight was a small theater in a relatively small market it was one of the first 800 theaters in the U.S. to show sound films. There were about 22,000 silent film theaters in operation in 1929, with The Twilight among the first 3 percent of theaters to make the switch.
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While Spainhour was searching for sound equipment, he also introduced color films to local audiences. With much less fanfare than his grand introduction to sound, the Twilight Theatre showed its first color movie Feb. 21-23, 1929.
“Ever hear of third dimension pictures? Pictures made in their natural colors,” wrote a February 1929 advertisement in The Signal. “Pictures made so you think you are looking at the real thing. Don’t fail to see this something new in pictures. No raise in admission, just an added feature.”
The film “60 Minutes from Broadway” is an unremarkable documentary film. Though it was cleverly billed to have “animals, freaks and colors” it is a simple zoo picture.
But, while the film itself was only an average one, it showed that Spainhour was again looking into the future. While many theater owners resisted change, it seems that he embraced it.
Allot changed in the first 15 years of the Twilight Theater’s existence.
Movies would continue to change over the next 80 years but they would never again go through so many changes in such a short period of time. When silent moving pictures became loud colorful epics seemingly overnight, it took a savvy businessman like Spainhour to not only see where movies were going, but to make sure his theatre got there.
“We have spared neither time, labor or money to make our equipment second to none,” he wrote in a 1929 advertisement. “We have had our projectors rebuilt. We’ve added the new series 3 lenses which is the last word in projection and brings the pictures out much sharper and clearer. We have installed an Arctic Nu-Air cooler, which will make the house comfortable on the hottest nights. In fact we have left nothing undone to make our house up-to-date. Why? Because the people who patronize the Twilight Theatre are the most appreciative people on earth and we want to continue to enjoy your confidence and good will.”
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This is the second of a five-part series on the history and cultural impact of the Twilight Theatre.