A cinematic delight in discovering history of movies in Lemoore from 1900 to 2015

Lemoore's Stadium Cinemas in 2015
Lemoore's Stadium Cinemas in 2015

I can still remember how exciting it was some 60-plus years ago as I hurried to the my neighborhood Elmo Theater for my weekly Saturday matinee where I would enjoy two cartoons, and if lucky, maybe two thrill-packed serials. We lived in the small coastal community of San Luis Obispo, classified in the 1950s as a small community of 16,000. My mother would offer me a shiny 50-cent piece, enough for admission, a bag of popcorn, and some candy.

An early ad for The Lemoore Theater.
An early ad for The Lemoore Theater.

Would the 50 cents pay for a Buster Crab serial in which he would portray Flash Gordon, or maybe a Prince Valente serial or maybe even a good John Wayne western? It was so exhilarating to be in that magical space so long ago that I never bothered to look at the marquee. I can’t begin to imagine just how exited and captivated people were as they experienced their first silent moving picture over 100 years ago.

In Lemoore and Kings County, the miracle of “moving pictures” arrived on our own D Street in the second decade of the 20th Century, and it was all Thomas Edison’s doing. The talented and historic inventor brought us “moving pictures” years before and because of his stature, the notion of “moving pictures” as well as predicting the advent of talking pictures, would pay off handsomely. But Edison only set the stage. Others, Edwin S. Porter for example (who worked for Edison) advanced “moving pictures” to the next level with his production of the “Great Train Robbery” in 1904.

The Pavilion Theater in Lemoore
The Pavilion Theater in Lemoore

It was a time when national newspapers filled pages with tantalizing stories, advertisements, and testimonials of this “new and magical form of entertainment.” It was also a time when people were overwhelmed with the explosion of new and mind-boggling inventions that were obviously going to change their lives for the better. I am sure the excitement of a local moving picture theater swept through our local community and surrounding area like a wild fire.

For years the only inside entertainment was the Lemoore Opera House, located on the east side of Heinlen Street, just south of where the Odd Fellows Lodge continues to stand, a reminder of when times were so much simpler. When it was built in 1889 local news reporters described the Opera House as a “magnificent edifice”. It was a boon to local entertainment with excellent entertainment venues, plays, music, Vaudeville, and social gatherings.

The Opera House was the place to be for special occasions, but alas, it was no match for the new and exciting moving pictures craze about to arrive. The Opera House continued to host the community for special events and social gatherings for another 14 years, until it was destroyed by fire in 1927.

A newspaper ad for movies in the 1950s.
A newspaper ad for movies in the 1950s.

Just like theaters popping up throughout small towns in the America, silent movies had all the trappings to draw Lemoore citizens into this exciting form of entertainment.  Designed with special musical scores and animated actors that excited the imagination and engaged moviegoers of all ages. The plethora of early films enabled towns like Lemoore to blossom into a two theater community in no time at all, providing box office competition for silent picture stars of the day like Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Reginald Denny, George Sidney and Clara Bow.

I have to admit it has been challenging to pinpoint the exact date of the arrival of our first moving picture houses in Lemoore. Newspaper advertisements and handbills of the day seemed to ignore the need to list an address for most of the Lemoore business establishments. The earliest advertisement for the Marvique Airdome Theater on D Street appeared in the 1915 Nuntius, the Lemoore High School yearbook. L. Marvin managed the Marvique and I’m assuming it was named after him.  “See First-Class Pictures and Vaudeville – Special Features on SATURDAYS” or “Always Something Good,” read the local advertisement.

I am reasonably confidant that the Theater was housed in the 300 block of D Street. Local longtime resident Virginia Lee remembered that Maurine McClanahan (a 1924 graduate of Lemoore High School) told her it was located about where the Bank of America is today. Both Virginia and Herb Atkinson (a longtime Lemoore veterinarian) remembered that McClanahan was employed to play the organ for feature films. Herb also remembered seeing a “Marvique” advertisement for a Charlie Chaplin film playing at the theater. We can assume the Marvique closed when the newspaper advertisements disappeared in early1920s.

