By Melissa Dunson
Hidden in the middle of downtown Joplin is one of the most opulent movie theaters of its day.
When the Fox Theatre opened at 415 S. Main St. in 1930, a night at the movies was more than just entertainment.
“People dressed up to go to the movies,” said Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex. “The movies allowed people in Joplin to feel like they were part of the larger community in the U.S.”
Before the popular black-and-white movies started for the evening, the previews were newsreels on local outlaws Bonnie and Clyde and updates on World War II. It was information, good and bad, Belk said, before the motion pictures offered audiences the chance to forget their troubles of an economic depression and then a war.
“It was a release,” he said. “Everybody could go in there and park their troubles at the door.”
Several other movie theaters from that era still exist throughout the area today. Ongoing renovation projects at some of those have been undertaken to restore them to their former glory.
But in the 1930s, there was no place bigger or better in Joplin to go see a movie than the Fox Theatre.
It took 300 men working simultaneously and $500,000 to build the Fox in seven months, said Joplin Mayor Gary Shaw.
At one time, the theater had 35 employees and a full orchestra employed. It even boasted the largest neon sign in Missouri for a short time.
“It was the premier movie theater in Joplin,” Belk said. “It was so lavish.”
Some of its most prominent design elements include blind arcades, corkscrew columns, classical orders and recessed alcoves furnished with statues. It had seating for nearly 2,000 people.
The theater shut down in the early 1970s due to increased competition from modern theaters and rising operating costs, according to the building’s 1991 application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1974, Central Assembly Church in Joplin bought the building because its congregation was growing too quickly to build a new structure. Shaw, executive administrator of what is now called Central Christian Center, said church leaders decided early on to restore the old theater instead of gutting it.
“I remember hearing someone say that these buildings like the old Fox are national treasures and that they actually belong to the community and that the owners are just caretakers,” Shaw said. “That’s always stuck with me and we’ve tried to do that.”
Central Christian uses the theater for its church services and has maintained nearly every bit of the original theater including the chairs, carpet, ticket booth and tapestries. Even the ancient air-conditioning units still cool the theater turned sanctuary.
The church still shows old movies in the theater occasionally and it has also served as the stage for graduations, weddings and some cultural events.
Colonial Fox Theatre,
Just across the Kansas border, another historic Fox Theatre is getting a facelift.
The Fox in Pittsburg was built in 1920 “along the same lines as the Isis in Kansas City,” according to old newspaper stories. It is an exaggerated two-story building in an Italian Renaissance Revival style. It underwent a massive interior renovation in 1926.
Despite being closed for more than 20 years starting in 1985, today the theater looks very much like it did when that 1926 renovation was finished. The Colonial Fox Theatre Foundation saved the Fox from demolition and bought the property in 2007.
The building was added the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. It is being renovated.
The Coleman is perhaps the best-known historic theater in the area because of its full schedule of events.
The Coleman opened in 1929 as the premier theater in Miami. It was built by George Coleman, a well-digger who discovered the lead and zinc deposits, said Barbara Smith, executive director of the theater.
It took 330 days to build the Coleman and the result was an extravagant Spanish exterior and French interior.
“It’s an unusual mixture of styles,” Smith said. “We eventually realized it was because Mr. Coleman wrote the checks and that’s what he wanted.”
As with many theaters of that era, the years began to take their toll on the Coleman.
“For a long time it was so dilapidated,” Smith said. “But even when water was running down walls, they were still showing movies. But everything has been restored now to opening-night look. It only took 20 years.”
The theater has been completely restored, including the 2,000-pound chandelier and the original Wurlitzer organ. The silks in the theater have all be restored and items like the carpet and marquees, which couldn’t be saved, have been replicated.
The Coleman now seats 1,100 people and is home to mostly live comedy, musical and theater acts, although Smith said the old theater shows several black-and-white silent movies each year accompanied by an organist playing the original movie scores.
Of the theaters that survived, few still regularly show movies. But at the Plaza Theatre in Lamar, people can still see a first-run matinee for $5 a person.
The theater was built in the 1930s in the art-deco style of the day. It served as a movie theater in Lamar until the 1980s when it shut down, but a group of residents took on the project of restoring the old theater in 1995. Five years and $500,000 later, it reopened.
Lynn Calton, Lamar city administrator, said the theater has its original 800 seats and the original draperies and murals.
The Plaza now serves as the only movie theater house in Lamar, and Calton said it was worth saving if only for the memories.
