Taking a Walk on the Red Carpet: Theaters in the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

This post is part of an ongoing “road trip” featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

Growing up, it was usual to find me in a dark movie theater on a Friday night, a big bucket of popcorn, and a movie on the screen to escape from the daily stresses of everyday life. Now, of course, we are looking at movies on our laptops, phones, or maybe our smart TVs. Someday soon, we might be able to return to movie theaters or play houses to take in the latest movie release or a musical or play on the boards. But we can still virtually visit some of the country’s theaters found in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places. There are more than 33,000 search results in the NRHP series that have the word “theater” and 3,300 with the word “movie.”

First-nighters posing for the camera outside the Warners’ Theater before the premiere of “Don Juan” with John Barrymore, (National Archives Identifier 535750).

Movie Theaters are a popular destination for all, and are often an opportunity for military service members to relax, including this theater in Kecoughtan, Virginia, part of the Hampton Downtown Historic District (National Archives Identifier: 41681087). The “port town of Hampton was created in 1705, however there were settlers in the greater Hampton area as early as 1610. The site of the Hampton Downtown historic district has been active since at least 1691, when the port was ordered constructed and when the town was laid out on the axis of King and Queen Streets, which form the basis for historic Hampton today. The historic district is approximately twenty six acres and contains 43 mostly commercial primary resources, but also includes several churches, intact archaeological sites, and governmental buildings. The downtown retains is original plan and a collection of resources which demonstrate its historic roots as well as its developmental history . . . The Hampton Downtown Historic District demonstrates both significance and integrity as a small historic downtown developed from the earliest Colonial period to the modern day.”

First Ticket Purchase at Theater, Kecoughtan, Virginia, (National Archives Identifier 138926705).

If you’re interested in a midnight showing of the latest flick in Coosa Valley, Alabama, head to the Sylacauga Historic Commercial District (National Archives Identifier 77837410). “Sylacauga is a small town located approximately 45 miles southeast of Birmingham, Alabama on U. S. Highway 280 in Talladega County . . . The district buildings are associated with significant periods of economic growth from its inception, to industrial and commercial growth in the early twentieth century (ca. 1904), a building boom during the twenties. Federal Relief Projects in the late thirties, and an enormous industrial, population boom in the early forties. Contained within the Sylacauga Historic District are historic banks, general merchandise stores, restaurants, specialty shops, and professional offices, all the elements commonly associated with a commercial district.”

Coosa Valley, Alabama. New workers crowd theatre at midnight show [in] Sylacauga. (National Archives Identifier 522644).

If you’re traveling through the American Southwest, maybe to visit Hoover Dam (NAID 63816442), you can also head to Boulder City, Nevada to catch a show at the Boulder Theater in the Boulder City Historic District (National Archives ID 63816476), which was originally conceived with the idea of ensuring “visual continuity and create a shopping district with a unique character. The architectural controls were envisioned to be flexible, but, within a certain chosen stylistic treatment, appropriate to the southwest . . . The largest and best examples of this stylistic treatment are the Boulder Theatre and the Uptown Hardware and Apartment Building. Both are two-story structures with well-proportioned, matching arcades, and, as a group, came the closest to the superblock concept of large single buildings of a common style supporting multiple-business enterprises.”

“Moving picture theater operated under permit at Boulder City, Nevada.” (National Archives Identifier 293717).

Maybe your theatrical tastes lean toward a summer evening outdoors, watching a movie on a big screen, like these service members on Ascension Island during World War II. If you’re traveling to the South Pacific, be sure to visit the Kwajalein Island Battlefield, Marshall Islands (National Archives Identifier 131518045). “Kwajalein Island is at the southern end of Kwajalein Atoll, which is in the Ralik (Sunset) Chain of the Marshall Islands. Kwajalein is the largest coral atoll in the world, its lagoon having an area of 1,100 square miles. Kwajalein Island itself has an area of only 1.2 square miles. Its average elevation above sea level is 5.5 feet and its highest point is a man-made hill. Mount Olympus, that contains missile silos. Since the 1944 battle fought there, the banana-shaped island’s size has been considerably enlarged by dredging and filling at its west and north ends and along its lagoon side . . . Kwajalein Island is today owned by the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Defense Command leases Kwajalein and other islands in the atoll for Kwajalein Missile Range operations.”

