Early Theaters

By Melody Moorehouse

Early settlers in Grant County spent most of their time making a living, building homes and businesses, clearing land and improving 
farms. As a change of pace, time was often set aside for social recreation and amusement. One form of early amusement included the 
tent show and movie theatre.

One of the early theatres in the area could trace its roots back to the Robert Cauble tent show that made a 1909 appearance in 
western Grant County. Elwin Goolsby, director of the Grant County Museum located on Shackleford Road in Sheridan, noted Cauble 
brought a small tent show to Prattsville in January 1909 and when the tent show left town, J.A. “Alva” Gill left with it. Gill, who 
was 19 years old at the time, later returned and opened a small movie house in Poyen. Gill reported many years later in the Sheridan 
Headlight: “When they got ready to leave, I just crawled into their covered wagon and went with them. That was my start in show 
business. We put on a show a few miles away that very night. I had practiced on a mandolin during the ride through the river bottoms 
during the day and rehearsed a few jokes. When we got set up in a rural school house in southwest Grant County, they let me go on 
stage my first night,” he stated. “I stayed with the show for years traveling all over the place helping put on shows. By 1915 I had 
bought a Model T Ford and a magic lantern and a bunch of slides. I had married in 1913, and my wife helped me show the slides, using 
a sheet for a screen. In 1925 we had a small power plant which furnished electricity for a movie projector. We had a couple of silent 
films. We parked our truck in Poyen and opened a small movie house there and did pretty well until 1929 when the Depression struck.”

Over the objections of some local churches, a movie theater opened in Sheridan about 1915. “There was a feeling that these things — 
the theaters, the movies — were evil and some felt took minds away from where they should be,” Goolsby explained. Edgar Shepherd 
operated the 1915 establishment until he sold it to Barney Shepherd and C.L. Rector. The theater was first located near the southwest 
corner of Oak and Bell streets. Over a period of time it was known by several names, Goolsby said, including Shepherd’s Theatre, 
Commercial, Royal, New (1934), Gem, Rex, and in the 1950s, the Grant.

According to a report in the Sheridan Headlight, Tye Nall operated a small motion picture business in 1917 which was later purchased 
by the Sheridan Brass Band to raise money for a bandmaster’s salary. Mrs. Esma Hamilton Springer played the piano for silent films in 
the old Commercial theater on the west side of Oak Street. She was asked to play for the picture show after a Mrs. Hammons became ill. 
Springer said she eventually played there for four to four-and-a-half years and earned $7 to $8 per week. “They ran a picture on 
Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturday afternoon and night,” Springer stated in museum archives. “I made about seven to eight dollars 
per week. Mr. Barney Shepherd and Hershel Goolsby operated the projector. Mrs. Rena Shepherd, Barney’s wife, sold tickets. Grandma 
Rector and Hershel Koon sold tickets, too. “There was no coke machine, but there was a popcorn and peanut roasting machine which they 
could roll in and out of the show. On Saturday it was a big treat for kids to come to town and buy a sack of popcorn and a coke from 
Haley’s Drug Store down the street.” Springer noted there was always a line of people on Saturday waiting for the show to open and 
that some patrons would sit through the picture twice. “When I played the piano, you could hear them crunching, crunching, crunching, 
because the movie was silent,” she continued. Some of the first silent and talking movies that Springer said she could remember 
included Tom Mix, Gene Autry, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor and Ginger Rogers. “Our Gang came and it was the biggest hit of all of 
them,” she continued. “The kids would break their necks when Our Gang comedies were on with words. Hi-Yo Silver [The Lone Ranger] was 
very popular. Cowboy shows were more popular than the others.” She stated some of the musical selections that she played during the 
movies included “Wedding Bells,” “Breaking Up the Old Gang,” “The Isles of Caprice,” “Did You Ever See Mama in the Night,” and one of 
the most popular was “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.”

Movie tickets cost 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. Most of the movies lasted from one-and-a-half to two hours. Springer’s 
upright piano was on the south side near the door about even with the first two rows of seats in the middle. The piano was situated first 
with the seats starting on the south. “The piano was turned just a little ‘catty-cornered’ so I could see the screen,” she said. “I had a 
small desk light that came down on my music. It was shaded out against a glare on the people.” Springer continued as the piano player 
until about mid-1924. Ruby Lee Koon then filled her position.

The small theater building included a ticket cage and a door on either side. “When the show wasn’t open, they had two big billboards with 
advertising pushed against the doors. Inside was a double row of seats against each wall and an aisle with eight or ten seats in the middle 
section. These seats sloped toward the front where the twelve or fourteen feet square screen was on a stage. The stage had drapes on both 
sides that could be pulled together. Small lights on both side walls illuminated the interior,” Springer stated. “This movie house burned 
and was moved across the street where Jack and Thomas Burton managed it for a while.” The theater across the street was called the Grant. 
According to archives, the theater was owned by B.F. Buzby and G.W. Jones. The building, facing west, was on the east side of Oak Street 
between Bell and Center and opened in 1948. It closed in 1958 and most recently served as Sheridan Lumber and Supply Co. Allen Burton, 
whose father served as manager, described in archives how the theater was arranged: “There was a little ticket cage where you paid for your 
admission and a lobby with a concession stand, restrooms and my dad’s office. After entering the lobby you turned either left or right and 
entered one of the two doors leading to the seating area,” Burton noted. “There was a balcony which had a staircase leading up to it and 
the projection room. This balcony was divided with a partition.”

Some moviegoers would enter the theater from behind the ticket cage and up a staircase screened off from the lobby and sat on one side of the 
partition. Special promotions, such as free pass tickets and bank nights, were offered by the theaters. “If a customer was sitting in a certain 
seat on bank night and the manager drew his number, the patron won a cash prize,” Goolsby explained. “Free passes were listed in the local 
newspaper.” Some of the movies playing at the local theaters that were advertised included “The Iron Claw” at Shepherd’s Theater in 1916, “The 
Last Trail,” “The Three Musketeers” and “Havana Widows” at the Gem Theatre in July of 1934; and “Three Comrades” at the Rex Theatre in November 
1939. A 1927 advertisement for the Royal Theatre stated: “Features the best pictures obtainable at all times. A place for good, clean, wholesome 
entertainment. We especially appreciate the patronage of the students.” The opening production for the Grant in 1948 was “Deep Waters” featuring 
Dana Andrews and Jean Peters with Cesar Romero, Dean Stockwell and Anne Revere.

An advertisement noted the Sheridan High School Orchestra would play several numbers before the pictured started. Other movie theaters in Grant 
County included operations at Leola and Poyen. A movie house opened in Leola about 1948 in a store building located near the post office site. 
It closed about 1958. In Poyen, a theater opened in 1953. Called the Little Town, it was operated by Donald Bailey of Malvern. A.C. Kennedy also 
operated a theater in Poyen at an earlier date.

The “big screen” movies came to Sheridan by way of a drive-in movie site that was built by U. Walker in 1953 on Highway 270 about a mile east of 
Sheridan’s central business district. Called the Drive-In 270 Theatre, the business was purchased by Minnie Clark in 1953 and was closed in 1963. 
There are no movie theaters operating today in Grant County. Goolsby explained that perhaps the biggest impact resulting in the closure of the 
local theaters was the influx of television. “The little theaters were somewhat hampered by the opening of the drive-in but probably the biggest 
impact came from the appearance of television,” he said. “Television is probably the biggest thing responsible for the theaters — and the drive-
in — closing down. People no longer had to leave their homes to see a movie and be entertained.”