“They had these movies back then called serials — cowboy movies — and you’d watch an episode on a Saturday and watch the hero get blown up and then come back the next Saturday and find out that he narrowly escaped,” Calton said remembering his times at The Plaza. “It cost a dime to get in and it was a nickel to buy pop.”
The Princess was built in 1906 during the height of the city’s railroad and mining days, said Kim Mobley, a volunteer at the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. The theater survived the Depression, thriving when other nearby businesses, including Aurora’s only bank at the time, went bankrupt.
The theater burned to the ground in 1943. It was rebuilt during the next few years and housed movies, plays and beauty pageants in the 1950s and ’60s.
“It was also used for university extension classes,” Mobley said. “We have some photos of a workshop where women were learning how to cook on the very first gas stoves invented.”
The Princess Theatre has been largely remodeled and is showing movies again, serving as the city’s only movie theater.
The Midland is still under renovation, but Kenneth Burchinal, executive director of Midland Theatre Foundation, said when it’s done, the historic theater will be worth the wait.
The Midland opened in 1928 and was a major area attraction. It offered the latest movie technology of its time including amplified orthophonic music, a silver sheet screen, a pipe organ, electric lighting and modern heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
Some of the architectural details include crimson and gold draped fabrics, Spanish-motif tapestries, crystal chandeliers and an ornamental drinking fountain.
The city of Coffeyville bought the historic theater in 2001 and turned it over to Burchinal’s foundation to restore it. Burchinal said the group just finished gutting the inside of the building, and hopes to have the stained-glass windows repaired by this fall.
“We hope this will become a mainstay of downtown Coffeyville again,” he said of the Midland.
Want to go?
The Fox Theatre inside Central Christian Center, 415 S. Main St. in Joplin, is open for the public to tour during days the church office is open. For more information or for a tour, contact the church at (417) 781-5982.
The Colonial Fox Theatre is located at 407 N. Broadway in Pittsburg, Kan. To set up a tour, contact the foundation at (620) 235-0622.
The Coleman Theatre is located at 103 N. Main St. in Miami, Okla. Tours are available by donation from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. For more information or to schedule an event or tour, visit www.colemantheatre.org or call (918) 540-2425.
The Plaza Theatre is located at 107 W. 11th St. in Lamar. For movie show times, visit www.lamarmo.com/plaza or call (417) 682-6843.
The Princess Theatre is located at 14 W. Olive St. in Aurora. For movie show times, visit www.princess3theatre.com or call (417) 678-3441.
The Midland is located at 212 W. Eighth St. It is not open yet for tours, but for more information, visit www.midlandtheaterfoundation.org or call (620) 251-0088.
Some of the faces that have graced the silver screen were Joplin natives.
John Beal, born James Alexander Bliedung, graduated from Joplin High School in 1926. He starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in the 1934 film “The Little Minister” and also appeared in the 1935 movie “Les Miserables.” He won the first-ever Emmy award given for best actor.
Robert Cummings, born Clarence Robert Orville Cummings, graduated from Joplin High School in 1927. He was most famous for his television series “The Bob Cummings Show,” later syndicated as “Love That Bob” in the 1950s and 1960s. Cummings won an Emmy award for his performance in “Twelve Angry Men” in 1954. He appeared in more than 60 motion pictures.
Dennis Weaver graduated Joplin High School in 1943. He was a part of six successful television series including the role of Chester Goode in the 1950s-’60s Western drama “Gunsmoke.” He won an Emmy award for best supporting actor in a dramatic series for that role in 1958.
Source: “The Best of Joplin” by Brad Belk.
By Melissa Dunson
This Week's Circulars
JOPLIN, MO - Gregory Moore, 64, a machinist, passed away Monday, February 17, 2020. Services are planned for a later date. Arrangements are under the direction of Ozark Memorial Park Crematory, Joplin.
CARTHAGE, MO - Frank B. Smith, 58, a truck driver, passed away Tuesday, February 18, 2020. Services are planned for a later date. Arrangements are under the direction of Ozark Memorial Park Crematory, Joplin, MO.
COLUMBUS, KS - Ruth Hall passed away February 16, 2020 at 6:43 p.m. at Advent Health Hospitalm in Shawnee Mission, KS, after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Ruth was born on August 11, 1955 to her parents Ray and Betty McBride of Columbus. She and William "Mike" Hall were united in marriag…
LOCKWOOD, MO - Jeffrey L. Cope, 63, a retired Lockwood Post Master, passed away Monday, February 17, 2020. Services will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Lockwood United Methodist Church Family Life Center.
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