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Colonial / Fox Theatre
409 N. Broadway
Built 1920 - National Historic Register 2008
 
 
 
Colonial Theatre - photo 1940's
Pittsburg Morning Sun, March 21, 2000
 
 

On Tuesday, March 16, 1920 the issue of the Pittsburg Daily Headlight said it all, “You can tell the world that Pittsburg has one of the finest theatres in [the] Southwest,” announcing that the Colonial Theatre, now known as the Fox Theatre, was ready to open its doors to the public. The opening was a testament to the ambition and dreams of Alexander Besse and the Pittsburg Amusement Company, who had wanted to bring the best entertainment available in vaudeville, stage shows and films to the citizens of Pittsburg.
Alexander Besse was born November 13, 1868 in La Vout-sur-Loir, France and came to America, landing in New Orleans in 1884. He came to Pittsburg a short time later beginning his business career peddling lamp wicks and shoestrings in the county. In about 1894, he opened his first store at 104-108 West Fifth Street offering a variety of everyday merchandise needed by the citizens of the growing town. He soon added organs and sewing machines to his inventory and by 1900 had outgrown his small store on 5th Street and relocated to 413 N. Broadway, where he began selling pianos which had become the instrument of choice for homes at that time.
Around 1910 or 1911, Besse got involved in the mining of coal in the area by organizing the Besse-Cockerill Coal Company with Carl Cockerill, a well-known early coal mine operator in the area. The company was one of the first coal companies to use large steam shovels in strip mining operations. He left this company after about five years and sold the company to John Italiani. After the sale, Besse invested and owned the Oskaloosa Coal Company in Oskaloosa, Iowa and the Pittsburg & Arkansas Zinc Company in Zinc, Arkansas. He also was involved in lead mining near Joplin, Missouri.
April 1, 1917, businessmen Willard H. Daly, Robert H. “Bert” Klock and his son Glenn E. Klock, formed the Pittsburg Amusement Company to operate several of the theatres in town. Daly owned the 800 seat Mystic Theatre (1907-1920) at 122 E. Fourth, the current site of Brenner Mortuary. The Klock’s owned the Klock Theatre (1919-1926), later the Midland Theater (1926-1958), at 414 N. Broadway, the current site of the Kansas Teacher’s Credit Union. Alexander Besse became involved with the company in 1918 and ran the Main Street Theatre in Picher, Oklahoma for a few years.
In June 1919, Besse began construction on the Colonial Theatre across the street from the Klock Theatre. To build the new theatre, the Amusement Company purchased the building at 409 N. Broadway from A. H. Shafer owner of the Kettler Furniture & Carpet Company. The furniture company moved to 614-616 N. Broadway, and ironically in February 1926 the Archie Josephson Amusement Company of Kansas City purchased that building for a 1500 seat theatre development that never transpired.
The building at 409 N. Broadway was torn down and the new Colonial Theatre went up fast. The theatre, modeled after the Isis Theatre in Kansas City, was designed and built by Asa Messenger, a local contractor who built many of the buildings on Broadway and at the University. The footprint of the theatre was 50 by 170 feet and was built of Italian Renaissance design with raked tapestry brick and terra cotta trimmings. There were two diamonds enclosed in a herringbone pattern evenly spaced on either side of the entryway, which was flanked by two columns.
Fronting the street there were four retail shops that opened onto the street and inside the inner lobby. There were also two sets of stairs leading to the W. H. Kelley Barbershop & Pool Hall in the basement, one set located outside the building on the north and the other inside the main lobby. Mr. Kelley had operated a barbershop in the Commerce Building next door for many years prior, but decided to open a new shop in the basement of the Colonial Theatre. White tile was used on the floor and to a height of 8 feet on the walls and had 4 pool tables and 3 barber chairs. The white tile is still downstairs and in good shape. If you look real close at the walls, you can still see the imprint of where the sinks used to be.
The other shops consisted of the Smoke Shop ran by W. H. Seleman, where one could purchase tobacco, candy, fountain drinks and magazines, the Little Kitchenette operated by O., M. Richmond that would serve lunches to the theatre patrons and anyone passing by. There was also the Consumers Coffee Company owned by M. L. Probst where he roasted the coffee beans and peanuts on site. Wright’s Greenhouse also had a small stand inside the Coffee Company and sold cut flowers and blooming plants. The fourth business was the Pittsburg Shoe Shining Parlor. The Pittsburg Candy Company sold Mexican Hot Cakes, a popular confectionary candy, in the lobby.
The construction of the Colonial Theatre was truly a “local” project with more than 10 local businesses involved. The Hance White & Son marble works located at Second and Elm furnished the stonework. The Borden-Brisbin Company installed over eight miles of electric wiring, which included a fairly new system, a dimmer that would allow the lights to be adjusted gradually from very low to a brilliant blaze. Asa Messenger, architect and local contractor, turned out all the woodwork at his mill at 201 E. Fourth Street. The Nuttman-Lemon Lumber Company installed the Acme plaster that covered the walls. A. O. Wheeler supplied Sherwin-Williams paint and materials for H. A. Smith to decorate the inside. Large steel girders that support the roof were made by the Pittsburg Boiler & Machine Company, later McNally’s, in the shops at Third and Walnut. The Pittsburg Cornice Works installed all metal work, inside and out.
At a cost of $80,000, the Colonial was built with the best materials available and no cost being spared to bring a “charming and delightful playhouse,” to Pittsburg. Before the 1926 renovation of the facade, the ticket booth was set deep inside an inner lobby. The auditorium consisted of 1,200 seats on one floor without a balcony. Besse had a strong dislike for balconies so the seats were placed in a sloping style, similar to what we now call “stadium seating,” so no patron’s view was obstructed. There was a 50 by 27 foot stage that was large enough for most traveling vaudeville shows that the company booked out of Chicago through the Interstate Booking Agency and feature films. The interior of the theatre was decorated in white and blue tones and two large domes in the ceiling, which were removable, and contained big fans to keep the theatre cool in the summer. The film projecting room was designed by W. C. Wilson in the “split air plan,” to allow enough fresh air for the operator but keep the odors from the film getting into the theatre. Using a ventilation system that used air shafts and powerful electric fans, clean fresh air was rotated in and out of the theatre every few seconds. Music was supplied for silent films and traveling shows without their own orchestra, by an in-house orchestra. On special occasions, such as the grand opening of the theatre, the Botefuhr Orchestra supplied music. Organized and directed by Frank S. Botefuhr, owner of a large music supply house in town. The orchestra was comprised of local musicians, who had been playing in show houses and theatres in Pittsburg from 1888.
