Today, the single-screen motion picture theater appears to be on an extended way to extinction. More and more such theaters either develop and modify to adapt a new strategy, or else they close altogether. For a number of years, the Colony Theater in Hillsboro has undergone changes in programming in an attempt to survive, but nevertheless today the theater’s very existence is threatened.
Three-quarters of a century ago – September of 1938 to be exact – such was unimaginable. The sparkling new Colony Theater opened to a throng of moviegoers who were to experience the best in small-town movie theaters. No longer were theaters the ornate palaces of the 1920s, exemplified by Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles (1927), the Ohio Theatre in Columbus (1928), and the Albee Theater in Cincinnati (1927). New theaters in the 1930s eschewed the elaborate ornate and instead embraced clean, modern design.
The 500-seat Colony certainly was one of these. Everything was new, modern, and the best: projection and sound equipment, seating and concessions, and the striking architecture itself.
The 1930s were trying years for America in general. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, coupled with the emergence of notorious outlaws such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde dominated the national headlines. On the international front, the seeds of war were being sown with the Japanese invasion of China and the threatening rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Hollywood did not escape this sea of change. Movie attendance dropped. Theaters closed. Studios went into receivership. Despite such calamity, the motion-picture business rebounded. In one effort to combat declining attendance, Hollywood mounted a nationwide movie quiz during 1938, a year they self-proclaimed as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year.”
A number of notable pictures did premier in 1938. In addition to such serials as “Dick Tracy,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Flash Gordon,” full-length features included “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Boys Town,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Test Pilot,” and “You Can’t Take it with You,” to name but a few. In addition, work began on “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Stagecoach,” which would be released the following blockbuster year.
Clearly, the Colony opened with movie producers, distributors, and theater owners hoping that a new and prosperous era at last was dawning. And at the front of the Colony’s ticket-booth queue that September day was my great-aunt, Sarah Ella “Byrde” Ayres, a professional photographer whose Ayres Studio was but a few doors away on the second floor and who lived with her father on nearby West Beech Street.
I don’t know what movie Aunt Byrde saw that day, but I’ll bet that she enjoyed it.
Editor’s Note – Christopher S. Duckworth, a graduate of Ohio State University, spent three decades at the Ohio Historical Society, where he was founding editor of Timeline magazine, followed by another 10 years at the Columbus Museum of Art. Today, he owns his own publishing company, Brevoort Press LLC. He also has deep Hillsboro roots — his grandfather, Edwin Billingham Ayres, owned W.R. Smith/Ayres Drug Company while his great-great-great grandfather, Peter Leake Ayres, built the Highland House.