Then and Now: An interactive look at neighborhood theaters

With summer comes blockbuster movies. Film lovers stand in line, buy their tickets and concessions, and for a few hours are transported to a world where Godzilla stomps, mutant X-men time travel, and million dollar arms melt hearts.

Collective movie watching survived decades of competition from technological forces that now offer people convenient and immediate entertainment in their homes, on their computers, and on the go with their smartphones.

Ironically, movie theaters have moved further away from where people live, making it a bit less convenient to get there.

It was not always that way. There was a time when all someone had to do was walk down the street to the one or two screen movie theater in their neighborhood. Sure, the film selection was limited, but there was likely more than one place within walking distance showing films.

"(Theaters) hardly ever advertised," said Bob Webster, a historian with the Kenton County Historical Society. "Everyone just knew where they were."

Webster compiled a book of movie theaters throughout Northern Kentucky. "The Balcony is Closed" is a directory of single and double screen movie theaters pushed out of business by suburban expansion that began in full in the 1950s.

"The old time neighborhood theaters were so ornately decorated," Webster adds. "It was really something else to go visit these places, not the warehouse places we have now.

As cataloged on a national movie theater registry, CinemaTreasures.org, the Tri-State has seen over 200 theater houses since the advent of moving pictures.

Below are some of those theaters, Then and Now:

ESQUIRE THEATRE 1940S

Opened as the Clifton Opera House in 1911, the single screen theater offered silent films and live stage events for the first part of its life. Surviving the Great Depression that closed many neighborhood cinemas, the house was re-named the Esquire. By the 1950s, the Esquire was a regionally known art film house.

In the early 1980s, the theater’s longtime owner handed over the business to his sons. The place showed a mix of second run and newer films but could not compete in the day's economic climate. In 1983, the theater closed and sold. A group announced the Esquire, which sat empty, would be converted into a Wendy’s fast food restaurant.

A group of dedicated Clifton neighbors fought the development for nearly years, and eventually won. Some of them took ownership of the Esquire and reopened it in 1990.

Since then the Esquire added 5 screens and two other theaters to its operating group, drawing regular crowds to Ludlow Avenue.

RELATED: Saving the heart of a community, all over again
 

ROYAL THEATER 1939

In 1979, the Royal Theater was demolished to make way for a parking lot. The longest operating downtown theater located at 7th and Vine, next to where Jean-Robert’s Table now operates, opened as a single screen movie house in 1910.

Its exterior was typical of many movie houses of the time, when the places doubled as a live entertainment venues that reflected a sort of amusement park midway garishness.

Not everyone appreciated the architectural flourishes. A reviewer in Movie Picture World in 1911 wrote “While in the Queen City, my attention was called once more to a moving picture theater, ‘The Royal,’ a very expensive proposition entirely out of proportion and of rather poor taste.”

The films shown at The Royal during the last 15 years of its life were as scandalous as the 1911 reviewer's opinion of the facade. The Royal was screening soft core porn the day it closed.
 

LIBERTY THEATER NORTHSIDE

The Liberty Theater on Spring Grove Avenue in Cincinnati’s Northside community opened in 1901. As seen in the undated black and white photo, the Liberty is a survivor, beating both time and tide.

Though it closed as a movie house in 1929, according to Joe Vogel with CinemaTreasures.org, the building that housed its single screen still operates as a viable business today.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Liberty maintains much of its unique façade, minus the red, white, and blue light bulbs that lined its triangle top that reflect the midway and carnival feel from the time it was built.


DELBEE THEATER 1920s

Located in the Latonia neighborhood of Covington, the Delbee Motion Picture Theater had the unique history of beginning its life as a church before being converted into a movie theater. The original Delbee burned down in 1924 and was rebuilt and opened as the Derby Theater.

The theater operated near the corner of Decoursey Pike and 40th Street until sometime in the 1940s. The second theater structure still stands and operates as a garage today.

The Delbee and Derby’s histories are typical for many of the movie houses that still stand in Greater Cincinnati, constantly being reinvented and reused years after their heydays.
 

MADISON THEATER 1940s

The Madison Theater has entertained many in Covington during its long life. It also had many names and faces.

It opened in September of 1912 as the Kozy, when owners boasted a 960 seat live entertainment venue with “quite a number of fans and these will be a welcome aid in keeping patrons cool during hot weather,” according to a Kentucky Post article mentioned in “The Balcony is Closed."

A week later the Kozy was renamed the Lyric before becoming the Wilson in 1928 when ownership changed. It actually wasn’t until 1942, when the theater was sold again and a $30,000 renovation was poured into the facility, that the Madison received its current name and showed its first film. From then until 1977 when it closed, the Madison was a neighborhood cinema staple.

It would take almost three decades before the theater would reopen its doors and return to its roots in 2001 as a live entertainment venue and banquet facility.
 

COVINGTON'S LIBERTY THEATER

The Madison Theater though was not the only cinema to draw a crowd on Madison Avenue. Another outshone the Madison for a good part of the 20th Century.

The Liberty Theater opened near 6th Street in 1923 with 1,500 blue leather seats at a cost of $300,000 to build at the time. An Italian marble lobby, miniature Statue of Liberty, mahogany sales ticket booths, along with a grand marble and brass staircase greeted visitors up until the 1970s.

According to Webster's “The Balcony is Closed,” the Liberty offered extravagant giveaways, including a home in Edgewood, Ky. during its life. He also attributes families moving to the suburbs and building of megaplex theaters as reasons for the Liberty’s death.

The theater was torn down to make room for an expansion of People’s-Liberty Bank that is today a branch of US Bank.
 

MARIANNE THEATER

Opened on April 25, 1942, the Marianne Theater endured the modern era of cinema longer than any other local movie house in Northern Kentucky.

Through multiple changes in ownership it remained opened on Fairfield Avenue through the 1980s, according to Whitaker. In 1989, the Kentucky Post declared the Marianne “was the last remaining neighborhood theater in Northern Kentucky.”

A small fire in the theater’s lobby closed it on May 3, 1992. Since that time there have been multiple talks to reopen the theater, and exterior remained unchanged from decades past.

In recent months the city of Bellevue has moved forward with plans to purchase the theater so it might one day reopen.
 

WOODWARD THEATER

What is old may one day be new.

The Woodward Theater was built on Main Street in Over-The-Rhine in 1913 and only enjoyed a life as a live venue theater and silent film cinema for 20 years, until it closed in 1933.

Since that time, the structure survived as an antique store, grocery store, and other assorted businesses serving its community.

With the revitalization of the OTR neighborhood, Dan McCabe and Chris Schadler, who own and operate the nearby MOTR Pub, bought the Woodward in 2013 and are returning it to its roots as a live music venue.

Though no opening date has been set, McCabe has expressed hopes that the theater would be open by the end of 2014 to serve as an entertainment destination for its community once again.
 

Print this article Back to Top

Comments

or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.