The History of the Hoosier Theater

by Anthony Borgo February 2019

The Hoosier Theater was built in 1924, commissioned by Margaret Bennett at a cost of $250,000. The theater was referred to as a “movie palace” because of its lavish design and accouterments. The Hoosier Theater was constructed to be a Neoclassic design built of brick and terra-cotta. According to the application from the National Register of Historic Places, “The building is the most ornate brick and terra cotta structure in the city. The terra-cotta facade and intricate plaster work embody the European culture and craftsmanship that was brought from the Old World by immigrants who first settled the city of Whiting.” Many people in the Calumet Region hailed the Hoosier as the most beautiful and comfortable theater in Northwest Indiana. The theater’s rich colors, plaster detailing, ceiling medallions, plaster columns, proscenium arches, leaded glass windows, and chandeliers of brass and crystal far surpassed its competitors’ decor.

The Hoosier opened its doors to the public on February 15, 1924. At that time, there were three other movie theaters in Whiting: the Princess, the Star, and the Capitol. During the Hoosier’s inception, there was no television and radio was still just starting up. Whiting’s movie theaters provided entertainment for the entire community young and old alike. Admission was only ten cents when the Hoosier first opened, and film fans were able to see their movies in cool comfort. The Hoosier Theater was one of the first movie houses in the country to have air conditioning. According to the Indiana Preservationist, “It’s innovative refrigeration system (cooling the air by blowing over cold water from the plumbing) was matched by only a few other theaters in the Midwest.”

When the depression hit in 1929, the Hoosier provided a release from the harsh reality of the day to day struggle. A moviegoer could sit in the plush surroundings of a movie house and vicariously experience adventure, travel, fantasy, or romance in comfort and beauty. According to an early Hoosier advertisement, “Turn your back on worry and treat yourself to a couple of hours of rest, relaxation, and hearty laughter. It’s just what the doctor ordered to restore pep to your step, the twinkle in your eye, and give you a refreshing outlook on life.”

The Hoosier’s stage was built for live entertainment as well as movie presentations. Before the picture was shown, there was a live stage performance. This “Versatlie Review” featured singing, dancing and even some pretty girls. At one point in the Hoosier Theater’s early history, Warner Brothers used the theater as a “try out house” for many of its Vaudeville stars. For instance, Charles Laughton, star of the 1939 production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” played at the Hoosier. In addition, Charles Correll and Freeman Godson, who later became Amos and Andy paid a vist to the city of Whiting. Some people say that W.C. Fields and even the Three Stooges tried out their material on the Hoosier Theater stage before they went on to become stars.

Full length films eventually took the place of the Vaudeville acts, but over the next several decades the stage was still used for bathing beauty contests, amateur performer nights, and cooking exhibitions. Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost”, even threw miniature footballs to children from the roof of the building.

During the silent film era, local musicians provided a sound track for the motion picture. John Muri provided that service for the Hoosier Theater. Muri was an accomplished musician who really got his start at the Hoosier, always choosing the right sound track for the type of film. Muri states in a Times article, “Sometimes, the entertainment was unpredictable. I survived the escape of five bears.” In 1924, during one of the live stage performances, five bears escaped from their cages and began roaming the streets of Whiting. Muri continued, “It took every police and fireman in the city to round them all up. That really cleared the theater out fast.” The advent of “talkies” or talking pictures soon saw John Muri out of a job.

The owners of the Hoosier Theater always tried to stay on the cutting edge of technology. So in 1929, they had the theater wired for sound and the era of talking motion pictures began. A 1929 advertisement stated, “Don’t forget that the Hoosier Theater has the newest, most up to date sound reproduction possible to buy. The best talking pictures will come to the Hoosier.”

Bank nights helped the theater make it through the 1930s. The management would give such prizes as roller skates, bicycles, china or a portion of the evening’s proceeds. One day in the early ’40s, James Cagney stood outside the theater to sell war bonds. In addition, in 1954 the Hoosier purchased a seamless 40 foot wide “Panoramic” screen replacing the previous 16 foot wide screen. People reported this new screen to be one of the largest in the region.

The Hoosier was damaged by a fire caused by an aging furnace in 1963. For two years, the theater remained unused until it was purchased by Robert Montgomery and Bea Lankow of Chicago. Montgomery’s passion was pipe organs. In 1967, he went out and purchased a seventy-five ton Wurlitzer pipe organ, which he then had transported to the Whiting Theater. Robert Montgomery dreamed of holding grand organ concerts on the Hoosier stage. But in the late 1970s, he saw his dream go up in smoke when the theater once again caught on fire. Montgomery did not have the proper insurance to rebuild the damaged building, so he removed his Wurlitzer from the Hoosier.

Like Robert Montgomery, Ralph Litton had a dream of what the Hoosier could become. In 1980, Litton purchased the theater in hopes of establishing a film festival in the city of Whiting. Litton also wanted to use the stage for theatrical productions. But like Montgomery, Litton’s dreams never came to fruition. He stated that it was too expensive to keep the theater open for the few people who attended the movies. The theater, at this time, was using an antiquated projector that had poor sound production. Litton claimed that it cost him $4,000 a month to heat the building, so in the fall of 1984, he closed the theater hoping to re-open it again in the spring. That winter the Hoosier saw its third fire which again caused extensive damage to the building. The fire was contained to the stage area where props and paper caused severe smoke damage. In 1986, Litton, who could not carry the burden of the Hoosier any longer, sold the building to Tom Simstad.

Tom Simstad was a businessman who saw profit not in the theater but in its 16 efficiency apartments and store fronts that are a part of the building. Simstad invested $300,000 of his own money plus an additional $300,000 from a rental rehabilitation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing. He then told the city that if they could put up the cost to demolish the theater that he would give the land to the city to be used for parking. At this time, the Hoosier Theater Foundation was established with the sole purpose of stopping the demolition of the old movie palace. Through the efforts of this foundation, the Hoosier Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places, insuring that it would not be torn down.

For several years the Hoosier sat in disuse decaying more and more with the passing of each year until it caught the attention of John Katris. His family used to own the Vogue Theatre in East Chicago before it had to be razed. And like many of the Hoosier’s previous owners, Katris had a dream, a dream to restore the theater to its original glory. Through hard work and a lot of money, the Katris family was able to restore the theater to its former beauty. Through Katris’ efforts, the Hoosier can now take its place among the few remaining movie palaces across the country.

On Oct. 3 and 4, 1997, the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce hosted a grand opening red carpet gala. Full houses were treated to an elaborate program written by Gayle Kosalko, followed by a reception at the Whiting Community Center. Over two decades later, the Hoosier Theater still provides Hollywood blockbusters for the community to enjoy.