Shining the spotlight on Oklahoma’s historic theaters
Ramona Theatre | Photo by Elaine Warner
Walking through the doors, guests entered into a fantasy world. Some places looked like European castles; others like haciendas in Spain. And these exotic destinations were as near as the local movie palace.
Oklahoma had its share of these magnificent structures. Many have been torn down but, here and there, are remnants of the glory days of vaudeville and films.
The Orpheum | Okmulgee
Opened in 1920 in oil-rich Okmulgee, the Orpheum—originally the Cook Theatre—provided an elegant entertainment venue for the area. Designed in a derivation of Spanish Baroque Revival style by architect Leon Senter, the building features an elaborate façade. The lobby is richly decorated with polychrome terra cotta.
When John McConnel bought the theater in 1991, the lobby had a drop ceiling and the walls were covered with walnut paneling from a 1974 remodel.
“We pulled back a bit of the wood and found this gorgeous terra cotta,” McConnel says. “When we removed the ceiling, we found the original lights and molded plaster trim.”
Almost all of the proscenium arch and intricate organ pipe grill, repainted gray in an earlier renovation, have been restored. Determining the original colors required careful scraping to the bottom layer then matching them.
The Orpheum is McConnel’s labor of love. Uncounted hours and lots of dollars have gone into the restoration work-in-progress. The theater, celebrating its 100th birthday next year, has operated continuously through the decades.
Today’s movie-goers won’t find a sleek, contemporary, multi-screen theater in the Orpheum, but they will see today’s movies and get a glimpse of yesterday’s glamour.
The Constantine | Pawhuska
The Constantine began life in 1894 as the Pawhuska House Hotel. Charles Constantine came to Pawhuska in 1906 to bid on lots being sold by the Osage Indians.
He bought four city lots and, eventually, the hotel next door. By 1914, he had added on to the building and turned it into an opera house, then into a complete entertainment center for vaudeville and movies. The acoustics, designed by a New York architect, are still praised by today’s performers. According to Garrett Hartness, president of the Constantine Arts Council, the theater had the largest proscenium and second largest stage in the state in 1914.
“The first movie shown here was ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ starring professional swimmer, vaudevillian and silent-screen actress, Annette Kellerman,” Hartness says. “Groups wanting to tour the theater will not only get to see the whole facility, but enjoy popcorn while watching one of the few remaining clips of that movie.”
The theater closed in 1970 but in 1987 a citizens’ group began restoration of the old showplace. The tin ceiling is original as is the 100-year-old fly system. Part of the damaged proscenium trim was restored by a local dentist who made molds of the existing plasterwork and filled in the missing pieces.
Reservations for tours for individuals or groups are necessary. Contact Hartness at 918-287-2666.
The Poncan | Ponca City
Built in 1927, the Spanish Colonial Revival Poncan was designed by Kansas City’s Boller Brothers, noted for “atmospheric” theaters. The auditorium is designed to evoke a Mediterranean scene. The theater has been beautifully restored, retaining 80% of the original features. The 1927 fire curtain depicts a courtyard scene. A highlight of a tour of the Poncan is its collection of 1930s theater posters—one of the largest in the country.
“In the ’30s, movie companies didn’t provide poster art but commissioned local artists. Many of these are hand-painted,” says Executive Director Christopher Radaker-James.
The theater, built for both vaudeville and movies, still presents a variety of entertainment. In addition to special events and movies, the theater is home to the Evans Children’s Academy of Performing Arts.
“Theater is where I learned to find friends, express myself and gain confidence. I want people in this community to find in theater the things I’ve found,” Radaker-James says.
To book a tour, call 580-765-0943.
Ramona Theatre | Frederick
Opened in 1929, the Ramona is another Spanish Revival beauty. The auditorium not only has a deep blue ceiling with twinkling stars, it even has clouds. The theater is owned by the Frederick Arts and Humanities Council. Today, it’s a popular venue for concerts, plays and pageants. Check www.ramonatheatre.com for upcoming events.
Coleman Theatre | Miami
The Coleman is the jewel in the crown of Oklahoma’s historic theaters. Built in 1929, this Boller Brothers beauty has never gone dark. By the ’80s, however, there was a possibility that the building would be torn down. Townsfolk rallied around the former showplace and, in 1989, the Coleman family donated the theater to Miami.
What happened over the next decade-plus has to qualify as the Miami miracle of community involvement and hard work. Today the Coleman is once again a premier attraction on Route 66 and a source of pride for all Oklahomans.
A tour of this theater is a must—the story of its resurrection is too long to tell here. Visitors are thrilled at the sound of the mighty Wurlitzer theater organ—one of very few original instruments still in use—and beam at the brightly shining, two-ton, crystal chandelier and glittering gold trim.
The theater has a regular season of events including movies and plays and offers tours Tuesdays through Saturdays. Group tours can also arrange special added features including meals and movies. For more information, go to www.colemantheatre.org or call 918-540-4435.