April 14, 1998
Perry has had many movie theatres through the years, although now we have none. The golden years of motion pictures must have been in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were the major form of entertainment for all ages. “Going out” to most folks meant a night at the movies. Television was just a distant possibility and far from a practical reality. Every home had at least one radio and the programs offered by NBC, CBS and the Mutual networks were innocently entertaining, but that was in the theatre of the mind, where the listener had to envision the actors’ faces, the set designs and other details. At the movies, you could sink into a comfortable chair and see all that stuff played out up there on the silver screen. Besides, as Fred Allen used to say in criticizing radios, most folks didn’t hold with furniture that talked.
A night at the movies transported you to the wonders of the world, or at least the way Hollywood perceived them. Location film making was expensive and risky because of changing light conditions. But in the studios, producers could build sets the way they thought Cleopatra’s palace, for instance, would have looked if she just had the money to do it right. So we who were young in that era grew up thinking the world was just like Hollywood told us it was. Every story had a happy ending and a cast of good-looking, well-scrubbed and healthy people to act it out. Profanity was outlawed. Bad guys never won in the end. Crime did not pay. Good invariably triumphed over evil. It may not have been a realistic preparation period for youngsters, but it clearly demonstrated the difference between right and wrong. We could use some of that today.
During the decade of the 1930s and back into the 1920s and even before that, movie houses came and went in Perry. The Roxy and the Annex theatres on the east side of the square outlasted all of them, but some of their contemporaries and their predecessors also were popular with film fans. The Grand Opera House opened on Memorial Day in 1901, built by J.B. Tate and John Pressler. The imposing two-story building in the middle of the block on the east side of the square was designed for touring road companies and vaudevillians – Buster Keaton and his family performed on the stage there – but eventually the Grand became a movie house. Still later, a portion of the building was refitted and opened as the Annex Theatre for the exclusive showing of movies. When that happened, the area that served as the Grand Theatre was converted into business offices and apartments.
In a half-page ad in The Perry Republican on February 18, 1915, the Grand announced the scheduled showing of a new serial, “Peg o’ the Ring” beginning Saturday, May 27. In the popular hyperbole of that day, the Grand called this “the greatest film on earth.” It was a thrilling film-story of circus life on 30 reels to be shown in 15 episodes. A big matinee was promised on opening day, and theatre management said admission would be extremely low – five cents for children and 10 cents for adults at any show. New, comfortable opera chairs had been installed, and beautiful orchestra music appropriate for pictures would be provided. The film starred Francis Feld and Grace Cunard. On Friday night, May 19, the stage would be occupied by a live presentation of “A Bird of Prey,” an Edwin Thanhouser presentation. This masterful drama, “in five great acts,” continued the Grand’s life as a legitimate theatre, but “Peg o’ the Ring” got most of the space in the large ad.
We’ll have more on early-day Perry movie theatres in a later installment.