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June 29, 1999

The Roxy and the Annex were the two principal movie theatres in Perry for most of the 1930s and 1940s. Others came from time to time but soon left. Some were, so temporary they were in canvas tents with rude and uncomfortable seats, like the "Perry Airdome" which opened for business on a Saturday night in May 1939. The operators were transients who lived like Gypsies, traveling from town to town with their projectors and other equipment. The Airdome was heralded enthusiastically in a Perry Daily Journal news story as "a new open-air theater that will show the latest Paramount, Fox and Metro sound moving pictures in an arena being constructed just one-half block north of the post office building. Admission will be five cents."

To assist you in fixing that location, it was the space now occupied by the Dollar General Store's parking lot. Calling it an "arena" surely was a euphemism. Obviously, the Airdome was never intended to become a permanent fixture. It was simply a canvas cover with roll-down side curtains sheltering wooden folding chairs and a few planks on cement blocks, with no back rests. It sat upon a weedy lot laced with gravel, bits of glass and an uneven terrain that was perilous for movie-goers stumbling in the dark as they groped for a seat. The principal virtue was the open-air ambience that provided a modicum of relief from the Oklahoma summer heat.

Far from showing "latest offerings" from major studios, the Airdome featured ancient movies of doubtful lineage from obscure studios with actors most of us had never heard of. Once in a while Bebe Daniels or Ben Lyon, two major stars from the late 1920s, would turn up in the twilight of their careers, or perhaps you'd catch a glimpse of a young Chester Morris or Victor Jory just getting started in the business, but for the most part the performers were actors who ultimately failed to make the grade. The Airdome had a seating capacity of perhaps 200, and to the best of my recollection that was more than sufficient for each of the nightly performances.

I remember the outdoor theatre well because our family's City Drug Store had a back entrance only a few feet from the Airdome ticket booth. The people who ran the theatre came to our store for Cokes and ice cream through that door. They let us see the movies without charge as a courtesy, so, as a young movie addict, I was in and out of there many times that summer. The Airdome barely lasted one season. Safeway eventually built a store there and the theatre's lot was part of the real estate transaction. Just down the street, a half block south, was a two-story building which once housed the Bank of Commerce, then later a series of offices, and finally Gordon Clark's Oklahoma Tire & Supply (OTASCO) store until fire gutted it in the 1970s. The Albright Title & Trust building now has that corner.

The Airdome's offerings were of ancient distillation, but it came along years before the drive-ins and it was popular that one summer for the same reason drive-ins later succeeded -- open air movies in the summertime. The five-cent admission price also was attractive, but when the season was over the owners folded their arena and left town. Other remembrances of old Perry movie theatres will follow shortly.