Opening day, March 17, 1926 over 2000 people attended the premier with at least 1000 being turned away. Five hundred seats for the opening were sold for .50 cents with the remaining sold at .35 cents. The first film in the new theatre was the 8-reel silent feature film “Everywoman,” which was billed as “Everywoman, played by Violet Heming, in search of Love, deserted in turn by Modesty, Beauty, Wealth and Youth, but rescued by Truth and Devotion.” The film was based on the stage play of the same name by Walter Browne and had been produced by the Paramount Artcraft Picture Corporation, the early parent company of today’s Paramount Studios. It was directed by George H. Medford and had opened in the U.S. to great acclaim on July 14, 1919 with a top-notch cast for the time, including Noah Beery and Wanda Hawley who rose to stardom in Cecil B. DeMille films.
After the premier, the Colonial followed a typical schedule showing a matinee at 1 pm of vaudeville and a movie then another show at 5 pm without vaudeville. The next show would begin at 6:30 pm followed by a short vaudeville act at 8:00 pm. The final show of the day started at 8:30 pm followed by more vaudeville at 10:00 pm. Most movies were about an hour in length with the vaudeville acts lasting between 45 to 60 minutes. Admission prices for the matinees were .25 cents for adults and .10 cents for children. Evening shows were .35 cents for adults and .10 cents for children. These prices stayed pretty constant until 1927 when sound pictures became available and admission was raised to .55 cents for adults and .15 cents for children. To entice people to come to the theatre, various incentives were given to make sure there was a full house. During the Depression, theatres would offer dishes for every adult ticket purchased making sure that most people would return over and over again to complete their set of dishes.
In the February 15, 1926 Pittsburg Daily Headlight, it was announced by the Pittsburg Amusement Company that they were going to remodel and update both the Colonial Theatre and the Klock Theatre, spending a combined $100,000. The Colonial was going to be “made modern in every respect.” In April of 1926, the Midland Theatre & Realty Company of Kansas announced that it would be taking over the lease of both the Colonial and the Klock. The Midland Company operated theatres in Wichita, Salina and Hutchison, and were in the process of building the Midland Theatre at 13th & Main in Kansas City, MO. Boller Brothers of Kansas City and Los Angeles were hired as the architects and Asa Messenger was brought in to once again be the contractor on the remodel, which would cost about $15,000 and take about three weeks to complete.
The most visible changes to the Colonial were done to the front of the building. The arched entryway was enclosed, by moving the ticket booth to the street, creating a large inner lobby with a lowered false ceiling. Stairs that led from the street to the basement business was eliminated, and a new set of stairs were built inside the main lobby going down to the basement which had been remodeled into a women’s lounge and restroom. But probably the most visible façade change was the installation of a new 25-foot electric Colonial marquis suspended over the sidewalk 10 feet. It was felt that the new sign would present “a metropolitan theatrical aspect along Broadway” and “a creditable attraction not alone to the theatre but also to Broadway and Pittsburg.”  Inside the main theatre was repainted and new light fixtures installed along with a new burgundy stage curtain, which is still hanging in the theatre to this day. The stage was extended out 10 feet, covering the orchestra pit. Under the stage is a work area and the stairs going up to what was the orchestra pit are still there ending at the edge of the stage. Cross aisles were also added between the ‘balcony’ and the main floor and down the two sides reducing the number of seats to 900. The Colonial reopened for business on Monday, May 31, 1926 with the Klock closing for its own major renovation. The Klock reopened on Labor Day, September 6, 1926 as the Midland Theatre.
The Midland Theatre & Realty Company operated the Colonial until about 1944 when the Fox Theatre Company, who also took over the lease on the Midland, leased the building. In 1959, the facade of Colonial was once again remodeled with the shops on the south side being enclosed with brick creating space for theatre offices. The art deco Colonial marquis was replaced with the marquis off the Midland that had been closed in 1958 due to a drop in customers because of the growing popularity of television. The Colonial Theatre was officially renamed the Fox Theatre after the renovation was completed in 1959. The interior of the theatre has remained mostly unchanged since the 1926 renovation. The Midland building was sold to Dr. F. H. Rush who owned the building north of it. The building was torn down in early 1973 and the Teacher’s Credit Union was built on the site.
In the late 1970’s, the Fox Theatre changed hands once again with it being leased by Dickinson Theatres who already were leasing the Cozy Theatre at 215 N. Broadway and the Drive-Ins at the north and south end of town. They continued operations at the Fox until 1987 when it was closed and Dickinson moved its theatre operations to Meadowbrook Mall at the south end of town where they now operate an eight-screen theatre. During this entire time, the building was owned by the Besse Family and was only leased to the various theatre operators.
The Colonial/Fox Theatre building has played an important role in the history and development of Pittsburg from the day it was opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1920. It saw the end of vaudeville and silent films and the introduction of “talkies” and it was one of the first theatres in the area to allow African Americans to sit anywhere in the theatre instead of just in designated areas. In 2007 the 88 year old building the theatre was purchased from the Besse family by the Colonial/Fox Foundation who has plans on restoring it and making it once again an intregal part of activity in downtown Pittsburg. In early 2008, the foundation was successful in getting the theatre on the Kansas State Register of Historical Places and the National Register of Historical Places.

