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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

Memories from the Matinees

The Anatole/Capitol MovieTheater in Bridgeport

 A November 3, 1981 Valley Advance newspaper shared the memories of local residents about the Bridgeport movie theaters. Joe Tully, owner of the Gaslight Motel near Lawrenceville in 1981, recalled what happened when he and some friends went to the Anatole Theater in Bridgeport as boys.


“My friend was in the front row and jumped from his seat to shout at the screen. He threatened to leave the theater if the bad guy didn’t start stop whooping it up on Tom Mix in the silent Western movie. Mix soon began winning the fight and all of us kids calmed down again,” Tully said. That kind of excitement prevailed during many a Saturday afternoon that Tully spent in the theater in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It made no difference whether the show was silent or a new ‘talkie. ’


Bridgeport businessman, Clifford Gray, remembered in 1981 getting excited by the piano music and the “shoot ‘em up” Westerns at the theater as early as 1918. Gray was a 10-year-old boy growing up in an oil boom town of about 4000 people. “I liked cowboy films and the piano music that the theater had to go along with the movies,” he said. “You really got excited when the music jazzed up during the action scenes. The piano player could even make the sound of horse hooves galloping,” Gray noted.


The Anatole began in the early part of the 1900s and was owned by local businesswoman Hurley Gould. The theater was located on Chestnut Street between Main and Washington Streets in Bridgeport. A newspaper clipping from the Bridgeport Leader reveals that the theater was open by April 2, 1914.


The Anatole advertised admission prices of $.10 for Saturday and Sunday matinees and $.25 for night programs in the 1930s. The programs changed four times a week and included a feature movie, cartoon and selected short subjects. Upcoming movies were publicized by posters in a glass billboard at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets. Gray said, “The Theater would sell out both shows on Saturday night when oilfield workers and farmers came to town. Cars would be parked everywhere downtown and you wouldn’t get a ticket if you didn’t get to the theater early enough,” Gray said.


The Anatole became so popular in the 1920s that city officials agreed to set up a special election to determine if the theater could open on Sundays. “The vote to approve the measure was not even close,” Bob Petty of Bridgeport said.


The theater was a square brick building about 40 feet long with around 200 seats. A canopy roof over the ticket booth and the two front doors extended to Chestnut Street. Just inside the building was a small foyer and popcorn stand and a pair of doors leading to the auditorium. The projection room was located above the foyer. “There was not a bad seat in the place for watching movies. The seats were on a sharp incline down to the screen, and you definitely knew you were going up and down when you walked in the two aisles,” Petty noted.


At the base of the screen was a narrow stage and small pit for the piano or organ. “The stage was used only a couple times for a magic show,” Tully said.


The movies at the Anatole spawned several heroes for Tully and his friends. Tom Mix, Ken Maynard and Vincennes native, Buck Jones were favorite cowboy stars. Laurel and Hardy, the Little Rascals, the Dead End Kids, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd kept the crowds laughing. “We really got excited in those days and everyone pay close attention to the silent movies so you wouldn’t miss a thing. I bet you could’ve walked up to any kid in the Saturday matinee crowds and he or she could tell you exactly what was going to happen and what was about to happen,” Tully said.


The first sound movie at the Anatole was in 1927, when Al Jolson starred in the Jazz Singer,” Tully said. “As the talkies began coming to the theater, you could relax a little more because you heard what was being said. We still paid close attention to the movies, but you didn’t have to imagine any parts of the conversations,” he added.

 Bridgeport had two theaters around 1920 because of the demand for movies and the influx of money from the oil industry into the town’s economy. The Bijou Theater was on Washington Street, less than a block from the Anatole. “It was much like a drive-in,” Petty recalled. “The Bijou didn’t last too long. It was a large open-air theater with bleachers and you had to wait for darkness before showing the pictures,” Petty continued.


The theater was renamed the Capitol after Hurley Gould sold it to the Frisina Amusement Company of Springfield, Illinois on November 5, 1936. By 1938, Frisina Theatres Co. operated forty theatres in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. They constructed the New Moon Theater at Sixth and Main Street in Vincennes at a cost of $150,000. That theater could seat 1,500 moviegoers.


When Frisina bought the AnatoleTtheater in Bridgeport, two electric neon lights spelling out CAPITOL were added on top of the canopy roof. The Leader reported that two great domes would permit the movie titles to be flashed in lights. The Capitol opened on Friday, November 6, 1936, with a double movie feature, ‘Grand Jury,’ starring Fred Stone, followed by Buck Jones in the ‘Phantom Rider’, and a newsreel. Frisina added Tuesday matinee after school. Tuesday and Wednesday became famous as ‘Bank Nites’, while Friday was ‘Dime Night’ with ten cents admission.


Customers attending the Tuesday and Wednesday programs could register for cash prizes. Roy Rucker, publisher of the Leader, would draw the winning entries in front of the theater between shows. Tully remembers ‘Bank Nites’ well, because his wife, Betty, won $600 in 1946. The couple had just gotten married and happened to attend the movies the night before leaving for their new home in Chicago. “They told us when we got to Chicago that Betty had won and we turned around and returned to Bridgeport. That was a lot of money in those days and we didn’t want to lose it,” Tully said.


Television and competition from theaters in Vincennes, Lawrenceville, Mount Carmel, and Sumner, began luring customers from the Capitol. Frisina tried again and again to make the Capitol into a profitable business. The dwindling crowds forced Frisina to close the theater on September 21, 1950, with plans to reopen later. The Capitol opened again on February 1, 1951 and operated until March 27, 1954. Eight months later, the Capitol reopened for three months before Frisina closed the theater for good on February 26, 1955. The last feature film at the Capitol was “Four Guns to the Border” starring Rory Calhoun.


The local newspaper finished coverage of the theater’s closing on a sad note. “The darkening of Chestnut Street will make a marked impression on the citizens of Bridgeport and the shows will be missed by many.”


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