In a time when people were entertained at home by radios and went to the movies only as a treat, every important intersection in Omaha had at least one screen. From the 1890s through the 1960s, North Omaha’s Saratoga neighborhood was home to a booming commercial area around North 24th and Ames Avenue. There was a theater building that served that neighborhood for more than 30 years. This is a history of the North Star Theater and the Ames Theater in North Omaha.
Building a Community Institution
In 1908, almost 20 years before the theater opened, there was a little shack on the site where the theater’s entrance was. It was from this dingy little building that Professor Work conducted his readings, seances and other services. One ad said, “Who is this wonderful man, Prof. Work? Like seers of old, you cannot help believe him.” For several years, there was no word on the site until 1921, when plans were announced to build a $300,000 “combination business and apartment house building” on this property in the Saratoga neighborhood. Along with a 1,000-seat movie theater, the building would also have 35 apartments and a restaurant and would be 5 stories tall. While those plans never came to fruition, another theater was built in the next few years.
Opening in August 1925, the North Star Theater was a carefully designed highlight in a busy neighborhood. Located at 2417 Ames Avenue, it was a commercial highlight of Saratoga. With the theater entrance and lobby originally located along Ames Avenue by the alleyway, it was one of six storefronts that extended from the alleyway to North 25th Street. Other occupants along the strip included the Star Diner (1925-1951), a Safeway store, Roh’s Super Market, Borden’s Ice Cream, and for a short time, the offices of Metropolitan Building and Loan Association.
The design, lighting, seating, rows, organ and air flow in the theater all matched the then-sophisticated architectural plans by popular local architect Everett S. Dodds (1889-1958). Dodds was responsible for designing the catalogue of homes for the Minne Lusa neighborhood, as well as several other locally important homes and buildings. From 1935 to 1939, he was a principal planner of the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects.
R. F. Clary and Company supervised construction, and hired Western Theater Supply Company, Kritenbrink and Son Brick Company, A. Forsberg Interior Design, Schollman Brothers Heating and Plumbing, Omaha Sign Company, and Nelson Electric Company. When it was finished, J. E. Kirk had majority control of the theater. However, by 1926 he lost control of the North Star to J. P. Lannon.
The ticket booth was tucked into the corner of the entrance, and was covered with green ceramic tiles and dark stained wood. According to one account, originally the theater was L-shaped with the lobby at a right angle to the auditorium. The front was narrow with an open recessed vestible that was 18-feet deep. This made the lobby long and blocky. From the lobby viewers went into a foyer, then into the auditorium. Eight beautiful chandeliers hung throughout the auditorium, along with long drapes on the walls and a beautiful stage at the front. There were 926 seats when the theater was built.
Originally showing Paramount films, the theater was nearly constantly packed for its first decade. This was during the era of silent movies, when audiences were left to tell stories in their minds based on the music played from an organ, the moving pictures in front of them, and the reactions of the rest of the audience. Stars of the silent screen at the North Star Theater included Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), Mary Pickford (1892-1979), Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), and many others. Viewers would buy concessions of popcorn and candy in the lobby, and relax into a special occasion to watch the silent films.
In 1930, the theater was sold to the Popular Amusement Company. To accomodate the rising trend in “talkie” movies, they installed a new technology at North Star in July of that year. An R.C.A. photophone projector was installed and the walls were retrofitted for better acoustics. The newspaper article promoting the upgrades said, “The North Star will have, when this equipment is completed, talking pictures that will not be surpassed anywhere.” – July 13, 1930 Omaha World-Herald
“The North Star will have, when this equipment is completed, talking pictures that will not be surpassed anywhere.”– July 13, 1930 Omaha World-Herald
Over the next two decades, the theater hummed along. Between the 1920s and the late 1950s the neighborhood around the theater did well. Ames Avenue was a busy commercial from North 33rd Street east to North 16th. There were two streetcars serving the intersection of 24th and Ames and cars zipped along the nearby Florence Boulevard, North 24th and North 30th. In the meantime, there was a healthy industrial section along the Belt Line Railroad a block away from the theater. Extending from North 16th to John A. Creighton Boulevard, this area provided enough well-paying jobs to ensure customers could afford a weekly trip to the theater for their family, or even daily trips for their kids during the summers.
