Movie Theaters in Wheeling, Moundsville, and New Martinsville featured in West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail

Shapiro touts restoration effort at Capitol Theatre

Kelli Shapiro, a program associate with Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, appears Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library to talk about historic theaters in Wheeling and other cities. Formerly of California, she wrote her senior thesis on an effort to save a picture palace.

Five Northern Panhandle theaters are featured on the West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail.

The statewide thematic tour of historic theaters includes the Capitol, Victoria and Towngate, all in Wheeling; Strand in Moundsville and Lincoln in New Martinsville.

Kelli Shapiro, a program associate with Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, said the Capitol is “a wonderful example” of efforts to restore and reopen historic venues. She also cited the Strand for its preservation through adaptive re-use for live performances.

Shapiro, who lives in Morgantown, said Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre is listed on the trail even though it represents a reverse transformation from a church into a venue for theatrical performances and film screenings.

The trail “promotes rehabilitation and sustainability of historic theaters,” she said. In turn, these sites are promoted as heritage tourism venues.

She spoke Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books program and shared information from her 2018 book, “Historic Movie Theatres of West Virginia.” The pictorial volume is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

The book contains archival images of more than 200 theaters that operated in the state, she said. Chapters are divided regionally, based on nine regions defined by the West Virginia Tourism Office, and listed alphabetically by town.

Offering cultural and social context in her presentation, she examined the rise and fall of various types of theaters and addressed modern efforts to preserve and re-use old movie houses.

As forms of entertainment evolved, live theaters became film venues. The first theater built specifically for movies, the Nickelodeon, opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. Owner Harry Davis licensed the idea and it spread nationally, Shapiro said.

Rudimentary movie theaters, located usually in storefronts, were cheap to open, but typically were short-lived, functioning about 10 years, she said.

Owners chose “fantastical names for this new form of entertainment,” she said. “It was opening up an entire new world for audiences.”

Whimsically-named theaters in the Mountain State included Dreamland in Charleston, Fairyland in Hinton and Wonderland in Buckhannon.

Open-air theaters, known as airdromes or airdomes, were established on vacant lots in business districts, but most closed fairly quickly, she said. Multi-function venues in coal company towns were used for community events and for showing movies.

“You often couldn’t even tell there was a movie theater in the building,” she said.

Downtown movie houses in Wheeling and other cities were “larger, nicer showplaces” that faced “increasingly fierce competition,” she said. “In Huntington and Wheeling, it worked because not all were competing with one another. Some were part of the same theater chain.”

Theater chains, known as circuits in the film industry, showed “different types of films for different audiences in different theaters in the same area,” she explained. “It didn’t help all of them survive, but it was a valuable strategy.”

Chains operated with joint booking of films and combined management, purchasing of fixtures, marketing and brand identity, she said.

“The arrival of sound in the late 1920s caused a massive shift for theaters. It required brand-new, costly equipment,” Shapiro said. “Many, especially independents, closed.”

One of the most important changes, she said, was a transition from storefront theaters to picture palaces designed for extravagant stage shows and orchestras. In the post-World War II era, though, filmgoers departed downtown venues for drive-in theaters.

Later, many drive-ins were eliminated to accommodate suburban growth, while downtown sites were demolished for new construction or parking lots. The rise of multiplex facilities became “a harbinger of death for many single-screen indoor theaters and drive-ins,” she added.

Remodeling and rebranding became a survival tactic. For instance, the Rex in Wheeling was remodeled and renamed the Coronet, but later it was torn down, she said.

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