“Everything Old is New Again…”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

In a previous blog in which I talked about bygone entertainment palaces in Evansville, I promised another article on “old-timey” theatres that were still in use; this blog makes good on that promise.

The oldest venue is the one at the corner of Columbia and Fulton Avenues.  It was built in 1910 and called the Columbia Theater.  It started out as a vaudeville theatre and movies and later only showed movies.  Here’s what the building looked like in 1937 and after the flood in 1938.

Columbia Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0505.

Columbia Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0505.

Columbia Theater, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2SHhzoL

Original Columbia Theater, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2SHhzoL

In 1939, the building was completely rebuilt in a far more modern style and called the New Columbia Theater.

Remodeled Columbia Theater, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2Qvkwa8

Remodeled Columbia Theater, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2Qvkwa8

civic theatre

Civic Theatre, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2ABs6ux

In 1974, this building became the home of a community theatre group, Evansville Civic Theatre, and that name is now on the marquee.  Both the exterior (a new marquee was added) and interior were refurbished in the 1990’s. It originally seated over 500, but now that number is 222. An interesting thing about the Civic Theatre organization: “In 1925, Miss Frances Golden (the youngest member of the famous Golden Family Vaudeville troupe from New Harmony) brought Evansville’s first Community Theatre to our great city. Known originally as The Peoples Players and the Community Players, Miss Golden brought her vaudeville experience to Southern Indiana, ultimately founding what is now one of the oldest arts organizations in the state of Indiana. As Artistic Director for 17 years, Miss Golden gave to Evansville Civic Theatre a stability and sense of purpose that has shaped the character of community theatre in Evansville for 90 years.”

The next oldest (and what will be the newest) theatre is the Alhambra Theatre, built in 1913 at the corner of Parrett Street and Adams Avenue. Originally called the Alhambra Theatorium, it was built in a lavish Moorish Revival style.  This Haynie’s Corner neighborhood theatre was the first in town to boast of sound and air conditioning.

Alhambra Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0782.

Alhambra Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0782.

Close-up of SE Second Street and Adams Avenue in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0730.

Close-up of SE Second Street and Adams Avenue in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Flood of 1937 collection, MSS 272-0730.

As you can see above, the theatre clearly sustained damage during the 1937 flood, but it was repaired and remained in operation until 1956.  There have been several different attempts over the years to renovate/revitalize it, with varying degrees of success.  The exterior has been restored but the interior is still very sparse.  It came under new ownership in December 2017 with renewed hopes of once again being a viable venue.

Alhambra Theatre, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2FfnxtJ

Alhambra Theatre, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2FfnxtJ

The final “grande dame” brought back to life is the Victory Theatre at 6th and Main Streets. “Movie going during the 1920s was one of America’s favorite past times. Major metropolitan areas, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were homes to the largest concentrations of grand scale movie theaters. However, even small towns, such as Evansville could generally boast two to three upscale movie palaces. Main Street or the town square were the typical locations for such venues. Whereas the palaces of Europe were home to great kings and queens of royalty, the movie palace was the “palace of the people.” The Victory Theater of downtown Evansville, Indiana is an excellent example of the 1920s movie palace. Located on the corner of Sixth and Main Streets this building is six stories in height, faces 149 feet on Main St., 144 feet on Sixth St., and stretches all the way to the alley between Main and Sycamore Streets. The architect was John Pridmore. Construction began in September of 1920. The grand opening of the theater was held the weekend of July 15 and 16, 1921. The theater was built in commemoration of World War I (1914-1918) and is decorated throughout with patriotic motifs, such as the eagle, a Roman symbol which represents victory. The exterior of the building is very basic and in keeping with the contemporary architectural movement of the 1920s. The only notable element of the exterior is the eagle that topped the marquis, which was filled with cascading and flashing lights.

Victory Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1916. Source: Regional Postcards collection, RH 033-477.

Victory Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1916. Source: Regional Postcards collection, RH 033-477.

The interior of the building is far more extravagant than the exterior. Whereas the exterior is not that eye-catching, the interior has an opulence similar to that of a restrained Baroque style. The auditorium is 108 feet long by 91 feet wide and comfortably seats 2,500 people. The stage is 68 feet wide and 82 feet deep. It is notably one of the largest in the Midwest. The architect, Pridmore, had recently traveled throughout Europe. He based the interior, including color schemes, on the playhouses in Southern Italy. The main color scheme he used was blue and gold and it was continued throughout the decorative elements of the theater. The lofty ceiling was gold, with huge blue and gold oriental bowls, which produced subdued lighting effects. The colors were continued down the side walls toward the stage in painted tapestries. From the side walls, the color scheme again moves closer to the focal point (the stage) in gigantic gold-leafed columns which frame the stage.  The columns on either side of the stage display elements of the Greeks orders, Ionic and Corinthian. They each have four Ionic scrolls and acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order. Combining elements from different orders makes these columns composite. Atop each column, on the center cap, rests the Roman motif of an eagle. The most notable element of the theater is the proscenium arch, which frames the stage. Draping from the arch is a rich blue velvet curtain, which creates a high contrast with the gold-leaf on the arch. The decorative detailed elements of the arch include various fruits and vegetables. The function of the proscenium arch is not only decorative, but also key to the structural integrity of the building. Weighing approximately 45 tons, it acts as a girder supporting the portion of the building’s roof directly above the stage. Two golden grills are used to disguise the organ pipes, on either side of the proscenium arch. The $10,000 organ sits stage-right (audience left). During the playing of the organ music the grills were used in combination to produce strange lighting effects of different colors. All of these lavish and extravagant structural and decorative elements of the Victory Theater made movie going a favorite activity among the residents of Evansville. Movie goers could enjoy an afternoon or evening of entertainment and fantasy. In the late 1990’s, the city of Evansville planned to restore the theater to its original glory. They succeeded in 1999. In its restoration, the Victory’s stage was widened, the organ was removed, its balconies raised, and the color scheme of blue and gold was changed to predominantly teal, maroon and gold.”

According to the website of the company that manages it, “In the 1920’s The Victory featured a daily program of four vaudeville acts, a movie, a comedy routine, organ music and a ten-piece orchestra. In 1928, the Victory featured Evansville’s first “talking picture” movie. The theater was restored to its former glory and reopened in 1998 after a $15 million renovation.” Today this building is the home of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra.  It also hosts a variety of other types of performances.

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I love seeing old buildings come back to life, don’t you?

Resources Consulted:

Cinema Treasures: Evansville Civic Theatre

Evansville Civic Theatre website

Historic Evansville website

Lutgring, Trista.  “Turning the Corner:  New owners look to the future of the Alhambra Theatre and Haynie’s Corner.”  Evansville Business, February/March 2018.

MSS 272: Great Flood of 1937 Collection

RH 033: Evansville Post Cards

VenuWorks: Victory Theatre

This entry was posted in Art, Evansville, Indiana, Local history, Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

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