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Where in the world? Early Winchester theatres

By Harry Enoch

This is the first in a series of columns that will run each Friday regarding early movie theatres in Winchester.

The silent film era

The silent film era in Winchester began in 1907 and ended with the first “talkie,” which made its appearance at the Leeds in 1929.

Anyone who happens to watch one of these old films today can be forgiven for wondering what all the excitement was about. These early movies had no spoken dialogue, relying instead on the actors’ gestures and mime with occasional title cards to convey plot and key dialogue.

Today these films seem primitive and barely watchable, but this is more because of their poor state of preservation.

Silent films were usually accompanied by a piano and sometimes a small orchestra. The music was improvised and keyed to the action shown on the screen.

The first silent film theatres were called “nickelodeons.” These were small affairs established in existing storefronts by addition of a projector, screen and chairs. The name came from the nickel admission charge.

I recently had a pleasant visit with Vic and Mary Bloomfield discussing early Winchester theatres. They both assured me those old silent movies made a bigger impression on them than television did when it came along. They attributed this partly to the fact sources of amusement were so sparse in those days.

Vic’s father and uncle, Clarence and Arthur Bloomfield, were both involved in Winchester’s emerging movie business, so it was natural Vic became a huge fan. He recalled going to the theatre every time the program changed. In his youth, the films played Sunday and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with westerns and serials on Saturday. He even managed to set up his own small theatre in his parents’ basement, where he had friends over to watch films he ordered by mail.

Clarence Bloomfield once prepared a list of the Winchester theatres he could recall, giving their names and locations. Vic was kind enough to share the list with me, and it was most helpful in writing this article.

Lexington ushered in the silent film era at the Woodland Park auditorium, which commenced in June 1906.

According to Main Street Amusements, a history of Lexington’s early theatres, Nicholasville, Paris and Versailles followed in July 1907 “and four months later in Winchester.”

Court View Theatre

The author was incorrect regarding Winchester. On February 7, 1907, the Sun-Sentinel reported, “The Electric Theatre opened in the Court View Hotel last night. The show consists of moving pictures and illustrated songs.”

The latter involved a vocalist and pianist performing while a film projected images on the screen; these were used as a means of marketing sheet music.

Regular ads began appearing for Court View Theatre: “Open every night from 6 to 10 o’clock; we give a clean, moral up-to-date show; come one, come all; admission 5 cents; Cox & Patterson [of Cincinnati], managers.”

Clarence Bloomfield’s list referred to this as the “Band Theatre,” a name not found in newspaper ads but may have been a local nickname.

The Court View Hotel was destroyed in a spectacular fire in January 1909.

Opened 30 years earlier as the Central Hotel, it had been considered one of the finest in the area. The city purchased the property to build City Hall.

Bijou Theatre

According to Clarence Bloomfield’s list, Winchester’s first theatre was the Bijou on East Broadway. It was located in the turn-of-the-century building with the three projecting bay windows that now houses Bill’s Place.

The theatre is difficult to document, as they apparently did not advertise in the newspaper.

We find it shown on a 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, where the right half of that building is designated “Moving Pictures.”

The only other information comes from an article in the Winchester News, February 1, 1909: “Moving Picture Sale. The chairs, piano machine and other fixtures of the old moving picture theatre on East Broadway were sold at auction Monday morning to satisfy a debt. A large crowd attended.”

David Matlack purchased 100 chairs and the “picture machine.”

Winchester Theatre

at the Opera House

Opera House fare at the Winchester Theatre mainly consisted of fine plays, musical performances, distinguished lecturers and vaudeville acts.

However, in August 1907, they began showing silent films. Moving pictures played at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

The films, usually advertised as “3000 feet of moving pictures,” were not movies as we know them with actors and plot.

For example, they might show film footage shot from a moving train or at a scenic location like Niagara Falls or some exotic foreign location. Admission was five cents.

After several years, Opera House moving picture ads ceased. Then in July 1912, an industry magazine — Motion Picture World (MPW) — reported that “Sil Dinelli of Winchester, Ky. has opened a theatre in that town, utilizing the opera house. A Powers machine is in use, and the new house has received liberal patronage.”

The Winchester Theatre showed feature films until about 1917, when advertising for motion pictures ceased and may have ended with the death of Sylvester Dinelli in April of that year.

Winchester Auditorium

Winchester Auditorium began the early 20th Century as a roller skating rink on Main Street, where the parking lot now stands adjacent to the Brown-Proctor.

The Auditorium held indoor baseball and basketball games, as well as broomball — hockey on roller skates — that was hugely popular at the time.

In 1909, the newspaper reported on plans to open a movie theatre at the Auditorium.

“The rink will be partitioned off in two sections. The front of the rink will be used for a soft drink emporium, and the rear end will be used for a moving picture theatre.”

The grand opening of the Winchester Auditorium summer garden and motion picture theatre was April 3. Films were shown every afternoon from 3 to 5:30 p.m. and evenings from 7:30 to 10 p.m., except Sundays. Admission was 5 cents, except on Saturday nights when 3,000 feet of film was shown and admission was increased to 10 cents.

D. B. Scobee managed the theatre; Fred Dakin sang and played piano; Arthur Bloomfield and Sol Ratliff were proprietors. The theatre closed in summer and reopened in the fall.

In 1910, the Auditorium advertised itself as “the only continuous show house in the City.” That year the theatre began showing feature films produced by movie studios. The first named film advertised in Winchester was “Go West, Young Woman, Go West,” a western comedy featuring Tom Mix, which played at the Auditorium on Nov. 29. This was followed by a string of films from the Biograph Company in New York City, including several by the famed silent film director, D. W. Griffith (a Kentucky native). Biograph was the first film studio dedicated solely to making movies. These early feature films only ran 15 or 20 minutes and are called “shorts” today.

By 1912, movie ads ended and the Auditorium returned to a full-time skating rink. Its demise may have been hastened by the rise of local competition.

The second installment of this series will appear in the Friday, May 19, edition of the Sun. Harry Enoch, retired biochemist and history enthusiast, has been writing for the Sun since 2005.