Call it the picture show, the talkies, the flicks or the movies, this great celluloid adventure has been the main source of entertainment for many Americans since the country’s first story film “The Great Train Robbery” was produced in1903.
Poplar Bluff was no exception to this phenomenon. It boasted at least three movie theaters before 1914, and it was in that year that a man named I. W. Rodgers came to this city and bought the Princess, the Lyceum and the Criterion theaters and started an era of entertainment. Later he bought the Jewel Theater and built the Rodgers Theatre. He and his family continued to furnish the movie entertainment in Poplar Bluff for 52 years, until l966 when the Kerasotes Brothers Theaters of Springfield, Ill., bought the company.
Not to be forgotten, however, is the Strand Theater, which also operated here for many years under other management. This
theater is remembered by most people as one that showed second rate and risque films.
The Rodgers Theatre, at the corner of Pine and Broadway, still stands as a tribute to this bygone era, the only one of these theaters still standing. This historic building, though only 50 years old, has an outstanding appearance. Its architectural design is Art Moderne/ Deco. It was closed in May of 1998 and its deterioration is evident as it waits for restoration.
After many years of owning and operating theaters, Mr. Rodgers built this theater and said at the time it was opened, “when the Rodgers opens….my plans and ambitions will be fully realized.”
The theater opened June 1, l949, with a great deal of fanfare and the showing of the movie “Red Canyon” starring George Brent and Ann Blyth with Howard Duff, Jane Darwell and Edgar Buchanan. Eighteen hundred people attended the opening festivities that included a ribbon cutting, music by the Poplar Bluff Municipal Band and a dedication by the city mayor, E. W. Robinson. Mr. Robinson bought the first ticket to the show.
The theater was reported to be the finest between St. Louis and Memphis at the time it opened. It was fully air conditioned and comfortably warmed by forced air and radiant heat .
An attempt to describe its elegance, according to a reporter for the Daily American Republic in the May 31, 1949, issue of the newspaper, would be like an attempt to describe a “gentle breeze on a June night.”
The building occupies 11,648 square feet. When it was opened, it contained 1160 red plush “Bodyform“ seats, 20 of which were equipped with hearing aid attachments. A cry room for small children and their mothers in the balcony had a plate glass front for viewing the movie; it was soundproof and fully air conditioned.
The marquee was brilliantly lighted and the tall glass tower, which still displays large red letters that spell the name of the theater, stood in front of ten wide brightly colored panels.
Movie goers entered the lobby through solid walnut doors. The lobby is circular and had a large popcorn machine and candy counter. Jujubes were one of the favorite candy snacks of the day. Leather benches lined one of the walls of the lobby.
Joining the theater on the north side was a drug store with a lunch counter. It was part of the Rodgers building, which also contains office space for several businesses.
Butler County became the owner of the theater building in Jan.,1999. The owners, then Kerasotes Theatres, gave the building to the county when they moved to a new multiplex theater on Highway 67 South. The plan is to restore the theater and make it available for live performances and other community events. The office space will be used by the county government.
Today the city and county have many residents of the Baby Boomer’s generation, and a little before and after, who went to Saturday cowboy shows, and stayed to see it again, and who remember “first date” movies in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
They also remember the late F.P. “Pete” Gloriod., theatre manager from 1950 to 1964, who ran the theater in a firm and quiet way. Mr. Gloriod ran a tight ship. He demanded discipline and respect from his young patrons, adults too, and he got it. He needed only to walk the length of the theater when things got a bit noisy and everyone straightened up…if by chance they didn’t, he picked them up by the collar of their shirt and took them out of the theater firmly and reasonably gently. Pete was a tall athletic man but even more than his size, he was to be feared because of his connections—-he grew up in Poplar Bluff and he knew every kid’s father.
The Rodgers‘ had many fine employees who are remembered but Pete Gloriod is remembered from a time when there was little else in entertainment for young people here
than the “picture show ” and they flocked to it. Seldom was there a movie that required parental guidance and never on Saturday.
Mr. Rodgers died in 1958, at the age of 83, after a long career in the motion picture world. He became interested as a very young man when movies were short skits of dancers, children playing or street scenes—-short subjects similar to early home movies. Mr. Rodgers opened a “store show” in New Orleans in 1896 and showed these films. These store shows were later called Nickelodeons because they charged five cents to see the film. This necessitated buying several films to keep the audience coming day after day.
Later Mr. Rodgers changed his operation to a traveling show; this meant with one film he could travel from town to town showing it before having to buy another. This kind of entertainment was very popular. All the while he believed that the day would come when the motion pictures would show a complete story. That time came in 1903.
Rodgers married in the meantime and sought other employment for a while. However, he went back to the movie business and located in Jonesboro, Ark., where he bought a theater. Someone there suggested he should have a look at Poplar Bluff. He did and he and his wife Grace decided they would like to live here. At the time the Criterion Theater was owned by William N. Barron, a prominent attorney and businessman in Poplar Bluff who built the theater in 1911.The Rodgers kept in touch with the owner but moved to California. Finally in 1914, after the theater was severely damaged by fire, Mr. Barron agreed to lease it to the Rodgers.
Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers and their seven-year-old son, Carson, moved to Poplar Bluff. Mr. Rodgers managed the repair of the Criterion and opened it for vaudeville shows and movies. Later he bought it. He operated both the Criterion and Jewel theaters. They also added to their operation a theater in Caruthersville, and four in Illinois, two in Cairo Ill., one in Anna and one in Carbondale. In 1921, the Rodgers moved their headquarters to Cairo and went there to make their home.
When the Rodgers Theatre was opened the Criterion was closed and later the theater chain opened a drive-in theater now the site of the Kerasotes multiplex theater on Highway 67 South.
Carson Rodgers was general manager of the company by 1949. He was marred to a Poplar Bluff girl, Helen Pease. They, too, made their home in Cairo. Helen Rodgers’ father and grandfather were in the timber business in Butler County. Carson Rodgers died in 1964.
The Rodgers Theatre thrived for many years under the old and new ownerships. Changes were made in recent years, including the closing of the ticket booth and the theater being divided into a two screen operation.
Finally, the last picture show was shown and the double set of double doors swung shut on May 14,1998. “Major League” starring Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen was shown on one screen and on the other “Wild Things” starring Kevin Bacon and Matt Dillon.
Like the movie “The Last Picture Show” the old theater closed with a desolate look.The big red letters spelling its name are faded, the ticket booth is boarded up and because of a widened street the marquee shows damage on the Pine Boulevard side from trucks that came too close.
The memories linger on, perhaps the new century will welcome a new life and a new mission for this building of so many memories. The need is here for a medium sized theater for live performances and community events, a place for people of all ages to come together to celebrate the visions, the creations and the talents of artists and dreamers and more.
And, if you look carefully, you’ll see the grand old building now stands silently waiting to come alive again.
General Research Sources
- Poplar Bluff Public Library, newspaper microfilm 1949/1998
- Mrs. F. P. Gloriod, Jenks, Okla.
- Kerasotes Theatres, Springfield, Ill.
- Larry Cotrell, Cotrell Funeral Service
- Missouri Department of Natural Resources,
- Historic Preservation Program