The first motion picture shown in Omaha happened in North Omaha. A small, unassuming building on the corner of North 24th and Franklin was home to the city’s first nickelodeon, an early type of movie theater. This theater was opened by a longtime theater man who opened several other theaters throughout North Omaha. This is a biography of “Omaha’s pioneer showman,” Frank E. Goff (1847-1947).
A Terrible Childhood
Frank E. Goff’s childhood sucked. He was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1847. He apparently attended the Industrial School for Boys in Lansing, Michigan, which was established in 1856.
In 1930, the Omaha World-Herald featured his childhood experience of attending the reformatory school some 60 years earlier. It told of his “harsh life in childhood,” where he had two stepfathers, “one of whom was the second meanest man he ever knew. The first meanest was the superintendent of the reformatory where Goff was an inmate.”
When he fought back against the second stepfather’s abuse, he was sentenced to Hawthorne by a judge. According to the paper, while he was there Goff suffered “harrowing stuff about cat ‘o nine tails, blood, stripes, the sweatbox and manning the pumps to escape a watery doom.” The sweatbox that “not enough room to turn around in” was where boys were kept for hours with only a small hole to admit air. “Boys were put in vats of water and obliged to pump for dear life.” The article was filled with stories of terrible beatings with a lashes and rulers an inch thick, teeth knocked out, and meals of musty bread “which the mice shared.”
Goff was released to his family after nine months at the reform school, with more than two of them spent in solitary confinement, first in a windowless cell, then for five weeks in the evil sweatbox.
Rather than stifle his spirit though, Goff launched his career in the entertainment by running off with the circus soon after returning home. In 1859, at age 12, Goff ran off to join then circus.
He spent the rest of his career in circuses, carnivals, expositions and other parts of the entertainment industry. After he left the circus, Goff worked on a steamboat on the Mississippi River with the pioneering showman Dan Rice (1823-1900), whose clown outfit set the mold for Uncle Sam that you can envision right now. Running a balloon launch at carnivals for several seasons, he later exhibited a number of shows, including a three-legged dog, snakes, and a wild man.
A Traveling Motion Picture Pioneer
Depending on the year he told the story, Goff first arrived in Omaha in 1866 when he was 19; in 1869, at the age of 22; or in 1871, when he was 24. Regardless, he married Mary Elizabeth Goff (1860-1936) in 1872. In 1888, he built a house on an island in the Missouri River. When the river changed course, the island became part of the town of East Omaha. After 1895, the family lived at 2517 Franklin Street in the Long School neighborhood.
In 1900, Goff launched his first picture show in a “blacktop,” or a tent made of black canvas in order to prevent light from wrecking the show. Located in Randolph, Nebraska. Throughout the 1910s, Goff showed movies in theaters across Nebraska by using the “limelight” inside these blacktops. Lighting up the early movies with these carbide bulbs didn’t take electricity, which wasn’t easily available in rural Nebraska before 1900. Early movies Goff showed included Fire Run in New York and The Lost Child (1904). He was the projectionist, and his son George C. Goff (1881-1952) was the ticket taker. They charged 25-cents per ticket, had seven shows a day and sold out each time.
He and his son traveled this way from 1900 to 1905, traveling by train, boat, and most frequently, stagecoach. Through several feature interviews in the newspaper throughout the years, he told stories of rowdy cowboys, dusty farmers, Native Americans and others, each of whom would come into the blacktop with its curiosities and experience moving pictures for the first time. Eventually, Goff’s attraction included “illustrated songs,” which can be thought of as the first music videos. Invented in 1894, illustrated songs were presented as 12-16 glass slides with painted pictures on them, shown in a sequence accompanied by live music. Goff had a musical department of two, filled by Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Elliott. Herb would play mandolin and guitar, and his wife accompanied him on a “box” piano.
In addition to traveling across Nebraska, Goff’s outfit also went into the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Washington and New Mexico. Traveling on Sundays, they would stay a week or so at county or state fairs, ranches, reservations, and mining camps.
