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Benson Theater renovations bring memories of other area movie houses
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Benson Theater renovations bring memories of other area movie houses

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Temperatures across Nebraska soared past 100 degrees for third straight day on Aug. 18, 1983. By then, Omaha had had 31 days with temps of 90 or higher that summer — more than double the number from July and August of 1981 and 1982.

The impetus for this column on Omaha’s neighborhood movie houses was the renovation of the Benson Theater to an arts performance space and education center.

But get a bite of this: Those burgers that Dinker’s Bar and Grill on South 29th serves? Their customers are sitting in the old Hanscom Theater.

The Benson and the Hanscom are only two of the more than 70 theaters that sprung up outside downtown Omaha during the first half of the 20th century. The majority opened — and closed — during the era of silent films. They showed mostly second-run films after those features left the likes of the Paramount, the Orpheum and the World Theaters.

Stu Pospisil

Stu Pospisil

Most of them have fallen to the wrecking ball. Some have been repurposed for other uses.

Dinker’s is listed on the Douglas County Assessor’s website as built for a bar/tavern. It wasn’t. The Hanscom opened in 1914 with seating for 200 in the Sheelytown neighborhood. Its life as a theater was short. It disappears from the Omaha city directory and newspaper movie listings soon after.

The bar, incidentally, opened in 1965, but not at its present site. It was two doors to the north. The Hanscom building was housing the Scheely Tavern (yes, spelled with a c). That structure was damaged in a fire in 1979 and Dinker’s relocated to its larger quarters in 1981.

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The Benson Theater, circa 1940. 

The Benson Theater’s history also needs some straightening out. It’s older than its renovators know.

It opened on May 29, 1920, as the Benalto. An ad in the weekly Benson Times mentioned the theater had a seating capacity of 500 and was built for proprietor George McArdle for $25,000. “It was built for you to enjoy and is a credit to the business section of Benson. It will be cool in summer and is thoroughly ventilated. There will be no increase in the price of admission. Adults 22 cents, children 17 cents.”

Six years later, the theater was remodeled for $15,000 by the World Realty Co. which operated seven others in town. The new owners renamed it the Benson. It gained a complete stage and orchestra pit, “suitable for occasional vaudeville use,” according to The World-Herald. There was a new lobby, hot and cold ventilation system and pipe organ. The iconic “Benson” electric sign, which has been reproduced, could be seen for five miles.

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The Benson Theater in 1926.

The Benson closed in 1954 and Best Appliance moved in. After Best moved to the Westroads in 1970, the building housed several businesses including a fitness warehouse. It was vacant for five years before Benson business owner Amy Ryan began the efforts in 2012 that are nearing completion to restore the theater.

The city’s first neighborhood theaters, opening in 1909, were the London at 2211 Cuming St., which sat 300 and lasted about a year; and the Favorite at 1716 Vinton St., which sat 600 and lasted until 1915.

There were distinct theater districts in the silent-movie era — North 16th, North 24th, South 24th, Leavenworth Street and Vinton Street. Why Vinton? In part because the Rourke’s, or Western League, baseball diamond where Omaha’s minor league teams played was a couple blocks to the east.

On North 16th, from south to north, were the Ivy (1912 opening), It (1910), New Star (1916) and Grand (1915). The Grand lasted until 1930 when it became an A&P grocery.

On North 24th, going north, were the Franklin (1910), Star (1914), Alhambra (1911), Lothrop (1914), Frolic (later Burt, 1914), Suburban (1910) and Alamo (1914). The Alhambra closed in 1930 and the building burned down in 1936 after it housed a roller skating rink, a grocery and a miniature golf course.

The Alamo, at 24th and Fort Streets, was renamed the Victoria, then Fort, before closing in 1951. The Lothrop was open until 1955. Its building at 3212 N. 24th St. collapsed in 1961. At the Burt, management arranged for parents to be called when their children left the theater “so the mothers may know when to expect the little tots home.”

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The Corby Theater.

Later came the Corby at 2805 N. 16th St. from 1926 to 1956, and the Ritz at 2043 N. 24th St. from 1931 to 1968.

At 2410 Lake St. was the Diamond Theater (1912). It was rebuilt after being in the path of the killer Easter 1913 tornado that destroyed the business district around the theater. Renamed the Lake in 1925, its final showings were in 1932. Well-known Black band leader Dan Desdunes owned and operated the Lake for a short time in 1925.

