The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters

The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters

by Howard Caldwell


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Opening a window on a storied past, longtime Indianapolis television journalist and lifelong theatergoer Howard Caldwell presents the story of the magnificent theaters of Indianapolis. Caldwell shares with us the pleasure these majestic spaces brought to thousands of Hoosiers during their glory days—when an outing to the theater was a special event and film was still a marvel of technology. He discusses the roles played by the greatest stars of the day and relates the origins of Indy's famous theaters: the Murat, the Circle, the Indiana, the English, and the Lyric, to name a few. Caldwell points out which theaters featured burlesque shows and vaudeville routines, explores the traditions of regional and national theater productions, notes when the first motion pictures and talkies came to town, and highlights old time musical reviews and symphonic performances. Vividly illustrated with rare photos and anecdotes, The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters celebrates the city's rich theater tradition.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253354600
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/07/2010
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Howard Caldwell is a retired newscaster for WRTV-6 in Indianapolis and author of Tony Hinkle: Coach for All Seasons (IUP, 1991).

Read an Excerpt

The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters

By Howard Caldwell

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Howard Caldwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35460-0


Birth of a Theater Buff

It all started on one of those partly cloudy, chilly January mornings in Indianapolis. The sun was making an effort to better the situation with little success. But to an eight-year-old boy, it was an inspirational day, free of rules imposed by a teacher in an elementary classroom. It was a Saturday in 1934.

As I arose from bed to meet the youthful challenges of the day, I heard Grandmother Caldwell rustling about, preparing for a trip downtown. She loved to shop at her favorite stores, L. S. Ayres and the William H. Block Co., although she rarely made any purchases. She had spent earlier years selling women's hats, and I always suspected that even more than shopping she enjoyed visiting with store clerks, comparing careers.

Seated at what I considered an ancient wooden two-leaf table where breakfast was served at my home, Grandmother suddenly turned to Mother and said, "Maybe Howard would like to accompany me on this trip." I was only mildly interested until she uttered the magic words: "Maybe he and I could find a show we'd like to see."

I knew it was going to happen when Mother didn't protest. I immediately found the morning newspaper and that special page with the theater advertisements. The one that jumped out at me was the Loew's Palace ad declaring that "the high-hatted tragedian of song, Ted Lewis and his Musical Klowns," were appearing onstage. That was my choice.

Grandmother wasn't so sure about my preference. She was leaning toward an all-film program at the Indiana. It was Easy to Love with Mary Astor, Adolphe Menjou, and Edward Everett Horton. I persisted, and she surrendered eventually. I had an advantage. I was her only grandson.

Our home on Bosart Avenue was only a half block north of East Washington Street, where streetcars were passing by every few minutes. For a fare of 7i we could travel downtown in a matter of fifteen minutes. I tolerated the shopping part of the trip by clinging to Grandmother's promise that we would head to the theater (first block on North Pennsylvania Street) by 10:45 am when the theater box office opened. She was true to her word.

We located ourselves in the lower balcony. We admired the plain yet severe-looking curtain that concealed the stage. It had the word Asbestos in large letters across its middle. Grandmother explained its importance. It was fireproof and would protect us if flames suddenly broke out backstage. That had happened to theaters in earlier years, before electricity was used and when lighting was primitive.

This pre-show time also included orchestral music that Grandmother called canned music. She explained that it had been recorded and that only a few years previously such music would have been provided by an orchestra in the Loew's pit. Suddenly the asbestos curtain disappeared, revealing a glittery blue curtain that would eventually part and reveal a movie screen. The lights lowered, and the film program began.

The Loew's feature was Sons of the Desert with comics Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. I thought it was hilarious. The uncomplicated plot involves two neighbors who convince their wives with the help of a phony doctor that one of them is ill and needs a week in Hawaii. The "doctor," of course, advises that it would be best if both made the trip.

Once free to travel, the husbands (Laurel and Hardy) head to Chicago for a convention of their lodge (Sons of the Desert) previously vetoed by the wives. The naïve spouses learn the truth when they attend a neighborhood movie theater and see their husbands waving and smiling in a convention parade during a newsreel. The rest of the feature deals with the unsuspecting pair's unexpected homecoming provided by their angry wives.

Following some short subjects (news and previews of the next week's show), the spotlight shifted to the stage and bandleader-host Ted Lewis. He tantalized us by doing his first vocal number in front of the glittery curtain with his musicians playing out of sight behind him. Ted was singing about his old top hat (one of his trademarks). Grandmother loved it and leaned over to tell me she was pleased with our choice after all.

The curtain parted, introducing us to the orchestra as Lewis moved about the stage gracefully, doing another number, a favorite of his, "When My Baby Smiles at Me." From time to time he would call out, "Is everybody happy?" It assured him of shouts of glee and applause from the audience. Just why he called his musicians "Klowns" escapes me, but I suspect he wasn't quite sure yet that a band alone was a safe audience draw. That would come later when the band era would produce stars based on their musical talents and popularity. Each Lewis band number included little personal touches by Ted (a frown, a smile, or comic body language) to guarantee audience attention.

