Friday, April 6, 2012

The Dunklin Theatre

On November 18, 1914, Southsiders learned that a large theater was to be built at 115 East Dunklin Street. The proprietors were George Bartholomaeus, who worked in a state office, and Frank E. Jones, who was shortly to become county assessor. The builder was Carl Franke, and the cost was projected at $12,000–$15,000.

This is how the building looks today.

The building faces about 50 feet on Dunklin and extends 120 feet to the north. The theater had a sloping floor of one inch to one foot, taking advantage of the natural slope of the ground north toward Wears Creek.

The seating capacity was 1,000–1,200, including the balcony (a later estimate, however, was 900 seats). Newspapers reported that plans for “opera chairs, inclined floor and an ample stage, as well as electric fixtures of the latest design, will all go to make the house a thing of beauty, convenience and comfort to guests.” The facade, 22 feet high, was “finished in buff brick, trimmed in light cream and terra cotta.” Windows and doors had decorative framing, and the facade was topped with five ornamental urns.

Photos of the building when it was a theater are lacking, but a slightly later photo, taken in the early 1920s when the building housed the Jefferson Moline Tractor and Implement Company, gives an idea of the original look.

The theater opened to a full house at two performances¬¬—that is, nearly two thousand attended—on May 29, 1915, with the name Southside Theatre. The opening show featured the silent film Damon and Pythias.

The film, six reels long, was one of the first feature-length films produced in the United States. It was evidence that the proprietors were bringing to the Southside the most up-to-date entertainment using the newest technology. Admission was 5 and 10 cents.

St. Peter’s Orchestra and vocalist Mrs. Louis Rephlo provided local musical talent during intermissions, as film reels were being changed. Background music during the silent film came from an Orchestrion, an instrument like an oversized player piano but intended to sounding more like a full orchestra. Orchestrions generally came complete with “bells and whistles” and were attached to organ pipes for greater volume.

Here are a few examples of some vintage Orchestrions, so you can imagine what going to a movie was like back then.

A contest was held in June to find a name for the theater. Four Southside women entered the same name, “Dunklin Theatre,” and had to share the five-dollar prize.

A lot happened at “the Dunklin,” as it came to be known. Two Southside youths, Winnie Bassmann and Otto Busch, rented space in the lobby to sell candy, ice cream, and soft drinks. Harold Doty won the prettiest baby contest. Seventeen-year-old Southsider Carl Walz, later to be county sheriff, won a pie-eating contest. All of this was great fun for Southsiders!

In September 1915 the theater showed the first motion pictures of the laying of the cornerstone of the new State Capitol and also rare “pictures” of bayonet charges in the “Great European War” (World War I) into which the United States had not yet entered.

Bartholomaeus sold his share of the theater to partner Jones in August 1915. The theater closed for a while for repairs, then reopened to a big show on January 3, 1916. Broadway School children attended a special show for them and their friends.

In addition to silent movies and vaudeville, the Dunklin held wrestling matches and other common entertainments of the day, including acrobatic and black-face minstrel shows.

In April 1916 Jones sold the entire building for $30,000 to Starrel McCall, a Fulton banker. The spacious basement was to be fitted up for an overall factory, which would employ a “large number of girls” and “add another splendid industry to the Southside.” However, the factory never came about.

In June 1916 the Dunklin Theatre showed the multiple-reel film The Birth of a Nation, possibly the most famous (or infamous) of all American silent films. It had just been released in 1915 and created widespread controversy because of its racism. In film promoted the growth and popularity of the Ku Klux Klan nationwide, including Jefferson City.

On September 27, 1916, the Republican party chose the Dunklin Theatre for a rally because “this is the largest available place in the city. More people can be seated there than in the hall of representatives.” Judge Henry Lamm, Republican candidate for governor in the forthcoming November election, spoke. Local journalists described the scene: “The spacious theatre was crowded to overflowing and people stood in the lobby trying to get a look at the candidate and hear his speech.”

Later in that important election year, African American Republicans also held a rally at the Dunklin; this event was called “one of the biggest rallies in the history of the city.”

In November 1916, local papers announced that the Dunklin had come under control of the International Theatre Company of Chicago, with David Miller and Edward Mann, both of Chicago, as managers. A grand reopening was set for Saturday, December 2, 1916, with the five-reel silent film Prince of Graustark and vaudeville entertainment. Flowers were given to ladies; admission cost 10 and 15 cents.

For nearly a month, the new owners filled the Dunklin by showing films and vaudeville five nights a week, and playing Charlie Chaplin films in the afternoon for children.

Edward Mann, one of the new managers, must have been a pretty good singer, too:

Here is one of the songs Mann performed, sung by John McCormack, the fellow who made it famous:

The Dunklin was competing with three other theaters in Jefferson City, all uptown: the Jefferson, the Gem, and the Grand. When the Grand on High Street showed The Unborn, Mayor Thomas spoke out strongly against movies that are “simply lascivious and appeal to the sensuous.” “The vamp movie and sex movie must go,” he proclaimed. Already in those early years of movies, local sensibilities were being pushed to the limit. (At least in some respects.)

Apparently, the Dunklin Theatre showed no movies after Christmas 1916. Managers instead turned to hosting popular wrestling and boxing events, promoted by the newly formed Athletic Association of Jefferson City. The first was on January 19, 1917, and featured the world welterweight champion Joe Cutrer against Jefferson City’s own Bill Bemboom. The matches drew a large crowd, and, with no radio yet, the newspapers reported action, hold by hold, and blow by blow.

The Dunklin Theatre could not compete with High Street movie houses, in part because it was not on the streetcar line. In spring 1917 it closed forever as a theater, after less than two years of operation. The big building with its ornate facade became a vacant “white elephant” on the Southside’s main street.

But Southsiders were not totally deprived of movies, which were rapidly gaining in popularity. On July 13, 1920, Central Evangelical Church (now Central United Church of Christ), just a couple blocks away, began showing silent movies in the spacious auditorium of its new Sunday School building and provided orchestra music, minstrels, and vaudeville while reels were changed, just as the Dunklin Theatre had. The Apple Tree Girl opened to a large crowd and was the first of a long series of films at the church during the 1920s.

On July 14, 1920, Southsiders learned the Dunklin Theatre building would become the Jefferson Moline Tractor and Farm Implement Store.

After being a farm implement store, the structure served a variety of other purposes, including Griesedick and Budweiser beer distribution centers; restaurants (where a man was murdered!); a novelty company; the Glad Tidings Tabernacle, an Assembly of God Church; a grocery; and a photography studio. Most recently, the building housed Coleman Appliance. In 2010, Central Dairy acquired it.

Stay tuned to this blog for the continuing story of “the Dunklin”!


Much of the information for this post comes from four Jefferson City newspapers: the German-language Missouri Volksfreund, the Daily Post, the Daily Capital News, and the Democrat-Tribune. Photo of the building as a farm implement store from the collection of Don Walz.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.

No comments: