Three of Dallas’ Earliest “Photoplay Houses” — 1906-1913
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
I seem to be deep into an unintended “Movie Week” here, all because I’ve been researching a photo of a little-known early suburban movie theater — and that’s how I stumbled onto a great article about Dallas’ first “picture shows.” The rather clunky title of the extremely informative Dallas Morning News article (which is linked below) is: “Startling Progress of Picture Shows; One-Third of Dallas’ Population Daily Entertained; History Local Houses; Dark Storerooms and Rickety Chairs Give Way to the Modern Photo-Play Theater” (March 9, 1913).
Some of the facts in the article are a bit off, but it’s fascinating to read that the first (or certainly ONE of the first) showings of a moving picture in Dallas was at the State Fair in 1897, when a boxing promoter presented what was one of the earliest “pay for view” matches in history — he showed footage of the highly publicized Jim Corbett-Bob Fitzsimmons Heavyweight Championship fight which had taken place a few months previously — the fight was originally intended to be fought in Dallas, but it was moved to Nevada, causing, one would assume, much consternation to those involved with the staging of and promotion of the fight. Not only did the promoter make back all the money he had invested locally in the thwarted boxing match, but he made a hefty profit trundling the film around the country for curious viewers (which included a large number of women who were not generally allowed to watch boxing matches).
Later, two men set up a projector in a second-story window and began showing movies on an open-air screen across the street, at Main and Lamar. It was popular, but it was also something of a traffic hazard. Also, there were itinerant hucksters who came and went, showing motion pictures wherever they could, moving from city to city.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1906 that Dallas got its first permanent movie house when William McIlheran opened the Theatorium (a common word used around the country back then for a movie theater, but which, to virgin ears, sounds as odd as “Sportatorium” must to people who have never heard that word). It was at 311 Elm Street (which later became 1315 Elm), at about where Field is today, and it was the first movie theater on Theater Row! I love this description of what the place was like, from the DMN article mentioned above — even though the opening date is off by a year (click for larger image):
With the arrival of this permanent theater (one with an actual roof over it), the moving picture had finally became more than just a mere novelty, and the success of the Theatorium started a mad dash of entrepreneurs opening up their own theaters. Within a month of the Theatorium’s opening, at least four more such houses were open for business.
At some point the Theatorium became the Wonderland (in 1907 or 1908), and it began showing so-called “talking films” (the talking was, apparently, provided by an off-stage actor providing the spoken dialogue while trying to match the silent actors’ lips on screen).
The “Cameraphone” — DMN, Oct. 19, 1908
And finally, the Wonderland turned into the Dixie, seen at the top, in 1910, and below, in 1909.
Another photo, from 1918, shows mostly children lined up in front of the theater, with the sign in the background. (They were lined up to see a WWI-related movie at the nearby Hippodrome; the photo is looking east along the north side of Elm, near where Field now intersects.)
But it wasn’t until the beginning of 1913 that the first “palaces” arrived. The Queen Theatre opened first, at the corner of Elm and Akard. The DMN raved: “The most beautiful Photo-Play Theater in the South. Every man, woman and child in Texas should see this theater — truly a credit to the State” (DMN, Feb. 2, 1913).
Elm St. about 1917, with Queen on left — photo from CinemaTreasures.org
DMN, Oct. 20, 1912
The Queen opened to rapturous crowds in January, 1913, but moviegoers barely had time to catch their collective breath when the Hippodrome opened at 1209 Elm, just a few weeks later, on March 1, 1913. It was “…conceded to being the finest moving picture house in the United States” (DMN, March 9, 1913).
DMN, Feb. 28, 1913
By the time the Queen and Hippodrome opened, movies had become a popular and profitable form of entertainment. In 1913 Dallas had 28 “picture shows” — 24 for white patrons and 4 for black patrons. Even vaudeville houses occasionally ran short films to pad out their live shows. And, notably, movie houses had begun to pop up away from downtown: in 1913 there were a dozen “suburban” theaters in residential areas of town (many of these, though, showed movies outdoors and thus operated only in the warmer months and at night).
There was a tremendous appetite for movies in Dallas in those early years, and when the money men realized that motion pictures weren’t just a here-today-gone-tomorrow novelty but a burgeoning industry, they dived in with enthusiasm.
Any tendency to cast the movies aside as a passing fad has given way to a realization that they are here to stay and that the crest of their popularity has not yet been approached. (DMN, March 9, 1913)
And Theater Row was off and running.
Sources & Notes
The top photo of the Dixie Theatre and the Theatorium ad are from the Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University. I found them in Historic Dallas Theatres by D. Troy Sherrod. Sherrod’s passage on the Theatorium/Wonderland/Dixie is well worth reading, here. The second Dixie Theatre photo, with the man standing next to the box office, is from the George W. Cook Dallas/Texas Image Collection, DeGolyer Library, Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University; it can be found here.
The very informative Dallas Morning News article of March 9, 1913 on the history of movie theaters in Dallas can be read here (it opens in a PDF, click the plus-sign at top of page to increase the text size).
Many images larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.