Jim McKee: The theaters of Scottsbluff
MEMORIES & MOMENTS

Jim McKee: The theaters of Scottsbluff

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Above is a recent photo of Marquis’ Opera House in downtown Scottsbluff at 16th and Broadway. Just as it did on completion in 1910, the building again has the first floor dedicated to non-opera house activities.

The city of Scottsbluff was not even a decade old, the Burlington Railroad having arrived in the spring of 1900, and the village created that July, when, in 1907, three major building projects were begun -- The McCreary Business Block, Marquis Opera House and the Shumway house/Mid-west Hospital.

Scottsbluff, only a few miles north of the county seat of Gering, was about to bloom and one of the major signs of a village becoming a city was the establishment of an opera house, giving traveling entertainment of every description a venue.

Lewis Marquis arrived from Canada in what would become Scottsbluff in 1889 and began establishing lumberyards and brickmaking factories. In 1907 an industry publication, “The Moving Picture World,” announced that Marquis was beginning construction of a theater at Main and Wapta streets, though there was no mention of its ever considering the new concept of motion pictures as the title of the magazine hinted.

Completed in 1909-10, the Opera House Block on the northeast corner of 16th and Broadway included not only the Marquis Opera House but retail shops on the main floor and actors' hotel rooms. The Victorian designed building read as a three-story structure but in fact was only two-stories tall with the high-ceilinged, over 600-seat, raked-floor auditorium on the top story.

The theater was built by C. R. Inman Construction Company at a cost estimated at both $12,000 and $20,000. Entrance to the theater itself was through a central door at the street level with a staircase ascending to the lobby with a freight elevator serving from the basement to the stage level for moving scenery.

It is unknown if the actor’s hotel portion ever actually operated as such, but Marquis and his family lived in an apartment in the building, perhaps part of the intended hotel.

Unfortunately, the opera house itself did not prove an economic boon, partially because it was built for traveling entertainment at almost the exact time that such productions and vaudeville were being replaced by motion pictures.

In February of 1915 the opera house closed. The exterior was partially stuccoed over and the upper, auditorium level, was reconstructed into two levels so that then there were actually three floors as the building originally appeared.

In 1936 Wade Flynn purchased the building, which was renamed the Flynn Building, with the ground floor still providing retail shop space while the upper two floors were dedicated to offices.

The third floor was apparently never totally successful as office space and in the late 1970s the building was again renovated as the Tallmon Building with the upper two floors then converted to apartments. In 1985 the old opera house building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

William Ostenberg settled in Scottsbluff in 1919 and the following year established the Midwest Amusement & Realty Company, which began building theaters in the area. In December of 1920 the firm bought lots a block from the Marquis Opera House for $10,000 and seven years later completed construction of the Egyptian Theatre at 1707 Broadway.

The Art Deco, 1,016-seat theater featured an orchestra pit with an organ which reputedly had the “volume of a 160-piece symphonic orchestra” and had a pool hall and bowling alley in the basement.

A fire in 1945 closed the Egyptian Theatre but Colorado architect Charles Strong drew plans for a new brick, 140-by-50 floor, three-story, Modernistic designed building with the auditorium floor raked with permanent seating and balcony on the old Egyptian Theatre site.

The exterior had a 68 foot tower with 132 aluminum stars which, with neon lighting, could purportedly be seen for 20 miles. The new Midwest Theatre opened May 3, 1946, less than a year after the fire.

The Midwest Theatre closed in 1996 and was donated to the Oregon Trail Community Foundation as a performing arts center and, in 1997, joined the old Marquis Opera House on the National Register of Historic Places and succeeds today with a staff primarily consisting of volunteers.

Other theaters in Scottsbluff have come and gone over the years like the Oto Theatre which was converted from a ballroom in 1939 and closed in 1957 but the city is fortunate to have two listed theaters on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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