Cinematic Whiting

by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko May 2019

Though it may be hard to believe, over the years there have been four other movie houses, besides the beloved Hoosier, plus an Opera House (an article all unto itself!) here in our little city.

John Tobias once shared a letter with me that he had received years earlier from a former Whiting resident, Edward Brandman.  Brandman related his knowledge of the history of cinema in our town, and I found his first hand experiences and knowledge quite interesting. 

Whiting originally had two “nickel” theatres.

Built in 1909 there was the Royal which would later become the Star Theatre in 1917.  It was under the management of  F. M. Welch.  Now rumor had it that when they changed it to the Star, there was a huge scandal. The city had built new wooden sidewalks in front of the movie house that were elevated above the street just enough so one could crawl underneath. It is said that a pervert was found hiding underneath looking up women’s dresses as they arrived at the show.  The gentleman who told me this story heard it from his grandmother and said he doesn’t remember the name of the man who did it but that it was a familiar Whiting name!

The Star was located at what is now 1442-119th Street and was a veritable nickelodeon in the earlier days of the flickers.  By 1929, the building had become the home of the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. grocery store and after that, the Elite Bakery.   Vic Orr later bought it and it became Orr's Radio Shop, which expanded to Orr's Radio, TV, and Appliances. Today we know the building as the Sandrick Financial Group. Owner Jim Sandrick has discovered relics of his building's past living in the crawl space underneath the building.

According to Brandman the Star Theatre was a rather miserable place with walls covered with spit marks and “excoriating graffiti.”  The establishment was owned by a Mr. Obresk and was considered nickel and dime fare.  Once in a while he would offer a “free show” where the house would be packed with two or three kids to a seat.  Milton Zeitlin provided the mood music on a piano that had seen better days.  Brandman said he remembers watching films there featuring Francis X. Bushman, Dorothy Gish, Bebe Daniels, Tom Mix, Fatty Arbuckle and Snob Pollard, among many others.

Serials were also on the bill at the Star.  Brandman puts the dates of operation for the Star from 1917 into the early 1920s.

Built two years after the Royal Theatre was the Palace, which was located next to Spuriers’ Hardware Store, 1510 119th Street.  Brandman’s older brother attended movies there in1911.  The Palace featured nickelodeon type movies and vaudeville acts. M.D. Bayles established this theatre and according to a Whiting newspaper of the day, it was “our most popular place for an evening’s amusement.”   Ed Grady and a Miss Ingraham had a piano and singing act that played there as well (remember, these were all silent films). 

Princess Theatre

A newspaper writer wrote, “Now the Palace ran better features and had much better seats.  The Palace 5 cent theatre on 119th street continues to show to large audiences and the pictures are of the strictly moral type.”

Approximately at the same time, the new Princess Theater appeared next to Seifer’s  Furniture in the same building as Louis Neches’s store, approximately where Keter Consulting is on 119th Street today.  Next to it was a hotel.

Fearing that his Star was doomed, Obresk, the owner, next built the Capitol Theater around 1922.  Beggar’s Pizza (Sherman’s) is the site of the old Capitol.   A great deal of the original theater stage and side walls still exist!  The Capitol also had vaudeville acts but Brandman said the movies were always third rate compared to the Princess and that their vaudeville acts were “cheesy.”  Many baby boomers remember the Capitol as the “cowboy theatre” for their Saturday western movies.

Around 1924 construction of the Hoosier Theatre building began.  (See the Hoosier Theatre article here on the website.)  The Hoosier had a splendid pipe organ to accompany its movies.  Mrs. Bennett was the owner and a Mr. John Evan was the manager.  Brandman said he remembered Mrs. Bennett fondly.  “She was stern and ruled with an iron hand,” he said.  “Especially when she caught Mike Harangody and myself trying to sneak in.”

Capitol Theatre

“Seven Keys to Baldpate” with Johnny Hines was one of the earliest pictures Brandman recalled seeing at the Hoosier which had also played the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.”  The Hoosier made a considerable impact on Whiting and was well attended.

The Hoosier featured five acts of vaudeville, a fair sprinkling of the Keith Orpheum Circuit, along with Talent Night where an individual could win five bucks if his applause was the loudest.  It is also said that Charles Laughton, the original Amos and Andy and W.C. Fields walked the boards of the Hoosier stage.  Later during the war years, James Cagney would sell war bonds out in front of the theatre. 

Capitol Theatre Candy Counter

Also in 1923, the Community Center was being erected with its own beautiful proscenium auditorium, great for movies but built for live theatre.  The Standard Oil company houses on Short Street (now called Temple Court) in the vicinity of Ciesar’s Garage were removed to make room for the center. Brandman said he also remembered a horse fountain was located at Clark and Fischrupp, which was also destroyed to make room for the building of the Center.  In its 800 seat auditorium, weekend movies were shown for five cents a seat.

Now the Whiting Call editor had his own mixed ideas about these new forms of entertainment.

“Whether or not these five cent ‘theatres’ are a good thing is a question  for the management. They may be, but what about our young people, gathering night after night on the street at the entrance, unrestrained, thoughtless - their minds filled with anticipations of cheap entertainment wherein they forget all that is practical, helpful or useful, is it good training for them?” he wrote.

He went on to admit that to see a good show occasionally is acceptable, but that too much entertainment  creates dissatisfaction and distaste for real, actual, everyday life and its important problems.

He finished his editorial by adding his final two-cents when he writes about nickelodeons.    

“Five-cent literature and five-cent theaters may be cheap and easy to grasp but they are apt to make five cent brains and lead to five cent cigars and five cent whisky, a criminal career and a pauper's grave.”