Tulsa’s Early Movie Theaters Remembered


From left, THE DELMAN: This suburban theater was located at 15th Street and Lewis Avenue and featured retail stores in front. It is now the location of a Walgreens store.STARRY TIMES: The roof of the Ritz theater in downtown Tulsa featured a ceiling of what looked like stars to the gazing audience. It was located just east of Boulder Avenue on Fourth Street and ran first-run movies.THE PLAZA: This theater was located on Peoria Avenue just north of 15th Street and usually played reruns until the early 1960s, when it featured the popular movie Ben Hur.

Courtesy of Beryl Ford Collection/Tulsa Rotary Club/Tulsa Historical Society/Tulsa City-County Library.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about Tulsa-area history written by David Jones, who was raised in Tulsa and served as a writer for the Tulsa Tribune from 1964 though 1992. Last month’s article remembered Sen. Henry Belmon.

I remember white fleecy clouds scudding across a blue starlit sky.

Those white fleecy clouds scudded across the ceiling of the Ritz Theater, which had been painted blue and had tiny white penlights simulating stars. The cloud machine, I was later told, broke down during World War II and since cloud machines were not a major part of the war effort, it was allowed to languish never to be repaired. The sky, however, remained starlit until the Ritz was torn down in 1960.

I think of the Ritz sometimes when I enter our modern multiplexes. The new theaters are all very nice with good pictures and excellent sound but to one brought up on the cavernous magnificence of the old downtown theaters, they sometimes seem a bit lacking.

The downtown theaters were, there is no other word, imposing. The Ritz, which was just east of Boulder Avenue on Fourth Street, could squeeze 1,500 or so patrons into a single show. The Orpheum, just a block east of the Ritz, featured plaster of Paris gods and goddesses watching a continuous series of musicals, melodramas, mysteries, westerns and exotic adventures six times a day, seven days a week from balconies embedded into the wall.

Back in those World War II days, there was a schedule for Hollywood’s product that seemed etched in stone. The four grand theaters were the Ritz, Orpheum, Majestic (just south of Fourth Street on Main) and the Rialto (between Boulder and Main on Third). They were all owned by the same firm, and every Thursday they would change their features. That meant, for a movie-mad tyke like me, the Wednesday Tulsa Tribune was a treasure indeed. Each Wednesday evening would feature lavish advertisements of a quarter page or more enticing fans to the theaters. The Ritz and the Orpheum got the cream of the crop. The Majestic got the best of the lesser product (the B movies) while the Rialto featured Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy or my favorite: “Two-features-two Brought Back to Thrill You Again.”

Most new movies played the downtown theaters a week. Occasionally one would be held over a week. Not until “Quo Vadis” played the Ritz in 1951 did I see a feature last more than two weeks, although I’m told “Gone With The Wind” managed a triple week booking.

After their downtown inaugurations, the movies would slowly branch out. After four weeks, the Delman at 15th Street and South Lewis Avenue would get one of the biggies, followed a week later with it going to the Will Rogers on the outskirts of town at 11th Street just west of Yale Avenue. The Plaza (15th Street and Peoria Avenue) would get it a week after the Will Rogers and then it would slowly filter to theaters with names like the Circle, the Gem, the Cozy, the Tower, the Uptown and finally sink from sight.

The Royal came along about 1948 and the Brook a year later. Each was unique, with its own look, its own feel, even its own smell. One theater, I can’t remember which one, placed fans blowing air from the concessions stand to the auditorium, thus sending the scintillating scent of popcorn to the salivary glands of the customers.

Going to movies was an event in those days. If you went to a downtown theater, you were expected to dress up; you were going downtown, which was a special and magical place with the best stores and the best restaurants and the best seemingly of everything Tulsa had to offer.

Things changed with time. After a Supreme Court ruling knocked out the movie studios’ owning of their own theaters, first-run bookings began to spread around town. Theaters like the Delman and the Will Rogers started booking first-run features, and if you wanted to see that movie you had to go to that theater. The current practice of opening a movie on 12 screens in three locations would have been anathema to those early showmen.

Television began to cut into movie attendance and theaters tried to fight the trend by doing the unusual. First the Tower (11th Street and Detroit Avenue), then the Gem (Fifth Street and Main Street), then the Majestic, then the Plaza started specializing in foreign films. None survived the European diet.

Movies battled their way through the 1950s. From the Brook (1948) to the Boman Twin (1965), no indoor theater opened, although drive-ins began their brief moment of fame.

Now Tulsa has four theaters with 68 screens not counting the Imax. There are new theaters in Owasso and Jenks and outlying theaters in Broken Arrow and Sand Springs. Many of them are playing the same movies. They are very nice.

But one misses those moments at the Ritz when a growling sound could be heard in the orchestra pit in front of the screen and a mighty organ would arise from the bowels of the theater to give the audience a brief musical interlude.

The new theaters, nice as they are, just can’t match the ambience.

Updated 11-24-2009

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