The Original Rockford Nostalgic Website
In 1917 a group of Rockford men decided that Rockford needed a first class motion picture theater and formed a syndicate to finance the big amusement enterprise. The men were Frank G. Hogland as the head of the syndicate and others associated with him included Ross P. Beckstrom, John Camlin and other local capitalists. The planned theater was located in the center of Rockford at the time, or midway between its city limits. They enlisted Chicago architect J. E. O. Pridmore to design the new theater building, and Mr. Pridmore lent his personal supervision of the theater during its construction.
The Ross P. Beckstrom Company was the general contractor on the project while the buildings frame was made out of structural iron and steel erected by the A. C. Wood Company of Rockford. The building was designed in the Spanish Renaissance style of architecture. The Fred J. Reid Company of Rockford was responsible for the artistic hand carved stone columns and pillars and other ornamental pieces on the façade of the building as well as some interior elements. The stonework was hand carved at their plant located at Tenth Street and Tenth Avenue and hauled to the theater for installation. The same style of architecture was carried out in the interior decoration of the theater. The interior walls were paneled with Tennessee marble from floor to ceiling.
The 102 foot wide by 240 foot long three story theater building included a basement, a 90 foot tall clock tower featuring a Seth Thomas clock with a flag pole reaching skyward from the clock tower dome. The theater building had four store fronts with two on either side of the theater entrance and there were twenty furnished apartments with all of the latest up to date amenities including Murphy beds and electric stoves on the second and third floor of the building. The theater itself occupied a space 102 x 175 feet in size, the theater is entered through a lobby 30 feet wide and 64 feet long, the lobby gave entrance to a circular inner foyer, running the whole width of the theater, to which there were entrances to each aisle. The auditorium contained 2,000 comfortable and upholstered seats all on one floor, arranged in such a manner as to afford a perfect view of the screen from any position in the house. Pridmore designed the auditorium in such a manner to allow for perfect acoustics. Fire safety was also a focal point of the theater and included sixteen exits, equipped with both gas and electric exit signs.
The basement of the theater building housed the heating and ventilation system, the most modern equipment at the time that washed the air with water in the summer months and was capable of changing the air in the theater every couple of minutes. Originally the basement was to house a six lane bowling alley and a barber shop but instead housed a recreation room to comfort soldiers from nearby Camp Grant, their relatives and friends. The rooms were furnished to harmonize beautifully and make the visitors think of home and included the latest designed comfort chairs, desks, lamps, leather davenports and book cases and tables. After the war the basement space would revert back to a public bowling alley and soda fountain.
The theater was home to several firsts among movie houses including the Moller pipe organ installed in the Midway Theater which was the largest in use in any picture house in the country at the time. It also featured the country’s largest projection screen at 65 feet wide representing the transition from small room theaters to great movie houses. It also included a 4,500 square foot stage although the theater was designed as a motion picture theater, it could accommodate different types of programing if desired. The theater was leased by the Ascher Brothers of Chicago who operated sixteen theaters in the Chicago area. When built the Midway was the largest movie house in Illinois outside of Chicago and in fact exceeded many of the Chicago theaters in seating capacity.
The Ascher Brothers would open the theater to the public on Saturday August 3, 1918, the opening night performances included a symphony orchestra, ten soloists, the mammoth pipe organ and Norma Talmadge starring in “The Safety Curtain.” 11,648 people attended the opening of the Midway Theater, the most beautiful theater in the West on Saturday and Sunday.
In 1927 the Ascher Brothers started to divest their theater empire and in October 1927 Charles House would lease the theater from the Midway Building Corporation. House would sell the Midway Theater lease in 1933 to concentrate on his State Theater interests. The theater continued to change owners over the years and was remodeled several times, including removal of the flag pole in 1952 after several near accidents; the pole could be reached only by climbing the clock dome. In 1960 the distinctive Seth Thomas clock stopped working. The Midway Theater building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1980. The Midway continued as a movie house until August 1980.
The Midway Theater experienced a major fire on August 7, 1980 forcing more than 100 people to flee from the building and an adjacent motel. The fire routed about 30 people who resided in the 21 apartments on the second and third floors of the theater building while about 100 persons were evacuated from the neighboring Imperial 400 Motel at 733 East State Street. Besides the theater the building housed the Cypress Lounge and Peter’s Snack Shop. The fire originated in the southeast corner of the Cypress Lounge. The lobby area of the theater as well as the lounge and the second and third floor were gutted by the flames and the roof of the building collapsed. Damage was estimated at one million dollars.
In July 1981 local businessman Marvin Palmquist, owner of Lloyd Hearing Aid Corporation, purchased the Midway Theater building from Chicago based Plitt Theater group for $100,000 to save the building from being demolished. Local architect Gary Anderson was hired to design restoration plans. Palmquist refurbished the building with plans of making it into the cornerstone of a broadcast and media center. The structure was renovated, reopening in 1983 and was the home of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. It was also used as a concert venue, meeting space and use by community theater groups.
Palmquist who died in 1998, owned movie production company Quadrus Communications and the WQRF Television station. When he sold the production company and television station in the mid 1980’s, so went the idea of the Midway for a communications hub. The Palmquist family offered to sell the theater to the Rockford Park District and tries to persuade arts groups to make the building their home, it never materialized. The building was put up for auction and was sold in 2000. The theater would close its doors in 2006. A partial roof collapse over the auditorium occurred on March 23, 2012. The roof has since been repaired but the future of the building has yet to be decided.
In August 1937 after three months of negotiations between Lena A. and Frank Culhane, owners of property at the southwest corner of North Main Street and West Jefferson Street and Max Liebling, a local contractor who wanted to erect a building which would include a theater, reached an agreement which gave Liebling a twenty five year lease on the property. The site of the new theater had been vacant since the house formerly occupied by Mrs. Lena Chick, previously operator of the famous Chick House, was torn down. During the last several years it had been used as a parking lot. Officials from Rockford Enterprises, Incorporated, operators of the Coronado, Palace and Midway Theaters, and of the former Orpheum Theater, which closed July 1, 1937 and was razed to make way for a new S. H. Kress and Company store, would reach an agreement for a long term lease of the theater portion of the building from Liebling. At the time the officials of the theater chain, Willard Van Matre was president and J. D. Hurst was secretary of Rockford Enterprises, Incorporated said that the new theater would be called either the “Orpheum Theater or the Times Theater.”
Liebling would enlist his brother in law, Edward Paul Lewin, Chicago architect to design the building which was to include the theater, eight stores fronting North Main and West Jefferson Streets with offices on the second floor of the structure. Excavation work started on August 11, 1937 by Rockford based Lundin & Grip on the two story steel, brick and concrete building which would have a frontage on North Main Street of 100 feet and a frontage on West Jefferson of 156 feet. Glass block was also used extensively on the building.
The twenty five foot foyer led into the theater auditorium which was 84 by 72 feet in size with a 14 foot stage and featuring a 22 foot screen. The auditorium contained 1,000 coral color deep cushioned luxurious seats located in three sections which gave an unobstructed view of the screen. The theater was designed with structural provisions for adding a 400 seat balcony in the future if patronage justified it. The auditorium walls were of electric blue, the ceiling of cerulean blue. Wood paneling of various types were used in the lobby of the theater. The electric fixtures were modernistic, of edge glow glass and metal planes. The aisles and lobby were heavily carpeted. Steps were taken to assure perfect acoustics by applying special materials to the back and side walls of the theater. To maintain a constant comfortable temperature in the theater, an air conditioning system with a capacity of 18,000 cubic feet of air per minute were installed. The cool, fresh air was distributed through the theater by five grilles on each side of the theater. The canopy outside is described as the most modern ever built here and is one of the few of its kind in the entire country. It was of stainless steel with nine rows of neon lights, and the name sign flashing in ruby red.
The Times Theater located at 226 North Main Street would open to the public on March 31,1938 just a block away from the much larger and well established Coronado Theater, also owned by Rockford Enterprises, Incorporated. The canopy outside that welcomed the crowds was described as the most modern ever built here and was one of the few of its kind in the entire country at the time. It was of stainless steel with nine rows of neon lights, and the name sign flashing in ruby red. The opening film was “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry”, a romantic racing drama featuring Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Sophie Tucker. Some of the buildings storefronts were occupied by Meier’s Restaurant, the Times Shoe Shop, Rhomberg Furriers, Bon-Ton Cleaners, Little Folks Shop and Ros-Mor Photography Studio among others. The Pioneer Life Insurance Company and the George Rogers Clark Casualty Company leased the entire second floor of the theater building.
Willard Van Matre and his partners in Rockford Enterprises, Incorporated sold the Midway, Palace, Auburn and Times Theaters in 1950 only retaining the Coronado Theater. The theaters were sold to the Publix Great States theater chain of Chicago, which would become ABC Great Lakes Theaters, in 1958 the old marquee of the Times Theater was removed and a new modern one replaced it, the sign is still on the building to this day. In 1968 the theater underwent remodeling and the old seats were removed and replaced with reclining rocking chair seats. The theater was sold to the Plitt Theater chain in 1974. Plitt closed in 1983, bowing to competition from newer theaters on the edge of town. It reopened briefly in 1988 to show contemporary and classic films but closed almost as quickly. Later it was used as a concert hall and night club and a dinner theater but those also closed and the theater has sat vacant since around 2004.
The Auburn Theater at 1120 Auburn Street on the former Walter R. Trigg & Sons Monument Company site was designed by Architect Edward Paul Lewin of Chicago, a specialist in theater design, who also designed the Times Theater here. Max Liebling, builder of the Lafayette Hotel, the Times Theater and other downtown buildings was the contractor for the project. Willard Van Matre was president and James Hurst was the treasurer of the Auburn Amusement Company, which owned and operated the North End motion picture house. The 60 feet wide by 150 feet deep building was original in design and said to be no other like it in the country, with its bold and daring design. Built in the "Streamlined" style, the exterior of the building featured bold rounded lines and a V-shaped canopy, and two story tall glass block windows that illuminated the lobby by day and caught the eye of passer-byers at night. The lobby had an edge glow mural of plate glass and the concession area. The long narrow auditorium had walls of dark blue-green, and painted on them was a couple of South Sea Island scenes. The seats were coral color, and featured a new system called "pushback" which made it unnecessary for patrons to rise when the couple in the middle row wants to get out for a trip to the restroom or concession stand. The carpeting was white and brown. The lounge was reached by a lighted circular stairway, lighted by glass bricks with walls painted a light green and featured a huge chandelier. The stairs led into the lounge room and the walls featured a Chinese motif.
The 903 seat air conditioned theater opened on April 9.1942 to the public. The opening movie was “My Favorite Wife” starring Irene Dunn and Cary Grant. In 1950 the amusement company would sell the Auburn Theater to the Publix Great States theater chain of Chicago, which would become ABC Great Lakes Theaters. The theater was shut down in July 1955 because poor attendance did not warrant keeping the theater open, and it was put up for sale. In October 1955 J. Albert Johnson, owner and operator of the Park Theater in Loves Park, the Rex Theater on Seventh Street and president of the Johnson & Guler Appliance Store would purchase the theater. In 1958 he would lease the theater to J. J. McFarland of Sycamore who closed the theater in December 1960. In March 1961 J. Albert Johnson and his son Raymond would take over management of the theater once again. The theater would close permanently in 1967 and was converted to retail use by Auburn Street True Value Hardware and later to a variety of other businesses.
In 1947 J. Albert Johnson, owner of the Rex Theater on Seventh Street would purchase a parcel of land from Fritz and Harry Carlson of the Fritz Carlson Realty Company on the service drive leading to Carlson’s Parkview subdivision which had a 100 foot frontage set back fifty feet from North Second Street for the purpose of building the first motion picture house in Loves Park, a Rockford suburb. The 50 foot wide by 140 foot long steel and masonry building was built by mostly local labor from plans supplied by the Radio Corporation of America out of an Army surplus Quonset style hut used extensively in the United States during World War 2.
The air conditioned theater contained 650 "pushback" seats which made it unnecessary for patrons to rise when the couple in the middle row wants to get out for a trip to the restroom or concession stand. The theater featured a screen fifteen feet tall and twenty feet wide and had the latest modern acoustical treatments and ventilation system. A unique feature of the theater was a “crying room”, a sound proof and air conditioned room where mothers may view the picture on the screen through a glass panel while comforting their children without disturbing other patrons. The room was situated in the rear of the theater auditorium and contained 30 seats. Parking for nearly 300 cars was available near the theater.
The Park Theater situated at 5723 North Second Street would open to the public on May 20, 1948. In January 1, 1957 Johnson would lease the theater to J. J. McFarland of Sycamore, Illinois but would again take control of the theater in March 1961. In 1969 the Park Theater known for showing wholesome family type films was sold to a Tampa, Florida man who owned a chain of theaters that showed adult movies. The theater renamed to the Park Arts Cinema showed adult films exclusively until after much public outcry, the theater was shuttered in 1978 and converted to retail purposes.
Maurice Schweitzer and his wife Bert Schweitzer would open Rockford’s first drive-in movie theater on a site selected by Mrs. Schweitzer’s brother Irvin Dubinsky, who along with his brother H. William owned and operated the Dubinsky Brothers Theater chain that operated several indoor and outdoor theaters in the Midwest. Maurice, Bert and Irvin would move to St. Louis soon after the River Lane was opened leaving H. William Dubinsky, who would move to Rockford in 1949, to assume day to day control of the theater. The theater was constructed on a 12-1/2 acre site at 1000 River Lane with the latest in projection and sound equipment, including individual volume controlled speakers for the vehicle that insured listening comfort. Extra wide driveways in the parking area of the theater permitted easy access to the theaters 688 spaces for cars, while special ramps enabled all occupants of the car to see the screen. A refreshment pavilion was conveniently located on the grounds and the theater offered limited seating facilities for patrons without cars. A special playground for the kids was also installed and equipped with slides, swings and small merry go round.
The River Lane Drive-In Theater would open to the public on May 29, 1948 with the feature movie being a comedy, “Hold That Blonde” starring Veronica Lake and Eddie Bracken. The early years of the River Lane Drive-in theater was a success partly because many young families could bring their children along without the hassle of finding and paying for a babysitter, or dressing up to attend a downtown theater with the ability to talk and smoke if they wanted. Younger people would take advantage of the theater to do some smooching or to tip a few since most lived at home with their parents. The River Lane maintained a reputation as a family oriented theater through the years.
H. William Dubinsky would become general manager of WTVO, Rockford’s first television station in 1953 in addition to his duties at the River Lane. The pioneering Dubinsky Brothers would pass away with Irving passing in 1979 and H. William in 1980. The theater still owned by the Dubinsky family was leased to the Kerasotes Theater chain in April 1983. This would be the final year of operation for the 35 year old theater. When first built the theater was in a mostly rural undeveloped area but over the years as Rockford and suburban Loves Park expanded, and cable television arrived on the scene pulling customers away from the drive-ins. The property owners found it more profitable to sell the land. The River Lane was purchased by Newsome-Sjostrom Realtors who would develop the property into an industrial park. The theater was demolished in 1986.
The Robin Drive-In Theater owned by S. L. Brenner and Jack Kolton would open to the public on August 11, 1950 at 6903 West State Street at Meridian Road, just west of Ingersoll Park. The theater which featured the largest outdoor screen outside of Chicago, had a capacity of 800 cars on opening night, while shortly afterwards 200 more spaces were added bringing the theater up to a 1,000 car capacity. In March 1951 the Robin Theater was sold to H. & E. Balaban Corporation which operated the Surf and Esquire Theaters in Chicago. The new owners, who purchased the Robin Theater from S. L. Brenner and Jack Kolton, are related to the heads of Balaban & Katz Corporation, operators of a large chain of movie houses. A special feature of the theater was a refreshment cottage which made it possible for patrons to continue watching the show while in the building. The theater also featured a children's playground.
Elmer Balaban would also become an officer in Rockford’s first television station, WTVO along with H. W. Dubinsky of the Robin Theater in 1953. On December 29, 1966, the Winnebago County Road and Bridge Committee would trade parcels of land with the Robin Theater to eliminate a jog in Meridian Road where it crossed West State Street with the county trading two parcels of land it owned for one owned by the Robin Theater. On June 8, 1973 Rajah Sylvester Morris , the Siberian tiger who played Harri in the Walt Disney movie “The World’s Greatest Athlete” would appear at the Robin Theater. The 13 month old, 230 pound cat was born at the Miller Park Zoo, Bloomington, Illinois and trained by a fifth grader Robert S. Bolin who was 11 at the time. Patrons were able to meet the tiger until show time.
H. & E. Balaban Corporation would sell the theater to L&M Theater Management of Chicago, year unknown, which operated the facility until 1983 when they would sell the theater to Southland News, Inc., a Kentucky corporation. On May 29, 1984 a storm that included a possible tornado damaged the Robin Theater movie screen. The west half of the screen was ripped away but the theater continued to show movies on the remaining east side of the screen. In June 1984 the owners of the Robin Drive-In Theater were denied a building permit to replace the theaters wind damaged screen. The Winnebago County Zoning Board of Appeals in a 5-1 vote sided with Zoning Officer Eileen Hogshead, who denied the theater a permit after she found no records in the past 30 years of the land being zoned for a drive-in. Southland News Inc., which owned the theater, could repair the existing wood frame screen, but it could not build a new screen with steel support columns as proposed in the company’s permit application. Hogshead said zoning laws do not allow an owner to extend the life of a structure or building that does not conform to current county zoning laws. To approve replacement of the movie screen would be “saying it’s OK to have a non-conforming use,” she said. Dan Cain, a lawyer who represents Southland News Inc., argued that it was illogical to deny the permit because it would be more expensive to repair the existing screen than to replace it. The theater was closed and subsequently put up for sale in 1986 and never reopened.
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