 
Coloinal / Fox Theatre Images
 
 
   
Alexander Besse
Pittsburg Amusement Company
       
 
Click on an item to see a larger image
 
Colonial Theatre Opening Ad
- Pittsburg Daily Headlight,
May 16, 1920
Colonial Theatre Opening Ad
- Pittsburg Daily Headlight,
May 16, 1920
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map,
Colonial Theatre - April 1923 - courtesy Gene DeGrusen Axe Library
Colonial/Fox Theatre
- webmaster photo 1997
 
Signs of the Colonial/Fox Theatre
- webmaster photo 1997
Looking toward the stage from in
front of the balcony area. The 1926 stage curtain is still hanging and intact
- webmaster photo 1997
Looking up toward the balcony
area. The Colonial/Fox was one of
the first theatres to use what we call today "stadium" seating in 1920.
- webmaster photo 1997
The original1920 painted procenium arch located behind the false front of the stage behind the curtain.
- webmaster photo 1997
 

Click Here to Visit the
Colonial/Fox Theatre Foundation's Website

1926 wood trim frames that had framed murals on the walls. It is believed that some of the murals might still exist behind the blue fabric.
- webmaster photo 1997
The projection room and equipment located at the top of the balcony area.
- webmaster photo 1997
 
 
Colonial/Fox Theatre Articles
*PDH = Pittsburg Daily Headlight
 
  • “Pittsburg’s New Playhouse” - PDH, Tues, March 16, 1920 (this was an 8 page section with numerous articles about the companies that were involved with the building of the theatre or opening businesses within the theatre. Many were written as story advertisements and are listed below)
   
 
 

 

 
updated May 19, 2008
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