It was after all that when he launched his first movie-showing business in Omaha. He was already a beloved showman in the city, and the theater opening cemented his legacy.
Opening the Franklin
In 1909, Goff opened the first 5-cent theater in Omaha at North 24th and Franklin Streets, and called it the Franklin Theater. The Franklin was located at 1624 North 24th Street, on the southwest corner of North 24th and Franklin. It was located just a block away from his house.
During these years, Goff hosted an annual July 4th event for hundreds of friends and children. The event was first held at the Franklin, then at his large yard around his house in 1911. Growing from 150 its first year, in 1914 the picnic included more than 600 homeless and foster kids. However, it grew so large that he moved the event to Carter Lake. Along with the kids, there were other movie professionals from throughout the Omaha region, along with their friends and families. The kids all received free movie passes when they left the gathering. The event happened for a decade.
A nationally famous comedian from North Omaha named George Givot (1903-1981) credited the Franklin as his first exposure to show business. Working there selling peanuts and popcorn when he was 15, Givot went on to move to Hollywood and make early movies.
Goff tried selling the Franklin in 1912, and according to a 1947 biography of him in the Omaha World-Herald, it was destroyed by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado, leaving Goff to retire. However, it is mentioned again repeatedly for more than a decade after the tornado; it must have been rebuilt. In a 1914 feature, the newspaper said his wife, Mrs. Mary E. Goff, was the proprietor of the theater and quoted her husband saying she ran the theater as well or better than he or any other man ever could.
In April 1926, H. H. Cone (???-1938?) was the proprietor of the Franklin Theater. Apparently, Goff had managed to sell the operation. Cone was a theater broker who bought and sold the movie theaters in small towns across Nebraska. After a fire broke out in the projection room at the Franklin that month, the theater wasn’t mentioned again in the newspaper. However, a grocery store was open at the location by 1930, and stayed there into the 1960s.
Managing the Alhambra
Goff also operated the Alhambra Theater. Opened in 1911, Goff managed the Alhambra Theater on the southeast corner of North 24th and Parker Street. Originally hosting vaudeville and other live acts, the theater featured a 5-piece orchestra in its earliest days. Goff advertised the Alhambra as a “glittering movie palace” and films ran there after the Franklin. He also kept the theater racially segregated into the 1920s, and four years after it integrated in 1926, the theater closed permanently in 1930. That was the year Goff retired for the second time, and afterward the building became a social hall that played host to political rallies, civic clubs and other events, as well as a grocery store and skating rink.
Onto Real Retirement
Goff also opened two outdoor theaters called the Airdomes, both in North Omaha. One was at North 20th and Clark Streets, and the second was at North 40th and Hamilton Streets in the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
In 1930, at the age of 83, he retired again, this time committing to “putting around the garden and smoking cigars.
But even towards the end of his life, Goff’s story didn’t let up. Apparently, he built a life-size replica of the tomb of King Tut and toured with it for several years. His wife Elizabeth started the first Omaha Cat Club, and there’s a sad story of a very old Goff losing his cat.
Reaching a Century
For the celebration of his 100th birthday in 1947, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent him a telegram that said,
According to the newspaper, the telegram was signed by none other than actors Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Jimmy Durante and Robert Walker.
In the later part of his life, Goff lived with his daughter at 3039 Curtis Avenue in the Belvedere neighborhood. His wife, Mary, died in 1936. Frank E. Goff died a few months after his 100th birthday in 1947. The couple were supposedly buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Benson, but I can’t find any record of the burials online.
Today, nobody remembers Frank E. “Daddy” Goff. For a few decades, there was a road in East Omaha called Goff Street, but all signs of that are gone now. There are no buildings, theaters or streets that bear his name today; memorial plaques and historical markers show nothing of his accomplishments. Instead, Goff is just another name in the books of North Omaha history, and another life story nearly lost to time.