As the old song goes, “Everything old is new again.”
Those words rang true in Willcox last week, as Willcox Historic Theater Preservation, Inc. (WHTP) re-opened the historic Willcox Theater, which had been dark for more than a year.
A Friday-evening ribbon cutting was followed by a gala event where folks showed up in 1930s clothing, gaining entrance to the 1936 movie, “The Gorgeous Hussy,” for the price of 35 cents.
It was the same price of admission to the same movie shown when the building opened in 1937.
For those wanting more current fare, the first run movie, “Les Miserables” was playing on the other screen at the Feb. 1 grand re-opening.
The weekend celebration included live performances Saturday evening by “Desert Swing,” a six-piece combo playing 30s and 40s swing music, followed by the comedy improv troupe “Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.”
“This latest chapter of the Willcox Historic Theater is a blending of the past with the present,” said WHTP President Gayle Berry.
“The backing from the community has been key in getting the theater re-opened and we continue to get not only strong support but also great ideas as we go forward,” she said.
“Showing “The Gorgeous Hussy” at the grand re-opening, and inviting period dress to attend is an example of how we can use the theater’s history to revive features of the film and performing arts of the 1930s that still appeal today,” Berry said.
“The past also includes the physical building, which we will be refurbishing to evoke the Art Deco architecture and style of the 1930s era in which it was built,” she added.
While the events earlier this month celebrated the building’s 76th anniversary, the theater in Willcox “was in more than one location and had several different names over the time it was open,” said WHTP Board Member Terry Rowden.
Backed by information obtained from the Sulphur Springs Valley Historical Society (SSVHS), Rowden gave the Range News a history of the Willcox Theater.
Unfortunately, the name of the first movie ever shown in the theater, as well as the date, is unknown at this time, she said.
As of Jan. 11, 1918, it was called the Palace Theatre and was owned by D.D. Simms.
“It was not where it sits today,” but in the Gersbach Building on the corner of Haskell Avenue and Maley Street, which later became the Riggs Bank, Rowden said.
Simms was the father of Gorgeous Ginny Simms, a singer with Kay Kaiser’s orchestra and starred in several movies of that era.
Dec. 21 that same year was opening night in a new location in another Railroad Avenue building, which had been built in the 1880s.
“For many years it was the Elite Saloon, owned by John Crowley among others,” said Rowden.
The last picture was shown at the Palace Theater on Feb. 7, 1919, and about 21 days later, the first picture was shown at the newly re-named Liberty Theater.
Sometime in the 1920s — probably in July, as indicated by a change in the newspaper ad design – the theater was sold to J.G. Long.
On July 22, 1921, J.G. Long sold the Liberty Theatre to Ura E. Dixon and Joe Kenneaster, who changed its name to the Mystic Theatre.
Sometimes in 1923, Kenneaster sold the theater to J.G. Long’s brother, L.F. Long, who had operated the Sweet Shop next door.
May 9, 1930 saw new equipment for the theater and the first movie with sound for talking pictures.
Sometime between 1932 and 1934, a young Leonard Sly — later known as Roy Rogers — performed in the Mystic Theatre, along with hometown boy Taylor “Cactus Mack” Mc Peters (cousin to Rex Allen Sr.), and the O-Bar-O Cowboys.
“Some of this group went on to become the Sons of the Pioneers,” Rowden said.
The doors would open between the Sweet Shop and the theater for a dance floor. There were no sloping floors in the theater at this time, she said.
On Nov. 6, 1936, the old theater building was torn down, and replaced by a new building at the same site.
A story in the Jan. 15, 1937 edition of the Range News said, “Not only is this theatre a first class and modern picture house, but it is equipped with stage, dressing rooms, etc., for stage plays, vaudeville, or may be used for any occasion where good stage, seating capacity and acoustics are especially desirable.”
“Mr. Long wants the people of the community to feel free to call upon him for use of his theatre upon occasions when it would be desirable for civic gatherings, meetings, etc.”
Its name was changed to the Willcox Theater, and its grand opening celebrated on Jan. 23, 1937. Eight days later, a fire under the floor, believed to have been caused by the furnace, threatened the newly opened theater, but was successfully extinguished and any damage quickly repaired.
Fast forward to 1989, when the neighboring Rex Allen Museum acquired the theater for about $1,000 in back taxes. The name was changed to the Rex Allen Theater.
The theater, which once had a single screen and a balcony, was converted into the twin-screen theater it is now, and its main entrance moved to the side of the building.
In the smaller theater, the images moviegoers saw on the screen were produced by a Motiograph 35 mm projector, which was made in about 1945.
The Rex Allen Theater could boast having the oldest operating movie projector in the state of Arizona.
The Century projector in the larger theater, made in about 1965, was originally a 70 mm later converted to a 35 mm projector.
Since buying the theater from the Museum in October of 2012, WHTP is looking to further upgrade equipment in keeping with the digital age.
Berry said, “This is ‘the little theater that could.’ Our near-term challenge, like every other small theater, is converting from 35mm to digital projection, a very costly requirement.”
WHTP is also developing plans to restore the Art Deco features of the theater.
“We’re very fortunate to have (local artist) Thomas Johnson starting us off right with his elegant Art Deco logo design and advising us on colors and features to use,” she said.
“The spirit of the early history of the theater, with it’s variety of live performances and cinematic art will again be our style,” said Berry, adding, “While in the future we will incorporate the latest technology to keep up to date, the future will continue to draw on the past for inspiration.”
A proclamation read by Willcox Mayor Bob Irvin at the Feb. 1 ribbon cutting echoed Berry’s sentiments.
“It is important to celebrate the role of history in our lives, and the contributions made by dedicated individuals in helping to preserve the tangible aspects of the heritage that has shaped us as a people,” Irvin read.
“The Willcox Historic Theater, by these means, enhances quality of life in the community, contributing to the vitality of the Railroad Avenue Historic District, and helping to make Willcox an attractive community.”
Establishing the first weekend of February each year as “Willcox Historic Theater Recognition Weekend,” Irvin said, “I encourage all citizens to join me in celebrating the revival of this wonderful Art Deco Theater, and all that it brings to the community.”
(For further information, contact the Willcox Historic Theater at (520) 766-3334.)