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The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters

Howard Caldwell

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. i-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I’ve decided that the desire to write this book is connected with what was going on in the theater world at the time of my birth. Movies were beginning to talk, and theaters soon began booking swing music orchestras that were becoming headliners themselves. In our homes, quite often we were introduced to entertainers on radio, which fired us up to see them in a film or on the stage. As for the orchestras, we heard...

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pp. xi-xii

I have a number of people to thank for helping me in the process of assembling this theater story. One of the first is Corbin Patrick, whom I used to encounter between newscasts taking his dinner break before arriving at a theater for one of his many reviews. He encouraged me to move ahead and made himself available. Author-photographer-jazz music specialist Duncan Schiedt was another one I...

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1. Birth of a Theater Buff

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pp. 1-5

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...

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2. Theater One and What Happened Before

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pp. 6-12

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:

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3. A War’s Effect and Another Theater Is Born

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pp. 14-19

The Metropolitan had a busy if not especially profitable third season (1860–61). Valentine Butsch brought in a stock company that featured a “celebrated comedienne and vocalist,” Marian McCarthy, and a “well known comedian,” Felix Vincent. The company listed eighteen performers. Home-based stock companies were used by many American theaters during the nineteenth century.

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4. Theater Count Briefly Jumps to Three

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pp. 20-27

The Grand Opera House came on strong. One week before its grand opening, it announced in the local newspapers that it needed 100 young ladies to appear onstage in Grand March scenes in a “spectacular drama.” This was an excellent way to remind the city that a new theater was about to open. All who were interested were asked to apply at the theater’s box office.

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5. English’s Opera House and Its Impact

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pp. 28-39

When the state’s wealthiest citizen announces he plans to build a deluxe theater in the heart of a city, it attracts attention. This occurred early in 1880, and the city’s more liberal newspaper, the Indianapolis Sentinel, broke the story. William H. English became a key member of the Democratic Party, serving in both the state legislature and Congress before moving to Indianapolis from southern Indiana in the mid-1860s.

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6. The 1890s and Its Seeds of Change

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pp. 40-48

Theater acceptance continued to grow in Indianapolis in the 1890s. The population increased 60 percent from slightly over 105,000 to just over 164,000. The three major Indianapolis theaters led the way in entertainment, but there were changes in what was offered onstage as customer tastes changed and production techniques improved. The new arrangement with Dickson and Talbott...

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7. Theater Enhancement and the Gentle Intrusion of Moving Pictures

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pp. 50-59

When fire in March 1897 forced the Park to rebuild and add better security measures for its customers, it motivated William E. English to move ahead with plans he and his father had discussed many months earlier. Those plans were to rebuild English’s Opera House. William H. English died early in 1896, leaving an estate of $3 million, half of it to his son and the rest to a daughter and her...

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8. English’s and the Grand Lead the Growing Theater Parade

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pp. 60-69

English’s found its niche from the beginning. Book all the prominent talent possible, especially those who are appearing in plays and musicals they have helped make successful on New York City’s Broadway. The Grand competed for the same performers for twenty-five years before moving to a specialty all its own—vaudeville. It lowered the ticket price, charging 50¢ for its most expensive seats.

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9. The Shuberts Come to Town as the Theater Competition Grows

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pp. 70-81

The Mystic Shrine added a major theater to the city’s growing downtown entertainment scene in 1910. The Murat would be a major part of the fraternal organization’s new temple. Wisely, the Shriners made a deal with Levi and Jacob Shubert to run the Murat and book professional shows. They, with their late brother, Sam, had become the biggest owners of theaters in New York and elsewhere. They also produced shows that traveled the country...

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10. City’s First Movie Palace Enhances Respectability of Going to the Movies

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pp. 82-92

It happened in the midst of an outpouring of movie houses in Indianapolis. A large, imposing structure was built on the southeast segment of Monument Circle. It would be called the Circle, and its sign would read, “Shrine of the Silent Art.” Members included some of the city’s most successful businessmen at the time. The corporation was headed by A. L. Block with officers Robert Lieber,...

