There was a time when every neighborhood in Omaha had its own grand movie theater. For more than two decades, that was the Corby Theater in the Kountze Place neighborhood. This is a short history of the building.
Starting in the 1880s, the Kountze Place neighborhood was intended to be an upscale commuter neighborhood served by Omaha’s horse-drawn railroad. With North 16th as an eastern boundary, the neighborhood was lined by North 30th on the west, Locust Street on the south and Sprague Street on the north. Established by Omaha pioneer banker Augustus Kountze, there was a lot of land donated for a park, churches and schools. In 1898, the development hosted the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it filled in with beautiful homes and exquisite institutions, and tremendous civic infrastructure to boot.
The Theater Opens
The Mozard Billiard Parlor was located on the northeast corner of 16th and Corby for more than a decade before the Corby was opened.
The Nebraska Theater Company was opened in 1926 by brothers Louis and Samuel Epstein and the World Realty Company. They immediately took ownership of the Orpheum and Roseland Theaters, and operated the Corby Theater.
Built in 1926, the Corby Theater was designed to serve the neighborhood. Designed by popular Omaha architect James T. Allan, the theater was built and originally owned by Alex Beck. In addition to 800 original seats, there was also a “cry room” for mothers with young babies. It was designed in the a Moorish Revival style, covered in light-colored brick highlighted with terra cotta detailing around the building. There was a single screen, along with three storefronts at the front that alternately housed a cafe, a clothing store and a beauty shop, along with other businesses that frequently with different owners and operators. The building has 10,800 square feet within, with an additional 4,000 square feet in the basement. It included the addresses 2801, 2803 and 2805 North 16th Street.
The Epstein brothers bought the building immediately from Beck.
Early on, the theater hosted live vaudeville shows. There was live singing, dancing and comedy, along with beauty shows and more. The shows were every Friday and Saturday, with occasional performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Some of the cafes located on the corner of the building included Mahon’s Cafe from 1926 to 1951, which explicitly and repeatedly only hired white staff, including waitresses and dishwashers. For a short while, Mahon’s was called King Tut’s Cafe; then it became the Corby Cafe in the late 1950s.
The Corby Cleaners were located in the storefront at 2805 North 16th from 1926 through 1945. In 1946, the Corby Theater bakery moved into the location, and in 1951 the storefront became a bar serving the theater. This same address referred to the Corby Cafe in 1951, and stayed there until 1973. There was a fire here in 1973, and the address has never appeared in the news since then.
In December 1933, the Corby closed for a month to have a “new RCA high fidelity sound system” installed. There was a “gala reopening” on December 22. In 1937, there was a massive new air conditioning system installed, and in 1949, the Epstein Amusement Company completely renovated the theater. By the late 1950s, the theater was permanently closed.
Harry Smith’s Businesses
In 1958, the Harry Smith Firestone Store opened in the old theater. Acting as a complete department store, they sold tires, clothes, toys, hardware, and much more for only two years before becoming Harry Smith Marine. Intended to cater to the boating crowd on the nearby Carter Lake, Harry Smith Marine was located in the theater from 1958 to 1967. Specializing in motorcycles too, the store sold and serviced Ducatis, Norton, BSA, Bultaca, Jawa and more.
In July 1967, the Omaha World-Herald reported that vandals attacked the store with axes and more, smashing the front windows and robbing the sales floor. Demolishing a boat, they broke into cabinets and more and looted merchandise. Nearby businesses including Lane Drug and the Volunteers of America Thrift Store were struck, too.
The business closed immediately afterward. In August 1967, there was an auction to sell remaining high dollar items, including boats and office equipment, store items and more.
Opened in 1973, Marvin and Eleanor Norton opened a store in the theater’s storefronts. Norton’s As-Is store sold used appliances, furniture and other used and low-cost items. They frequently advertised TVs, washers, dryers and more. It closed, but re-opened again in 1981.
Luther Haynes owned the building for at least a dozen years after buying it in 1987. Luther ran Fine’s Tier III Lounge there from 1992 to 1997 and spent five years and more than $150,000 renovating it. In 1999, another lounge opened there called Club Allusions. Featuring three bars, a dance floor and a stage, Club Allusions filled the entire building and was a popular nightspot. George Robinson operated the club for Haynes.
In June 1999, a four-alarm fire there caused $250,000 in damage. The second within a week, it was suspected to be an arson. To fight the blaze, firefighters ripped off the roof while smoke filled the building.
The building has never recovered, and as recently as 2015 it was reported to have open spots in the ceiling. Apparently, its being used as storage. That year, Restoration Exchange Omaha taped hearts on the building to promote its preservation as a historic place. Its appears to have sat quiet with no changes since then though.
In another article, I suggest it be a feature of a future listing on the National Register of Historic Places called the 16th and Locust Historic District. Currently, the building is listed as an industrial warehouse by the Douglas County Assessor’s Office, and is judged as being in “poor condition,” which allows condemnation and demolition to proceed quickly. Luther Haynes sold it in 2012, and today it is valued at $103,000.
Right now, there is no formal recognition of the role the Corby Theater played in Omaha history. It is not recognized as an Omaha Landmark, and it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is rarely recognized for its architectural contributions to the city, its place in Omaha’s cultural fabric, or its ability to unit the community around a purpose-built community icon.
We’ll see what the future holds.
You Might Like…
- A History of the Intersection of 16th and Locust Streets
- A History of the Kountze Place Neighborhood
- A History of North 16th Street
- A History of Movie Theaters in North Omaha
- Architectural drawings of the Corby Theater from the Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission