Theaters were aplenty back in the day


Nearly every community had an opera house. Some were large, some not so large, but they were constructed adequately for the number of residents who lived in that area

Each opera house featured a great number of traveling shows, local entertainment, well-known thespians, popular singers and other acts.

Residents enjoyed using the opera houses for various local events as well. Local talent would perform on stage, high school graduations were most often held in the opera house, and of course any activity which needed a stage and seating for the audience was in demand for many years.

Then, although the opera house was well used, the movies were becoming a popular form of entertainment for the public. Movies could be shown in the opera house, of course, but those who wanted to really get in to the movie business would build a theater made just for that purpose.

One of the earliest persons to venture into the movie theater business was Henry Binder. Originally, he had owned a successful coal and building supply business, but closed that business in favor of a new venture, a movie theater. In fact, he not only owned one but two in the city of Xenia.

These were the days of silent movies, black and white film, and usually rather grainy, but it was a new thing for audiences who loved to watch their favorite actors/actresses on the “big screen.”

If you were a lip reader, you would probably really enjoy the plot, but most stories were very simple, with many motions and hand signals to tell the audience what was going on. Then, of course, the dialog was written on the screen as well. A great deal of emoting went on with those early movies. The actors had to get across to the audience what was happening with minimum wording.

I am told that some of the better-known actors and actresses failed to make the grade when “talkies” came out, because their voices did not lend themselves well to the newer films.

Binder owned the Dreamland Theater as well as the Orphium. He spelled Orphium with the “I” so it would not be confused with the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit.

The Dreamland was located downtown on West Main Street. Folding chairs were placed to advantage for the audience, and to enhance the experience, a pianist was hired to play during the film. The pianist had to be very good and able to switch music quickly as the film often had a scene of sword fighting, or horseback riding, then switch over to a love scene, requiring a great deal of talent on the part of the pianist.

When the Eavey building caught fire in 1908, the Dreamland was closed for repairs but soon reopened for business.

The Bijou was opened by Cliff Sutton on Greene Street, with admission of five cents. If vaudeville shows were booked into the theater, the price went up to 10 cents.

George Day also opened a movie theater in town, his was called Star Theater, and he charged the amazing price of 10 cents to view a movie. It was not long, however, before he lowered his price to five cents, to keep up with the competition.

An ad in May 1906 advertised, “Saturday evening witnessed the opening here of one of those Electric Theaters now popular throughout the country, and in which is given a continuous performance of moving pictures and illustrated songs. This place is equipped with Powers’ wonderful cameragraph and the pictures are clear, brilliant and without that flicker that sometimes hurts the eyes.” This ad was for the Star Theater.

Day had been involved with the circus for many years as a strong man but retired from that life to come back to his native Greene County to establish the theater.

Apparently, his movie theater was very successful for a number of years. One of the more clever things Day did to attract audiences was to assure them that not only could they view the words on the screen, but they would be able to hear the dialog as well.

That must have been a huge draw. Of course, the movies were still silent, but he hired a nephew who could lip read, to stand where he could see the actors, and in appropriate voices, would relate what the characters were saying.

Eventually, of course, sound tracks were added to films, and Day’s venture into “talking movies” ended.

The Ohio Theater on North Detroit Street opened for business in 1936, 10 years later, the theater advertised that new Steri-Lamps had been installed. These lamps are “said to kill all germs and air-borne bacteria coming within the range of their death-dealing rays.” In addition, the lamps were supposed to freshen and purify the air.

“Harmful to the eyes, the amps have been installed in the winter-summer air-conditioning plant at the theater and in that position throw their rays through all the air that returns from and to the auditorium, thus masking all the circulating through the theater germ free, fresh.” The theater owners further stated that this was to be a service to their clients, and was, to the best of their knowledge, the only system of its kind in southern Ohio.

Some folks enjoyed driving to the movies while the North Xenia Drive-In was open.

The Xenia Theater on Greene Street was closed in 1988. It was originally known as the Bijou built about 1917. The building survived the 1974 tornado, and then a major fire in 1977. After the fire, the theater was divided into a two screen theater, but the attendance was not adequate to keep it open.

The theater closed in 1987. Greene County Commissioners bought the structure for $115,000. County offices now occupy that site.

Remembering George (Alonzo Hiwanda) Day

He was born on a farm in Xenia Township in 1869. When he was 19, he won a weight-lifting contest at the Greene County Fair. Although he weighed only 247 pounds, he could lift more than 1,000 pounds with apparent ease. He joined the Sells Brothers Circus, traveling with the company beginning in 1891. He lifted, in harness, a number of men on a platform with a total weight of 3,760 pounds. He and his wife, Maggie, who had been a chariot driver in the circus, returned to Xenia where they opened the Star Theater, boasting “talking” movies. In fact, he hired his nephew to lip-read the actor’s words and speak in appropriate voice for each individual actor.

— Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a Greene County historian and resident.

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