Grandmother and I were dazzled by it all, and we weren't alone. Indianapolis Star reviewer Richard Tucker called the show "almost too good to be true in timing and sophistication."

With one alteration, the Saturday trips downtown continued. No longer would I accompany my grandmother during the shopping part of the journey. She would get me to the first show, do her shopping, and then join me for the second round. I saw everything twice.

Although Loew's Palace was one of our regular Saturday haunts, it would rarely involve a movie accompanied by a stage show again. One exception was a week when Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Revue orchestra appeared. The mid-1950s, however, found most of the big downtown theaters turning exclusively to movie programs. For example, the Palace, as it later was known, introduced Indianapolis and the surrounding area to the very popular Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer productions.

Some of our special delights included the Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in Treasure Island, Freddie Bartholomew in David Copperfield, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Naughty Marietta, and the unforgettable Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney.

Looking back now, I suspect Mother and Grandmother had an approved list for which theaters we patronized. Besides Loew's, there were the Apollo, Indiana, and Circle. The Apollo was where we saw all the Shirley Temple adventures and the popular Will Rogers films. When the humorist-philosopher died in a plane crash in 1935, many of his films were shown again at the Apollo, drawing capacity audiences, Grandmother and myself included.

The mighty Indiana, the largest theater in the state, also was running mostly films in the mid-1930s, although it had a sophisticated stage at its disposal. This is where Grandmother and I saw the early Bing Crosby and Bob Hope films (before they teamed up for the Road series) and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epics. The Circle and Indiana took turns on which theater got what first, since both were owned by the same local corporation, known as the Circle Theater, Inc.

During the mid-1930s, our grandmother-grandson team never went near the Lyric, even though it had stage shows most weeks. I only guess now that some of the vaudeville acts and revues featuring scantily clad females (shown in newspaper advertisements) weren't considered advisable entertainment for children. The Colonial (later the Fox), of course, was way out of bounds. It was the city's longtime burlesque house, located on North Illinois Street just across from the YMCA (more about all these theaters later).

Another theater I never considered visiting was the Capitol at 148 W. Washington Street. It became a burlesk (its spelling) house in its declining years. By the 1930s it would become a second-run, low-price movie house. During its long history it had several names, but old-timers would remember it as the Park. Historians knew it as the city's first theater structure when it opened as the Metropolitan.


Theater One and What Happened Before

It was opening night. Not just any opening night. This was the moment when Indianapolis's first theater, the Metropolitan, would open its doors to an audience. The date was September 27, 1858.

This was no small enterprise. The orchestra seating (also known as a theater's first floor) could accommodate 827 customers, the balcony another 900. The Indianapolis Morning Journal offered these words after touring the premises:

No expense has been spared to render the Metropolitan the most elegant theater in the west. The auditorium, proscenium, and private boxes have been furnished in the most elaborate style of art. ... The ventilation and view from all parts of the house is believed to be perfect.

The most expensive seats were the private boxes ($5), but all the others ranged from 25$ to 50$. Just how many of these seats were occupied that first night was not mentioned in stories that appeared in both the Journal and the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel.

At 7:30 pm the stage curtain was raised, and the theater's musicians played "The Star-Spangled Banner." E. T. Sherlock, the manager, who had leased the facility, introduced the actors and actresses, all members of the new theater's stock company. They were a sizable group of twenty-three with their leading member, H. M. Gossin, identified in advertisements as a "talented young tragedian."

That September evening the company presented a drama titled Love's Sacrifice, along with what was promoted as a "laughable farce," My Neighbor's Wife. The following evening the company was joined by the Keller troupe of sixty, who were known as "living picture artists." Picturesque tableaux offered by such groups were quite popular in the early years of theater. They also sometimes provided scenes that bred controversy.

Tuesday morning, just hours before the Keller troupe was to appear on the Metropolitan's brand-new stage, an item criticizing its recent performance in Cincinnati appeared in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the Journal. A reader had provided the newspaper with a theater review by the Cincinnati Gazette of a performance there the previous Saturday night. The reviewer had denounced the troupe for attempting a representation of God in one of its tableaux, which it described as "impious and blasphemous."

The Keller troupe appeared Tuesday anyway, but did not present the tableau in question. Actually, the controversy provided the theater with some added publicity. More customers showed up on Tuesday than were there for the opening. The following morning, the Journal contained more information from the Cincinnati newspaper, but this time it was backing down and had accepted the troupe's argument that it was depicting Adam, not God. The troupe came out ahead, and so did the new theater.

During the next few weeks, the stock company offered audiences an array of dramas and farces, changing selections almost nightly. In October, newspaper advertisements promoted a weeklong appearance of Miss Sallie St. Clair, a well-known actress of the time. She played leading roles in a different play each night. Performances were offered Monday through Saturday. A city ordinance prevented any shows on Sunday.

