Answer Man

Belleville’s Washington Theater roared onto the scene a century ago

The building at 222 W. Main St. in downtown Belleville once housed the Washington Theater.
The building at 222 W. Main St. in downtown Belleville once housed the Washington Theater. Provided photo

Q: I was wondering if you knew the history of the building at 222 W. Main in Belleville. Above the address number, it says “Washington Theater,” but I can’t remember a theater ever being there.

Susie Patterson, Smithton

A: Neither can I, and I’m going to turn the big 65 in a couple of months. No, I’d have to be pushing 70 to clearly recall the last time high school sweethearts might have held hands while watching “Singin’ in the Rain” or “It Came from Outer Space” in this Belleville movie palace now lost to time.

Even then, the current sign might have left some 1950s theatergoers scratching their heads. The Washington name had disappeared nearly 20 years earlier, when Fox Midwest Theatres gave it a complete overhaul and unwrapped a 1938 Christmas present called the Illinois. But, hey, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start at the beginning:

It was Aug. 2, 1912, when Belleville Daily Advocate readers learned that a group of St. Louis amusement promoters intended to build a theater on the third block of West Main Street. The old Nebgen Cigar Box Factory and the original Gundlach Drill Co. building on West First Street (now West Washington) along with a blacksmith shop on West Main were to be razed to make way.

“It promises to be one of the most modern of the ten-cent show sort in the country, conducted on the plans of the St. Louis Hippodrome,” the paper gushed.

Five months later, it opened for business at what would be 214-218 W. Main St. (Later, 220 would be the site of Tony Bonnelle’s popular restaurant, and 222 would house Belleville Laundry and Dry Cleaning.)

“Grand opening 10 cents,” the advertisement read on Jan. 17, 1913. “Continuous performances as long as anyone to show to. So come any time.”

It must have been quite a draw for city residents looking for a new diversion. By April, the Grace Amusement Co. was granted a permit to erect a stage and seating for an outdoor theater behind the Washington on West First at a cost of $2,600. Then, in 1917, manager Louis Landau had the city’s largest neon sign to date installed atop Michael’s Pharmacy on the Public Square, directing patrons to his theater.

Through the Roaring ’20s, the Washington thundered along. In 1920, for example, the theater had an early food-drive promotion for the needy. Two potatoes would admit kids to an afternoon of “The Lion Man” serial. The potatoes went to the poor, and the child who brought in the biggest spud was given a fresh dollar bill (about $13 today). So even though prices had risen to 15 (balcony) and 25 (main floor) cents by 1927, it was still a “big show at a small price,” the theater boasted.

Perhaps it was the Depression, but the theater then stumbled through nearly a decade of hard times in the 1930s. In late January 1932, Illinois Amusement Co. sold the leases of both the Lincoln and Washington to movie theater pioneer Noah Bloomer. In the business since he was a boy, Bloomer had managed theaters in West Frankfort, Gillespie and Freeburg. In the early ‘20s he leased an outdoor theater on Second Street before building the old Rex at 1317 W. Main St. and then leasing the Ritz at 403 E. Main St.

But just eight months later, Bloomer turned right around and sold both the Lincoln and Washington to Fox West Coast Theaters. The new owners announced an ambitious renovation for the Lincoln with 800 new, upholstered seats along with a redecorated interior and improved sound system. After that, they promised, they would redo the Washington.

It would be more than a year before the Washington opened again for weekend showings of the Marx Brothers’ “Horsefeathers” and “King of the Arena” on Oct. 7, 1933. And it would be that Christmas before the theater would offer daily shows again for the first time in “several seasons.” But the news that drew banner headlines would not come until Dec. 23, 1938, when the Advocate trumpeted the Christmas Day opening of the newly renovated and renamed Illinois Theatre by Fox Midwest Theatres.

After years in the doldrums, the theater was given a complete makeover with a refurbished lobby and rugs to cover newly poured concrete that replaced the old wooden floors, thus reducing the fire hazard. Remodeled bathrooms with a powder room for the ladies and lounging area for the gents were added along with six chandeliers and a new Western Electric sound system. Patrons eventually were greeted by a glitzy neon-lighted marquee that jutted out from the building. Among the first offerings were the Marx Brothers’ “Room Service” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

Through the 1940s and early ’50s, the Illinois helped take local movie fans through an era that saw such blockbusters as “Citizen Kane,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But on July 2, 1955, the daily advertisement in the local papers read, “After tonight the Illinois closes for the summer. Attend the Lincoln for the best in entertainment and cool comfort.”

It never reopened, so today its original name in brick is all that remains of a once bustling theater. To get a better idea of what it looked like in its heyday, click on “Old Belleville Post Cards” at http://bellevillehistoricalsociety.org/photos.

Today’s trivia

Which car introduced the electric starter to replace the crank?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: You probably know that an anagram is a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase. You may have heard that a palindrome is a word, phrase or sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards. But have you ever heard of an isogram? It is a word in which no letter of the alphabet appears more than once such as “star” or “house.” If you’re wondering what might be the longest isogram, the consensus is that it might be dermatoglyphics, the study of skin markings or patterns on the fingers, hands and feet and its application in such fields as criminology.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

Mike Martin of O'Fallon talks his first memories of Star Wars. The movie was at the Lincoln Theater, which used to have a sister theater not far away at the Washington Theater.

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