Early Tulsa Movie Theaters Remembered

Courtesy Tulsa Historical Society
MAJESTIC THEATER: The Majestic Theater, located at 406 S. Main St., was one of the “Big Four” theaters in downtown Tulsa along with The Orpheum, The Rialto, and The Ritz (the last to be built in 1926 and the first to be demolished in 1960). At only 900 seats, the Majestic was the smallest of the four.

In Tulsa during the mid-1950s, a much-anticipated activity for pre-teen kids and a relief for their parents was a Saturday afternoon at the local movie house. When I was 11 years old, a special treat, only occasionally provided, was this movie experience. My dad would drop me off at the theatre filled with very active children yelling, running, and leaping over rows of seats. The decibel noise level must have been extreme along with a sugar high provided by candy, popcorn and soft drinks. The entertainment program which cost all of 20 cents began with live yoyo contests or short magic acts. These were followed by a serial like “Flash Gordon” cartoons, a news reel and a coming attraction preview. The grand finale was the main feature, usually a western or a Tarzan type adventure movie. By then, the audience was subdued or even asleep.
The scene of all this mayhem was the Brook Theatre at 3401 S Peoria. Today it is a bar/restaurant, a remanent of over 40 such movie facilities that provided entertainment in Tulsa for almost 50 years.
Tulsa’s first movie theatre was the Grand Opera House at 113 E 2nd St. which opened in 1906. The Grand was really a multipurpose theatre which was used for vaudeville as well as silent movies and an occasional classic performance. It was an ancestor or our current PAC facility. Our second movie house built in 1908 was the Lyric Theatre at 103 S Main. Soon dozens of movie houses were located in downtown Tulsa, the majority clustered on or near Main Street. These culminated in what was known as the big four: The Majestic, The Orpheum, The Rialto, and The Ritz (the last to be built in 1926 and the first to be demolished in 1960). By the mid 1930’s vaudeville was gone and in 1928 talkies arrived when the Majestic presented “The Jazz Singer.” At only 900 seats, the Majestic was the smallest of the four.
Theatre technology advanced rapidly with improvements in lighting and dimming controls, acoustics, and sound systems. In 1924 the Rialto became the first theatre to be air conditioned. Duct work was placed upon the roof to preserve the interior designs. Soon, movie theatres were the places to get cool and escape Oklahoma’s summer heat.
In this era, a day in downtown Tulsa could mean a visit to a dentist or doctor in the morning followed by lunch and an afternoon of retail shopping. An early dinner would be next followed by a movie and after reentering a sidewalk filled with shoppers and sometimes a late-night dessert.
Our four main theatres were inviting with ornate interiors reminiscent of renaissance courtyards and palaces. The most elaborate was the Ritz which had a ceiling of twinkling stars and clouds that magically floated by. Each of the four had performance stages, pipe organs, proscenium openings faced with electrified multi-curtain assemblies and uniformed ushers equipped with small flashlights to guide the audience to cushioned seats. Today these are called theatre seating.
By 1973 the big four buildings had been demolished. Almost all of our other downtown movie theatres have been torn down or repurposed and remodeled. But as least one theatre building’s exterior façade remains.
Called Two Main Plaza, this two-story building is one of a pair (its neighbor is called One Main Plaza) owned by the Price Family Real Estate Investors. Although similar in size and building material (terra cotta), each is different in its neo classical detail. Two Main Plaza’s address is 616 S Main and is believed to have begun its life as the Gem, a movie theatre. Its twin at 610 S Main could also have once been a theatre. The building at 616 S Main with bowstring roof trusses (typically used to achieve a column free theatre auditorium) at some point received an internal 2nd floor structure within the two-story auditorium space. today, these two buildings have been repurposed for office use but they remind us of a long-gone entertainment era.