An outdoor movie theatre for U.S. troops stationed on Ascension Island (National Archives Identifier 193696185).

Drive-In theaters were immensely popular during the latter half of the 20th Century and are well represented in the NRHP records. “Richard Hollingshead, Jr. opened the first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey . . . A theater with a 300-car capacity required six to seven acres of land; a 600-car drive-in required twelve acres . . . By 1946, only 102 drive-in theaters existed in the United States. The post-war economic boom in the U.S. was mirrored by the drive-in theater boom. In 1947, there were 155 drive-ins; by 1949, there were 820; and by 1955, there were nearly 4,000.”

DRIVE-IN THEATER STUDY, 1949, by American Association of State Highway Officials. Prepared by Committee on Traffic, Sub-Committee on Roadside Control (National Archives Identifier 169136740).

One good example of the quintessential drive-in is Spud Drive-In Theater (National Archives Identifier 84251121) in Driggs, Idaho. “Prior to the opening of The Spud, the recreation options were limited in Teton County. Newspapers from the early 1950s show a fairly clear lack of entertainment options. Traditional indoor theaters in Driggs, Tetonia, and Victor were virtually the only regular recreation options. School plays, summer baseball leagues, and local band concerts provided occasional diversions, but little else was available for a weekend date or family outing.  The Spud Drive-In Theater was opened by A. C. “Ace” Wood in the early 1950s, and it provided an exciting new entertainment option. Wood was owner and operator of the indoor movie house in Driggs (the Orpheum), and he had contemplated building a drive-in venue since sending for plans for a screen tower in 1950. The design/plans for the screen tower came from the Fence Company of Michigan, based in Escanaba, while the concession/projection booth plans were obtained from the Ballentyne Company, out of Omaha, Nebraska.”

“The Spud Drive-In Theater is located at 231 S. State Highway 33. The rectangular site encompasses 4.2 acres located on the east side of the highway. The Spud Drive-In Theater is an excellent and intact example of an outdoor automobile-oriented venue for the display of motion pictures. It comprises a unified “entertainment landscape” that was constructed between 1953 and 1955.”  There are several facets that are comprised in the National Register listing: the landscape itself, which “is typical for post-war era drive-ins. Access from the highway is gained via a circular driveway located at the rear of the screen tower. An entry ramp leads from the south side of the driveway past a solid wood fence to the ticket booth. This, in turn, leads to the core of the theater lot, which consists of concentric semi-circular dirt and gravel access drives and graded parking spaces that focus on the screen tower. The concession stand/projection booth is set in the center of the parking area. An exit ramp is located on the north side of the main lot, which guides patrons past another solid wood fence to return to the front circular driveway.”  The screen tower is “located in roughly the center of the west side of the site . . . It sits back from the road approximately 50 feet and is approximately 35 feet high and 60 feet wide. The tower consists of an unenclosed, heavy timber framework anchored by concrete pilings.”  The concession stand and projection booth “is a low, single-story, rectangular structure located approximately in the center of the Spud Drive-In lot. It has a very shallow, gabled roof and is clad with wide, clapboard siding.”  The Spud Theater ticket booth is “located to the south and east of the screen tower. It is a small, rectangular structure placed in the center of the entry ramp.”  Of course, no attraction in Idaho would be complete without a “1946 Ford One-Ton Truck/Gunnite Potato – Rather than a traditional advertising sign, the Spud has used a rather unique roadside object to draw attention to the theater. Since 1953 “Old Murphy,” a 1946 one-ton Chevrolet flat-bed truck, has been parked along the highway inside the circular driveway. An oversized potato has been placed in the bed of the truck. The original “Spud” was made from wood, chicken wire and plaster of paris in 1953. This original object was vandalized and destroyed in 1992. Following this event, the Driggs Chamber of Commerce held a fund-raising drive to replace what had come to be a local icon. They raised $1,000 to construct the present “Spud” of wood, foam insulation, and gunnite. The present frame around the truck bed was also installed at that time to prevent future vandalism.”

St. Paul Sites–16, TPA 9a, Old Movie Theater (National Archives Identifier 131076493).

