Travels in Time: Historic Theaters

Tour curated by: Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology

Every downtown had one. They were grand old opera houses and movie palaces, built in the bustle of the city center. In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, these venues served as the heart of entertainment in most communities. Such theaters were great places for first dates or for catching the newest flick. Sadly, these historic treasures have begun to fade away. The creation of “talkies” signaled the demise of opera houses. Either demolished or adapted for a new use, the opera house has disappeared from our downtown landscape.

The heyday of the single screen theaters waned because single screen theaters were unable to compete with the multi-screen, big box theaters. Most single screen theaters have ceased their cinematographic functions, becoming venues for other uses. In many cases, owners have stripped the equipment, leaving just the shell of a building.

In 1946, moviegoers could choose from 155 drive-in theaters across the United States. By 1948, that number had boomed to 820, and in 1958, it peaked at an astonishing 5,000 total theaters across the United States. Despite our fascination with cars, even the drive-in theaters have largely been unable to survive.

What can be done to preserve these historic structures? This is the question the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA) hopes to answer through its Historic Theater Initiative. The DHPA announced the new initiative in 2002, with the goal of becoming a resource to main street organizations, not-for-profits, and for-profit corporations that own historic theaters, opera houses, and drive-ins. One step that the Initiative has taken is determining the number of the theaters in the state. Everyone is familiar with the theater in their hometowns, but exactly how many were there? How many are left? What is their condition? The survey found that over the years, Indiana had over 1900 theaters. Some last only a short time; the Hebron Opera House was built in 1900 and destroyed by fire in 1912. Still others have been continuously used since construction; The Huntington Drive-In was built in 1950 and still shows films.

Now the DHPA is working with owners from around the state. While not every theater can be saved, the work being done throughout the state is an inspiration to not only the staff, but also those individuals interested in preserving their own theater. We hope that through this project leaders in the preservation community will collaborate with owners of these historic resources to help preserve the heart and culture of our downtowns.

If you are interested in participating in the Historic Theater Initiative, or to make sure we have your favorite venue on our list, contact the DHPA at 317-232-1646.

Locations for Tour

This 1929 Spanish Eclectic style building was designed by Alvin Strauss, an architect from Fort Wayne. Chicago architect John Eberson specifically designed the theater. Eberson was known for his innovated designs of atmospheric theaters—theaters…

Originally called the Emboyd Theater, the theater opened in 1928 with 3100 seats. Given the $1.5 million price tag, opulence reigned throughout the building. However not all the extravagance was visible. The Emboyd contained a state-of-the-art…

The Spanish Revival style Indiana Theater is yet another creation of Chicago architect John Eberson. It was built in 1922 with a capacity of 1600 people on the main floor and in two balconies. The corner entry opens into a 3 story open rotunda that…

The Alhambra, designed by Frank J. Schlotter, opened in 1913. The 350 seat theater was built within a local neighborhood rather than a commercial area. It only took 120 days to construct the Alhambra with a final cost of $18,000. Schlotter…

The Huntington Theater was constructed in 1904 as a vaudeville house. It had 1100 seats, including 400 in the balcony. By 1911 the Huntington started showing movies and continued doing so until 1999. A major remodeling occurred in 1939 when the…

Unlike many of the larger scale theaters around the state, the Circle Theater was designed in the Neo-Classical style instead of the Spanish Revival Style. Since it was constructed in 1916 it predates many of these other theaters and the full…

The Eagles Theater, named for its location within the Eagles Building, opened in 1906. It was designed by Arland W. Johnson of Toledo, Ohio and occupied the first, second and third floors of the building. There were approximately 700 seats on the…

George T. Schreiber designed the Scottish Rite building in the Tudor Gothic style. Construction began on the limestone building in 1927 and lasted until 1929. Centralized within the Scottish Rite is a 210 foot tower that holds a 65 bell carillon. …

This massive building, constructed in 1909, originally was the headquarters for the Ancient Arabic Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Indianapolis architect Oscar Bohlen created this Middle Eastern styled building with minarets, brick banding,…

The Elco started out in 1924 as the Lerner Theater. This 2000-seat theater was designed for vaudeville by K. V. Vitchum, a Chicago architect. The exterior was covered in glazed terra cotta and had a series of columns, urns, and decorative cornice…

The Rockville Opera House was built in 1912 of yellow brick. Designed in the Mission Revival style, the Opera House originally held live performances and was later adapted for movies. Now known as the Ritz, the Rockville Chamber of Commerce…

The Palace Theater was built in 1914 to show motion pictures. The name changed to the Crown in the 1940s. At some point the façade was altered and now has a large crown projecting from above the marquee. The Crown has continuously shown movies…

The building that houses the Crump Theater dates back to 1870. It was converted into the Crump Opera House about 1899. The 600 seat Romanesque styled building was remodeled again in the 1920s to accommodate motion pictures. However, the most…

The 1922 Artcraft Theater is just off of the courthouse square in Franklin. It originally hosted silent movies and vaudeville. It was also used by the local high school and Franklin College for plays and performances. In the 1930s-1940s the…