The prime location of the North Star Theater made it a valuable business, and it changed hands several times.
Walter Creal, owner of the Beacon Theater at North 29th and Ames, bought the North Star Theater from the Popular Amusement Company in 1946. Forming the North Star Theater Company, Creal hired a local architect to redesign the entrance to the building with a modern, alluring exterior design. European-trained local architect named Henry A. Raapke (1876-1959). Raapke was a noted theater architect.
According to an era industry magazine, the entrance was rebuilt with a shallow vestibule just four feet back from the sidewalk. Poster display cases were installed outside, along with special lighting and a new ticket booth inside the doorways. The lobby was painted “delphinium blue,” and a new popcorn machine and candy counter were installed. The interior colors in the lobby also included stripes in vermillion, orange and delphinium blue. The foyer had a new office and the auditorium now had three entrance aisles. The chandeliers were now gone from the auditorium, replaced by eight sconces mounted on variegated brown and tan sound absorbent walls that created great acoustics. Every seat was reupholstered with imitation leather. The projection room was also rebuilt and re-equipped by the Ballantyne Company.
Welcome to the Ames Theater
However, Creal didn’t hold onto to the North Star. In late 1949 Ralph Goldberg acquired the North Star Theater and temporarily closed the business. Goldberg owned several theaters in Omaha referred to as the “Goldberg Circuit” by its workers and managers, and officially called the Pioneer Theater Circuit. It also owned the Avenue Theater at 29th and Leavenworth and the Military Theater at North 45th and Military Avenue.
“Practically rebuilt and beautified,” the newspaper said when it announced Goldberg’s renovation and renaming of the building. The Ames Theater’s opening on January 15, 1950 reportedly cost $50,000. With just 800 chairs, there was new, more comfortable seating as well as new projection, sound and “fresh air equipment.” According to the paper, “the result is superior and delightful entertainment.” A “new cycloramic screen affording view without distortion” was installed along with “new high intensity screen lighting via Motiograph projectors,” as well as new carpets, draperies and furnishings. A baby crying room and a “free, well-lighted parking lot” were available too. The parking lot was located on the northeast corner of North 25th and Taylor Streets, just south of the theater building. The entrance was moved from Ames Avenue to North 25th Street, too.
Despite that investment though, the Ames Theater’s popularity was waning within a decade. In 1958, it was sold to the Cooper Foundation which converted the building into a live action theater. A local group called the Kingsmark Theater held productions there, including ten plays for that year. They produced plays in the repurposed space for a few seasons afterward as well. In 1960, the theater hosted productions by traveling theater companies and by Creighton University actors.
In August 1960, the North Omaha community was rocked by news that the Ames Theater was closing permanently and being converted into a supermarket.
The Crestwood Realty Company presented plans to invest in Saratoga, which was newly presented as an “inner-city neighborhood.” Combining both the store font space along Ames and the theater space along North 25th Street, the building would have 14,000 square feet. The developer said, “Lots of supermarkets are opening in the west part of town, we think there’s a need for them elsewhere, too.” Architect L. E. Wilkie redesigned the space, which was called the Crestwood Shop.
After that, the theater became a Shaver’s Supermarket and a nightclub called King Solomon’s Mines. The building has been a warehouse since the late 1970s, and still stands today.
There are no historical markers, plaques or other acknowledgments of what this building has been. The City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Commission hasn’t designated it as an official landmark, and it isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Who knows what the future holds?
Over the years, this building has had many lives. They include:
- North Star Theater (1925-1949)
- Ames Theatre (1949 -1958)
- Kingsmark Theatre (1958-1960)
- Crestwood Shop (1960-1962)
- Shavers Supermarket (1962-1966)
- Weeds Food Mart (1966-1970)
- King Solomon’s Mines (1970-1972)
- Run Johnny Run Youth Club (1973)
- Black Odyssey Club (c1973-1976)
- Warehouse (1976-present)