Small town movie theaters, like the Arcadia in Kerrville, were windows to the world for isolated communities in the mid-20th century. They were gathering places, rural entertainment centers and purveyors of mass culture in the age before cable television.
The Kerrville Amusement Company built the Arcadia in 1929 in the Spanish Mission style. It could seat 1,000 for movies, live theater and Vaudeville. There was an orchestra pit at the foot of the stage and a $5,000 pipe organ for use during silent films.
The building had no air-conditioning, but it had fans for ventilation and steam-heat for cold weather.
The Arcadia opened on June 29, 1929 with a screening of the silent picture “Irene” starring Colleen More. Following the two-day run of “Irene,” the Arcadia showed “The Merry Widow” with Mae Murray, “Tumbleweeds” with William S. Hart and “Robin Hood” with Douglas Fairbanks.
Not long after the theater opened, management shelled out $15,000 to equip the Arcadia for talking pictures. The Western Electric Sound System solved the annoying synchronization problem.
The Arcadia showed its first talky on Nov. 28, 1929 — a Universal Pictures production of the musical “Broadway.” The talking picture was big news in Kerrville — bigger than the record number of Kerr County cedar posts shipped that month.
The folks in Kerrville heard Greta Garbo’s voice for the first time on April 20, 1930 in the movie “Anna Christie.” By the time the run was over, just about everyone in town could mimic Garbo’s husky Swedish accent.
In 1948, the owners of the Arcadia remodeled the theater. Workers stripped away the original Spanish Mission façade and replaced it with a more modern Art Deco design featuring sharp lines, bold colors and geometric shapes.
The new façade included a 20-foot vertical sign designed to harmonize with the architecture. At night the sign lit up the entire block of Water Street.
The Arcadia shaped social life in Kerrville. Baby boomers took their first dates to the Arcadia. The Saturday matinee was one of the first places children could go unsupervised. The matinee was usually a cartoon, a newsreel and a cowboy movie, commonly called an “oater.” It was the best babysitter in town.
Parents trusted the local theater to provide cheap wholesome entertainment. Price of admission was 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults. A box of popcorn was 10 cents.
Vaudeville had gone out of style by the 1930s, but the Arcadia occasionally hosted live performances. RCA recording artist Jimmie Rodgers lived just around the corner on Earl Garrett Street and may have played at the Arcadia.
There is no evidence that Will Rogers performed at the Arcadia, but he was once in the neighborhood.
On Jan. 27, 1931, a shiny new Packard pulled up at the curb in front of Schreiner’s Store across the street from the theater. Will Rogers, on his way from San Antonio to do a show in San Angelo, chatted out the window and shook hands with a crowd of star-struck pedestrians standing in the rain on Water Street.
On June 19, 1960, singer Johnny Horton played a Sunday Matinee at the Arcadia as part of a traveling show sponsored by Shreveport radio station KWKH and the Louisiana Hayride. Horton wrote and sang the title song for the movie “Sink the Bismarck” — the same movie that opened at the Arcadia that evening.
Going to the movie was a small town ritual until traditional single-screen theaters fell victim to changing times. Television eroded the theater business. People still showed up for blockbusters, but in the 1960s, Hollywood dramatically raised fees for its most popular movies.
The latest technology, especially the kind of equipment required for hit movies like “Star Wars,” was expensive. The conversion from 35mm to digital was a $100,000 investment. Many small town theaters, already with razor thin profit margins, couldn’t afford it.
The Arcadia, looking rundown and in need of routine maintenance, broke even for a while and then operated at a loss until one night in 1988 the marquee went dark and the house lights dimmed for the last time.
Michael Barr is a retired teacher and principal, living in Fredericksburg where he spends time writing books, columns and magazine articles. Contact him at email@example.com.