Right around the corner on Fox Street was the Pavilion Theater, a converted buggy and blacksmith shop owned by Frank Blakely. In 1915 the LHS senior class held its senior play at the Pavilion, which also hosted silent movies, vaudeville acts, along with special events. The theater was renamed the Liberty Theater around WWI and was eventually sold to a Francis Egan on September 10, 1922. Just two years later Egan sold the theater to a Mr. Byrd who operated the T and D Theater in Hanford and Paso Robles. A 1924 Lemoore Advance article detailed Mr. Byrd’s plans to remodel and upgrade the Liberty for the Lemoore Community.

We can also assume over fourteen years the Pavilion was renamed the Liberty Theater and then the Lemoore Theater. With the advent of talking motion pictures, the first advertisements for the Lemoore Theater started appearing in the Lemoore Advance in 1928. Our local theater had plenty of options because by 1927 Hollywood was cranking out over 700 talking films a year. The old theater building is still standing on the west side of Fox between D and C Streets. Since it closed in the mid-1960s the building has housed a western shop, insurance agency, and church.

Weather the name was the Pavilion, Liberty, or Lemoore Theater area residents were entertained for over 50 years. Like me, local residents also remember how thrilling it was to catch a Saturday matinee, which included a western and at least two cartoons. Both Kenny and Larry Jones told me how they looked forward to Saturdays when their grandfather Lawrence would treat them to a day at the movies and a bag of popcorn. One of their fondest memories was their grandpa wearing his western hat and cowboy boots at those special western showings with stars like Roy Rogers, William Boyd or John Wayne.

As the center for entertainment in Lemoore, the theater hosted Thanksgiving turkey give-a-ways and Christmas Parties with Santa, costume parties during Halloween, and special premier for those academy award-winning films. All the classic motion pictures were shown at our Lemoore Theater. Such cinematic fare as “Moby Dick,” and “Shane,” “Gone With The Wind,” and many others. With no Internet, theater manager, Mr. Llano, would have movie bills printed and sent to local residences to make sure everyone knew what was showing the coming month. You could mount them in a prominent place on the icebox, or on a nail in the wall to remind you which film you wanted to see.

I was told numerous stories about the loveable theater manager Mr. Llano, who attempted to keep moviegoers feet planted on the floor and off the seat in front of them. He was always on the lookout for gum chewers and anyone attempting to sneak in through the side door, but he always sold an excellent bag of buttered popcorn. After a good or not so good picture it was also a treat to round the corner of Fox and D Street, and head to Brownstones for a soda or malt and enjoy visiting with friends. Fitting touches for finishing a great afternoon or evening.

But alas, as television grew more popular, once proud mover-goers soon tuned in to new shows like “The Lucille Ball Show” and “Ed Sullivan.” The advent of television depleted movie audiences, forcing many small-town movie houses out of business. Lemoore was no exception to the national demise of small-town theaters.

Since the mid-sixties, Lemoore has been without a legitimate movie theater. It took until 2003 for the big screen to return to Lemoore when a Central Coast theater developer and owner, and a hearty civic-minded band of local residents, joined forces to bring a state-of-the-art stadium cinemas to Lemoore. The developer, John Rousch, who owns cinemas in Paso Robles and Atascadero, opened the majestic 850-seat Lemoore Stadium Cinemas in 2003. After a 38-year absence the thrill of Motion Pictures returned to the community of Lemoore.

The theater, situated on Follett Street near the railroad tracks, grew so popular that Rousch added four more screens and 438 additional seats in late 2007.

Besides the big screen, surround sound, and Stadium seating, Rousch became the second theater owner in California to switch to solar power. Definitely the Lemoore Stadium Cinemas is a far cry from Mr. Byrd’s remodeled Liberty Theater in 1924. For the last 12 years Lemoore residences have owned bragging rights to the nicest Theater in Kings County. 

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