There was one other little blip in the early weeks of the theater's offerings. On October 25, J. H. Hackett came to the theater for a two-day engagement. His impact was not what the Metropolitan expected. He was promoted as a "celebrated comedian, engaged at great expense." He appeared as Falstaff in Henry IV. The trouble came over a farce he also starred in that night that shocked the Journal. The paper called it "immoral, obscene, disgusting." The article also took aim at Sherlock: "A theater will always exist in Indianapolis. It has languished because the gross, and not the refined taste, was catered to by our dramatic managers."

In his two-volume history, Greater Indianapolis, Jacob Piatt Dunn reminds us that there were strong elements of morality in the new growing city at this time. For example, in the early nineteenth century, dancing was not tolerated by Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists. Writes Dunn, "If nothing worse, it [dancing] was frivolous and consequently young people of religious families did not dance or go to dancing parties." One might add that, since the theater frequently featured dancers, it was not a popular attraction for many citizens.

There were other moral issues. Performers in the theater were looked down upon by many as unstable and unreliable. At the time the Metropolitan opened, W. R. Holloway made this observation in his 1870 book, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City:

Although Indianapolis holds a high place in the estimation of showmen and is invariably marked for every traveling exhibition, from an operatic star to a double-headed baby, a considerable portion of its respectable patronage has been directed by a peculiarity of taste, compounded by Puritan traditions and partly of backwoods culture, which even to this day, makes certain classes of entertainments unclean.

Ironically, after a brief cooling-off period, the once critical Journal did a turnaround and began bragging about the stage efforts at the Metropolitan. In December, when the theater provided a professional production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Journal described Mary McVicker's portrayal of Eva as the best in the country.

In January 1859, the Metropolitan introduced opera to Indianapolis. Cooper's English Opera troupe presented a different production each night during a four-day visit. The Journal was ecstatic and even editorialized about this historic event, crediting Sherlock with "endeavoring to cater to refined and cultivated tastes."

Unfortunately for Sherlock, a more favorable press did not mean all was well. His efforts were not producing enough dollars. There also was evidence that citizen hostility continued to be a problem. When the theater's manager offered to present a benefit for the local widows and orphans' society, it was refused on moral grounds, convincing owner Valentine Butsch that some changes were needed. He replaced Sherlock and dismissed the stock company, a move that provided more flexibility in booking attractions. Butsch also made the building available to political conventions and other organizations. He even dropped the word theater from his facility's title and renamed it Metropolitan Hall.

Butsch's decision to stay with his theater still made sense. Ever since the state legislature created Indianapolis in 1821 by deciding it should be the state's capital (it officially became that in 1825), it had experienced rapid growth. It grew from two or three families in 1820 to more than 18,000 by the time the Metropolitan opened. The population increased considerably during the next twenty years to 70,000 in 1880.

Darrell Gooch (my speech and theater instructor at Howe High School in the early 1940s) did his master of arts thesis on the nineteenth-century theater era of Indianapolis. He noted the significance of two developments taking place early in the century: the appearance of National Road and railroad tracks. In 1830, the road reached Indianapolis from the east from as far away as Baltimore. Later it would extend west to St. Louis. It was not easy traveling at first. Many tree stumps and poor drainage contributed to that, but eventually it got better. An even more significant creation for traveling performers was train travel.

Railroad service in and out of Indianapolis was born in 1847 with the completion of tracks from Madison, Indiana. Gooch noted that by 1880, "twelve radiating railroads were constructed connecting the city with Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Louisville, Columbus, and New York." His point, of course, was that it greatly enhanced the opportunity to book traveling actors and production crews.


Excerpted from The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters by Howard Caldwell. Copyright © 2010 Howard Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Birth of a Theater Buff
2. Theater One and What Happened Before
3. A War's Effect and Another Theater Is Born
4. Theater Count Briefly Jumps to Three
5. English's Opera House and Its Impact
6. The 1890s and Its Seeds of Change
7. Theater Enhancement and the Gentle Intrusion of Moving Pictures
8. English's and the Grand Lead the Growing Theater Parade
9. The Shuberts Come to Town as the Theater Competition Grows
10. City's First Movie Palace Enhances Respectability of Going to the Movies
11. The 1920s and the Birth of New Challenges
12. The Silent Film Era's Finale
13. Sound Moves in with a Vengeance
14. The 1930s and Its Challenges
15. The 1930s and Its Challenges II
16. The Rest of the 1930s Survivors
17. The 1940s, a Decade of Success and Sadness
18. The 1950s Bring Changes and New Competition
19. A Brief Look at What Happened Next


What People are Saying About This

retired theatre critic - Marion Simon Garmel

I know of no other single book that covers this material. . . . [T]he photos alone would be worth the price of the book.

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