If you are traveling around the United States’ Last Frontier, you might find yourself at the site of the “Old Movie Theater” in St. Paul’s Island, Alaska, part of the Pribilof Islands. There are about fifty Pribilof Islands properties in the NRHP records, and you can also search Pribilof Island records within NARA’s Access to Archival Databases (AAD).

If your tastes lean toward the musical or dramatic performances, you can certainly find any number of theaters to satisfy your desires, including the Calumet Theater (National Archives Identifier 25339441) in Michigan and the Coleman Theater (National Archives Identifier 86511854) in Miami, Oklahoma.

Copper Country Trail – Historic Calumet Theater (National Archives Identifier 7717771).

The Calumet Theater, “today known as the Calumet Civic Auditorium, is located in a large separate unit of the Calumet municipal building on Sixth Street in Calumet. A columned marquee, brightly illuminated by electricity, opens onto Sixth Street and helps to give the theatre a trim and pleasing appearance. Built at a cost of $70,000 and comparable in most respects to metropolitan theatres of the period, the Calumet Theatre became a great source of civic pride . . . Audiences of the Copper Country were able to enjoy plays of a rather different nature as well. The first Ibsen play to be produced was Ghosts in 1903, followed in the next year by Mary Shaw in A Doll’s House. The great European playwrights of the period enjoyed great popularity with Copper Country audiences. The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Pinero brought Rose Coghlan, a popular Broadway star, to the Calumet. Shakespearean drama was popular at Calumet, and the revival there was merely indicative of the great interest in Shakespearean drama across the American stage. A total of 16 Shakespearean plays were presented at the Calumet between 1900 and 1910. Hamlet was presented twice, and, on December 6, 1900, Madame Modjeska was brought to Calumet in Macbeth.”

Historic Route 66 – Inside the Coleman Theatre (National Archives Identifier 7719443).

“The Coleman Theater Building is a 120 X 150′ theater/commercial structure of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Completed in 1929, the red brick exterior wall construction materials have been finished with a buff-colored stucco on east and south sides which face the streets. The majority of the rear brick wall has been painted to match the stucco Color as has the third floor wall on the north side of the building . . . The Coleman Theater building continues to serve the community of Miami, Oklahoma as an outlet for businesses, social organizations, and as an entertainment center – the same role it has performed for the past 53 years. Located at the four corners section of downtown Miami, it remains as the historic centerpiece for the central business district . . . Built during the peak of the Spanish Colonial Revival period of 1915-1940, the Coleman Theater’s architecture is characterized by the outstanding twin bell towers on the south side, the unique spire-like bell tower in the center, and the ornately designed curvilinear gables on the facade. Additional Spanish Colonial Revival vocabulary applied to the building includes the elaborately designed parapet walls, enriched cornice window heads, iron window grilles, balconies with wrought iron railings, stucco finish, and the red-tiled gabled roof on the western half. These features make the Coleman Theater one of the most significant samples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture applied to a commercial building in Oklahoma.”

Presidential visits to theaters are very common. President Clinton and President Obama visited the New Amsterdam Theater (National Archives Identifier 75319758) in New York City in June 2012. After the appearance at the New Amsterdam Theater, President Obama moved on to the historic Apollo Theater (National Archives Identifier 75319263). “The Apollo Theater is historically and architecturally significant for its role as one of New York City’s and the nation’s leading entertainment centers for over four decades. Completed in 1914 as a burlesque house, it later became the premier performance hall for black American performers and a symbol of the movement to promote black cultural awareness in the 1930s. Its contribution as a nurturing force and a showcase of black talent ranks it as one of this country’s most significant cultural resources.”  The “Apollo” (as it is known) was “designed by architect George Keister in the neoclassical style, the Apollo retains much of its original character. The 1700-seat theater auditorium features a proscenium arch with flanking boxes and elaborate classically inspired plaster ornament. The Apollo is one of the few theaters remaining in New York City with two balconies. The Apollo’s exterior, faced in white terra cotta, handsomely displays five colossal pilasters capped by stylized Tuscan and Ionic capitals decorated with anthemion motifs. Keister was one of the most prominent theater architects in practice at the turn of the century.”

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Apollo Theater in New York, N.Y., Jan. 19, 2012 (National Archives Identifier 176544786).

Click on any of the hyperlinked National Archives ID numbers above to open the fully digitized records in the National Archives Catalog. The NRHP files include additional documents, photographs, drawings, and maps.