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11. The 1920s and the Birth of New Challenges

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pp. 94-109

Downtown theater activity continued in the early 1920s, but there were many challenges along the way. Competition reached a new level with the addition of five new major theaters downtown and twenty others in various city neighborhoods. Six of the latter would be called deluxe suburban theaters with seating capacities larger than the typical neighborhood movie house...

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12. The Silent Film Era’s Finale

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pp. 110-123

Although the city’s oldest theater claimed in the summer of 1917 that it had enjoyed one of its most successful seasons, within two years it would make a drastic entertainment policy change. It came in August 1919, after the Park had been closed for two months. The opening stage attraction was called a “musical extravaganza and a chorus of 20 charming beauties.” Whether the theater...

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13. Sound Moves in with a Vengeance

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pp. 124-135

Sound movies made their first appearance in Indianapolis at the Circle nearly fourteen months before anybody else in the area tried it. It was highly publicized, of course, with advertisements proclaiming that “Vitaphone [a device installed on the theater’s stage that played recorded discs] will thrill Indianapolis.” The process had been introduced nationally just a few months earlier, and Indianapolis was one of only a few...

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14. The 1930s and Its Challenges

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pp. 136-149

As the effects of the Great Depression spread and the quality of sound on film improved, a number of the city’s theaters were confronted with new challenges. Keith’s, now owned by the United Theater Company, renovated its building and rented space for public and private affairs. With the exception of two performances of the Jordan River Revue by Indiana University...

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15. The 1930s and Its Challenges II

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pp. 150-163

The busiest theater stage in Indianapolis throughout most of the 1930s was at 133–139 N. Illinois Street, the site of the Lyric. Most weeks were filled with vaudeville performers and eventually popular swing bands along with feature films. The performers, possessing a variety of talents, were still provided by the RKO (Radio- Keith-Orpheum) circuit. There was the five-year-old...

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16. The Rest of the 1930s Survivors

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pp. 164-175

A nationwide depression failed to chase burlesque theater away from downtown Indianapolis. When the decade began, three houses were offering burlesque shows. The Mutual had been providing them ever since it opened as the Majestic (130 S. Illinois Street) in 1907. The Rialto (17 Kentucky Avenue) had been providing such entertainment off and on since opening as the Family in 1908.

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17. The 1940s, a Decade of Success and Sadness

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pp. 176-187

First-run movies dominated downtown theaters in the 1940s as the city found itself rid of a depression and entertaining larger audiences, many of them affected by a war. Some of them were in uniform, stationed at Fort Harrison or Camp Atterbury, others were saying good-bye to husbands, sons, or daughters, and still others were turning to jobs needed to produce military supplies.

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18. The 1950s Bring Changes and New Competition

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pp. 188-199

Television came to town during the final months of the 1940s. WFBM-TV, Channel 6 (later WRTV) signed on with live coverage of the 500-Mile Race. Five months later, the area’s second TV station arrived. WTTV, based in Bloomington, was seen in Indianapolis thanks to various-sized home antennae. Sixteen months after signon, Channel 6 was providing live network programming,...

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19. A Brief Look at What Happened Next

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pp. 200-204

Four Indy theaters have continued to do what they were built to do: entertain. The Murat lost the Symphony Orchestra in 1963 to the newly constructed Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University. But with Cecil Byrne as its leader, the Murat continued to book musical shows and concert entertainers. It also became the home of the Indianapolis Opera Company before it shifted to Clowes.


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pp. 205-208

E-ISBN-13: 9780253001436
E-ISBN-10: 0253001439
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253354600

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 84 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Theaters -- Indiana -- Indianapolis -- History.
  • Motion picture theaters -- Indiana -- Indianapolis -- History.
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