Maggie Brown and Steve Clem

In the basement of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Director of Exhibits Maggie Brown and Steve Clem discuss a statue from the Ritz theater, formerly at 18 W. Fourth St. 

As movie theaters return to a sort of normalcy with Marvel characters and LeBron James entertaining sold out screening rooms, Circle Cinema hosting film festivals and Admiral Twin continuing to host carloads of people watching double features, a new book is out chronicling Tulsa's rich cinema history.  

"Tulsa Movie Theaters," published by Arcadia as part of the “Images of America” series, looks back at the city's movie houses going back more than 100 years. The book features more than 200 photos and lots of information about nearly 100 theaters, spanning the silent era to today's era of multiplexes and giant IMAX screens. 

Tulsa Movie Theaters

The book is co-written by Tulsa Historical Society & Museum Director of Exhibits Maggie Brown and Sand Springs native Steve Clem, who recently retired from Public Radio Tulsa. The book features a foreword by Gailard Sartain

On Thursday, July 22, Tulsa Historical Society will host a special book release event at 6 p.m.

In December, TulsaPeople shared a story on the making of the book, and Brown appeared on Tulsa Talks: A TulsaPeople Podcast to discuss their work. A listener's response to the podcast conversation led to a movie theater history mystery being solved. (It's mentioned below about the Ritz.)

In celebration of the book's release, TulsaPeople checked in with Brown and Clem to learn about some of their favorite historical discoveries and other fun facts they learned while co-writing the book. 

While writing "Tulsa Movie Theaters," Clem learned that…

  • …a lot of the information available online about Tulsa’s historic theaters is incorrect or incomplete—especially pertaining to each theater’s years of operation. So, we consulted multiple sources for our dates and information with a goal to create the definitive, accurate book on the subject.
  • …Tulsa’s most ornate downtown movie palaces, the Orpheum and the Ritz, built in 1924 and 1926 respectively, were designed by the same man, one of the top theater architects in the nation, John Eberson. The Ritz was “atmospheric,” a style Eberson perfected in Houston, then brought to Tulsa. Built to resemble an Italian Villa, “Atmospheric” refers to the lights embedded into the ceiling to simulated stars, and clouds projected overhead using a special machine called a Brenograph. The effect was like watching a film outdoors under a brilliant nighttime sky.
  • …beautiful architecture, under the right circumstances (or the wrong circumstances) can be lost forever. That’s the sadness of Tulsa’s Movie Theater history. During urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, many of the city’s wondrous movie houses met the wrecking ball, including Tulsa’s “Big Four” downtown theaters, Majestic, Rialto, Orpheum and Ritz. Others, such as the Will Rogers, Delman and Plaza were lost as populations shifted and demolition was deemed the least-costly option.
  • …downtown Tulsa’s oldest buildings, including several movie theaters, were razed during one single urban renewal project, the development of the Williams Center Tower, now known as the BOK Tower.  Those buildings, in the 100 and 200 blocks of South Main, had housed Tulsa’s earliest storefront theaters of the silent film era.
  • …Tulsa did not get organized in historic preservation until after many of Tulsa’s architectural gems, including historic movie theaters were gone.
  • …each generation had their own movie theaters. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, spacious stand-alone palaces gave way to multiplexes with big sound and increasingly smaller auditoriums. In the new millennium, some of the glamour has returned with stadium-seating and plush recliners. We cover all of these periods, beginning with the tiny store-front theaters of the silent film era in early Tulsa.

As part of the research process, the writers asked for Tulsans to share their favorite theater experiences.

Brown shared some of her favorite responses they received.

Fun Facts about theaters:

  • The Cove, 2321 W 41st, had a “crying room.” This allowed patrons to remove their children from the main theater but still watch the show.
  • Apparently the tower of the Will Rogers Theater had a light bulb on the very top that had to be changed by the staff. One person remembers her brother having to climb to the very top to change the bulb.

Scary stuff:

  • About the 1959 film “The Tingler”: “I saw it at The Brook Theater with my sister and brother. During a chaotic scene, they projected a Tingler-looking creature crawling up the aisle of the theater. It was thrilling!”
  • “In the early fifties, my sister and a friend of hers went to the Cameo [1315 W 17th] to see a Frankenstein movie. The theater had a man made up to look like Frankenstein to be in the theater that day. As they were leaving the theater, they heard a commotion and turned to see that Frankenstein was right behind them. They ran all the way home.”
  • "My parents worked at the downtown theaters and were there all the time. They used the movies as a "babysitter." The funniest time was when they sat us down to watch "House of Wax." My brother was 4 and I was 7. It was so scary, I ran to the lobby, crying, to tell my dad my brother was hiding under the seat. He ran down there to get him. That is the last time I remember my brother allowed to go with me!
    • A subsequent email explained: “I want to tell you, they had not seen the "House of Wax" so they didn't know how bad it was & they thought my brother would go to sleep. (just to clarify why they sat us down in the movie.) They never forgot it. Obviously, neither did I!”

Dates:

  • “I remember I took a date to the Continental Theater on a weeknight in the summer. We were the only two people in this gigantic facility. I fibbed and told her that I had rented the entire theater for us. Right on cue, the projectionist leans out of the window and yells, ‘Tell me when you want to start.’ Really funny.”
  • “I went on many dates [at the Admiral Twin]. I remember one date, he had just gotten a new, used car and was so excited. I ended up spilling a Coke in my seat, and he was so upset that we left before the movie even started!”
  • "My father was an usher at several of the movie theaters downtown. My mother was so enamored with him (he was very handsome) she frequently went to the movies just to be escorted to her seat by him. Her girlfriends would giggle and laugh as she would swoon."

Oops:

  • “It was 1964 and my brother and I rode our bikes to the Brook Theater and watched the movie. Because we were so young we left when the screen said, ‘Intermission’. We thought it was over. Fortunately, an employee of the theater explained that the movie was only halfway completed. He took us back in.”
  • “I remember seeing 'E.T.' [at the Boman Twin] with two of my best friends and in the sad bits chanted silently to myself to "not cry" in front of my other 11 year old friends. I failed.”

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