Americans have always loved to be entertained, and people living in the Mountain State are no different. Theaters built in the early 1900s were used as social and community gathering places for traveling vaudeville acts, local singers, dancing troupes, and live productions. Then came motion pictures and eventually “talkies,” and the popularity grew. Many of the great historic theaters of West Virginia are still used today thanks to community and non-profit efforts, and most are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here are the 10 best in the state.
Theaters were places where the community came together, and the Ritz Theatre in Hinton, West Virginia, was no different. In addition to being used for showing films, the Ritz was used to host war bond drives during World War II, dance recitals, and other community events. Built in 1929, the 310-seat theater stayed in the movie business until the early 1980s, when it was closed for a time so extensive remodeling could be completed. When it reopened in 2009, it had state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment, a restored interior, was handicap accessible, central heating and air conditioning, and a new roof. Currently, the theater is used for private events, conferences, and movies.
This theater was built in 1927, and opened the following year with the showing of the silent film called “Wife Savers.” The family-owned and operated theater continued to provide a place of entertainment for the good people of Moorefield, West Virginia, until 1944, when the owner’s wife, Eunice McCoy, took over and kept it functioning until her passing. Even then, there was a provision in Eunice’s will that the theater could not be demolished or greatly remodeled, and in 1983, the building was given to a non-profit organization for the creation of a playhouse and museum, which remains open today.
Given the honor of being the longest continuously-operating theater in the country, the Robey Theatre in Spencer, West Virginia, was built in 1911 and used for live theater, vaudeville performances, and local musical groups, and became more popular during the advent of silent pictures. It was later extensively remodeled to accommodate talking pictures in 1926. A notable feature of the theatre is the large neon sign that hangs from the third story of the building and is supported by being anchored to the second story. The beautiful Italian Renaissance and Neo-Classic Revival architectural styles have remained essentially unchanged over the years and the theatre is currently open every night for popular movies.
The year was 1914 when the Pocahontas County Opera House opened, and is one of the earliest theaters to be used for the then-new moving pictures. The unique concrete and steel-reinforced walls made it the first of its kind in the Mountain State, and its distinctive interior featured beadboard wainscoting, the upper balcony with its American Chestnut railings, and the tin ceiling in the auditorium. Used for live stage performances, the Opera House also had entertainment featuring traveling minstrels, solo artists, and could seat up to 1,000 patrons on the main level and two upper floors. According to the National Historic Places admission form, there wasn’t a bad seat in the entire theater because of the excellent indirect lighting designed by Reginald Geare. The theater was wired for sound in 1927 with the coming of “talkies.” Used in more recent years as a basketball court, skating rink, car dealership, and lumber warehouse, it has been restored and is now open to the public for private functions and occasionally is used for live performances.
Known as the cultural and social center of Martinsburg, West Virginia, and the surrounding area, the Apollo Civic Theatre, built in 1913, is remembered as the place where marvelous dances were held in the Roseland Ballroom, young men courted their sweethearts in hopes of winning their hand in marriage, and people came from miles around to enjoy live theater productions, touring vaudeville groups, see singers and dancers from around the country, and eventually watch motion pictures. Currently being used as a place to see classic films, and for community groups, weddings, and summer theater, the Apollo will live forever in the hearts of the people who share its history.
The stately late Beaux-Arts designed building that sits in downtown Wheeling on the edge of the Ohio River is a majestic reminder of days gone by. Built at a cost of $1 million, the Capitol Theatre opened at the end of 1928. There were originally three motion picture machines, one for silent pictures, one for talkies, and a spare. The support structure and foundation were also initially planned to carry eight more floors for a hotel, but this plan was never fulfilled. By design, there was no bad seat in the 3,000-seat theatre, and there was a full orchestra pit and a giant pipe organ that played during films. In 1926, the theatre became known as Capitol Music Hall, and hosted the first Jamboree USA, the second-longest running radio show in the country with the first being the Grand Ole Opry. Over the years, the theatre was bought and sold, and in 2009, extensive restoration efforts began due to excessive fire code violations. Now owned by the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority, the theatre is used for Wheeling Symphony Orchestra concerts, public and private school and community productions, music and Broadway shows, and film festivals.
Opened in 1920, excited theatre goers traveled up and down the Ohio River by showboat to attend vaudeville shows, live musical acts, silent films, and later, talking pictures. The cost for this entertainment ranged between 17 cents and 33 cents, and the Neo-Classical style theatre could seat up to 1,100 people. There was a pipe organ that played during silent films, and the building was considered fireproof because of the steel beams used in the structure. People could enjoy performances year-round since there was central heating, something very new for commercial buildings of that time. The Strand continued to be used as a motion picture theatre until it closed in 1968, but the Strand Theatre Preservation Society was formed in 2002 to seek funding, raise awareness of the historic value and contribution to the state, and eventually reopened the theater in 2014. It is currently used for live theater, musical performances, and films.
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The oldest operating theater in the state, the Victoria Theater in Wheeling, West Virginia, sits on historic Market Street as a reminder of a past era of entertainment. This 720-seat Victorian and Neo-Classical/Beaux-Arts-influenced theater hosts the longest running show in the state, the Victoria Jamboree. Still in use today, the theater hosts live acts and music shows featuring bluegrass, rock, country, and gospel.
Built at a cost of $50,000 in 1910, the Old Opera House in Charles Town, West Virginia, featured state-of-the-art designs for that period that included an orchestra pit, a balcony that was curved for best viewing, and it was able to accommodate 500 people comfortably. Proceeds from the entertainment provided there went to fund the Daughters of the Confederacy to support Confederate soldiers in need. The theater was used for live productions, vaudeville shows, music throughout the years, and remained open during the Great Depression, and both world wars, however, when talking pictures came out and began gaining in popularity, the theater lost its importance in the community and closed its doors in 1948. Happily, after extensive renovation efforts by a local group, The Old Opera House Theater Company, and community support, the theater reopened in 1976, and is currently used for summer youth productions, theater festivals, ballet performances, and hosts six main stage shows each year.
Once upon a time, the Smoot Theatre, built in 1926, was a popular vaudeville show location in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and hosted many traveling shows, including the European-based Singer Midgets who played the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.” Volunteers saved the building from demolition in 1989, and spent extension time and effort to restore the beautiful artwork and panels inside the theatre, era-appropriate carpet was used, and the marquee outside the theater was lit again. Today the theatre is home to Camp Vaudeville, a summer youth program that offers acting, art, dance, and music classes for children from first grade through eighth grade. There is also live music entertainment from jazz groups, big bands, country and bluegrass singers, and rock and roll. Private tours can be arranged for those interested in the building’s history.