On South 24th, going south, were the Orpheum (1912), Magic (1912, renamed Tivoli in 1926), Roseland (1922) and Besse (1911). All but the Orpheum were in buildings that are still standing. The Tivoli first was replaced by a Hested’s store. The Roseland, now apartments, was closed in 1954 and converted to shops and offices, a cocktail lounge and a 10-lane bowling center that extended from the theater balcony.

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The Chief Theater in September 1957. 

The Chief, in 1947 at 4612 S. 24th near South High, replaced the last survivors. Designed by Latenser and Sons, it had 1,285 seats. A parade opened the theater. It closed in 1972. “The business just isn’t there,” co-owner Robert Blank said at the time. “Since the packing houses left, it hasn’t been the same.”

Going west on Leavenworth were the Pastime (1911), Rohlff (1915), Apollo (1912), Uptown (1926, renamed Arbor in 1936), Avenue (1926) and Boulevard (1916). The Arbor and Avenue stayed open into the 1950s. Their buildings then were in the path of Interstate 480. The Boulevard building at 3305 Leavenworth is owned by an awing company.

Closest to the ballpark on Vinton was the Lyric (1914). Farther west were, in order, the Mueller (1921), Favorite and Comfort (1913).

South 13th had the Venezzia (1912), Gem (1911), Wonderland (1913) and Maryland (later Berkley, 1915-1953). The Wonderland was on the east side of the ballpark. OutrSpaces occupies the Gem building.

On Ames Avenue west of the Suburban were two theaters that opened in 1925, the North Star (later the Ames) at 2413 and the Beacon at 2910. They closed, respectively, in 1960 and 1968. The Beacon had a tall lighthouse out front with a working beacon, and the nautical theme carried inside.

There were others scattered around — an early Dundee at 5019 Underwood Ave., the Gem and the first Benson Theater in Benson, the Hippodrome at 25th and Cuming Streets. The Muse at 2405 Farnam St. began life in 1916 as “a theater for all the family.” Not so when it closed in the 1980s, after showing adult films for the better part of 20 years.

The Queen (1916-1934, by then the Royal) was at 607 Pierce St. in Little Italy and the Hamilton was at 40th and Hamilton (1915-1950). It was called the Fortieth Street Theater when replaced by Martin’s Doughnuts, and now the name lives on as the space has been revived as a theater and event venue.

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The Admiral Theater. 

In 1935, there were 21 theaters outside downtown. And 21 in 1949. Only two were built during that span, the Admiral at 40th and Farnam Streets (1942-1983) and the Chief. Among the carryovers into talking pictures was the Dundee, now Film Streams, at 4952 Dodge St. It opened in 1926, as did the Circle at 524 N. 33rd St. (it closed in 1953) and the Minne Lusa, 6720 N. 30th St. (closed in 1957). Grace Apostolic Church occupies the Military Theater (1928-1975) at 2216 Military Ave.

The last neighborhood theater of the era to open, and the last to show movies, was the Center at 3504 Center St. When it debuted in 1951, the 725-seat theater had a reverse pitch to its floor, to ease neck strain for those in the front rows. A wheelchair section, because of the proximity to Veterans Hospital, a glass-windowed crying room for moms and babies and a glassed-in second floor smoking lounge were among the amenities. One full-length wall mural depicted the Old West, the other a 4-H boy and girl, cattle, a truck and a modern train inside an outline of the state.

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The Dundee Theater in 1941.

The Omaha Junior Theater purchased the Center in 1975. It was renamed for patron Emmy Gifford in 1981, the last year it had regular movie showings. After the children’s theater moved in 1995 to the old Astro (Paramount) downtown, the Collector’s Choice estate sales company established shop.

Television, then location and the advent of multi-screen facilities in newer areas brought up the lights in the neighborhood theaters in the heart of Omaha. Even the likes of the Northampton, the Maplewood, the Gemini Twin, and the Six West at Westroads are long gone.

And before you question why the Indian Hills wasn’t brought up, I’m saving it for another column.


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Reporter - High school sports

Stu is The World-Herald's lead writer for high school sports and for golf. Follow him on Twitter @stuOWH. Email stu.pospisil@owh.com

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