W. E. Lewis standing in front of the Scenic Theatre, c. 1913

Photo courtesy of Linda E. Lewis Evans

Sometimes I fantasize about Montavilla attics with forgotten boxes or trunks filled with treasure troves of old photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia that would fill in gaps in our neighborhood’s history.

After the publication of “Montavilla movie theaters, part one: The Silent Film Era”, my fantasy became reality when I got an email from Linda E. Lewis Evans about an old photo of the Scenic Theatre in her family collection.

This photo shows a dapper Mr. W. E. Lewis standing at the theater entrance surrounded by an array of movie advertising for films released in 1912 and 1913. That means it was probably taken about three years after the Scenic was constructed at the northwest corner of NE 79th Avenue and SE Stark Street. (Today this called the Southstar Building.)

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes, and the Scenic Theater photo certainly offers a variety of stories. From it, we can learn what the Scenic looked like in the 1910s, how a business was promoted, how movies were advertised, and what kind of films were shown at the Scenic.

As you can see, the Scenic was a small, simple theater, nothing like the grand movie palaces downtown. But it’s typical of other neighborhood theaters back then. The entrance is a shallow alcove with a central ticket booth— advertising ten-cent tickets for children under twelve— and two double-doors to the auditorium on either side.

The name Scenic Theatre appears twice, on the awning and on the wall behind a mesh screen. Brick was used for fire protection, and the front wall was plastered over long ago, but it is still visible on the 79th Street side.

The photo itself is typical of promotional photos showing proprietors standing in front of their businesses. The sepia-toned photo is printed on postcard stock, which could be made in multiples for distribution.

Movie theaters used advertising to make passersby aware of their current films. Posters for single films, still used today, were the most common form of street advertising. The Scenic photo includes six such posters, featuring three different movies.

There is also a large poster from Vitagraph Studios on the far left, with an array of small, circular portraits of Vitagraph actors, indicating how popular movie stars had become by this time. In earlier films, actors were anonymous, but this changed around 1910 when producers realized “stars” could help sell movies.

The large cutout illustration of six wild felines located across the theater entrance is a more unusual and eye-catching form of movie promotion. Although faint in the reproduction, the text below the images is clearly visible in the original photo. It reads:“Selig presents the wild animal sensation: Kings of the Forest.” This 1912 two-reel movie was produced by Selig Polyscope, a company well-known for movies featuring wild animals.

I can imagine this display appealing especially to the children of the neighborhood, although movies featuring wild animals were extremely popular with everyone in the 1910s.

Detail showing W. E. Lewis next to the “Kings of the Forest” display

Another popular genre was the Western, represented here by the two posters on the left showing an actor in cowboy garb. These advertise “Alkali Ike’s Misfortunes”, released May 31, 1913. The Alkali Ike series starred Irish comedian Augustus Carney (1870 – 1920) and was made by a major producer of Westerns, Essanay studios, then located in Fremont, California. “Alkali Ike’s Misfortunes” was an 11-minute one-reeler and Essanay could crank out two one-reelers a week.

Such short films were standard fare for these early theaters. And dramas were another popular category. In the photo two dramatic films are advertised: three identical posters for the Civil War movie, “The Seventh Son” (1912), and one, immediately left of Lewis, for D. W. Griffith’s “A Timely Interception” (1913).

In the first film, Ralph W. Ince gave his famous impersonation of Abraham Lincoln where the president pardons a young deserter— “The Seventh Son”— because his mother had already lost six sons in the war. “A Timely Interception” (1913) tells the story of a dastardly attempt to swindle an old man of his oil rich property, foiled— of course— in the nick of time.

As you can see, such old photos are precious relics of times past. The Lewis-Scenic photo brings an early 20th Century Stark Street business alive. It shows what was playing at a point in time. It demonstrates how people found out about the latest offerings. It also demonstrates movie preferences in the early 1910s.

So if you come across old photos or other Montavilla documents, please don’t throw them out! To us historians these are treasures. I’d love to know about yours.


Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history?

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