A History of the Beacon Theater in North Omaha

Beacon Theatre, North Omaha, Nebraska

The intersection of North 30th and Ames Avenue is a bustling commercial epicenter of the North Omaha community. For 40 years part of that vibrancy was a movie theater called The Beacon. Built as a suburban movie house, it was majorly renovated once and survived a lot of challenges throughout its existence. This is a history.

Building in the ‘Burbs

The Beacon Theater was located at 2910 Ames Avenue from 1927 to 1967. Located within the North 30th and Ames Historic Commercial District, The Beacon was surrounded by successful businesses that attracted kids from the area like the North Omaha branch of the Omaha library, a half-dozen grocery stores, a five-and-dime, a bakery, and more.

Showing silent movies for the first two years, in 1929 the theater became a “sound house” that showed “talkies” from then on. A pioneer Nebraska “druggist” (pharmacist) named Albert E. Troutman (1864-1942) ran a confectionary in the theater from its opening through his death. It was a precursor to the candy booth in every movie theater today.

A performance space for nearly 20 years, the Beacon hosted song, dance, and musical acts, along with plays and small musicals.

Later offering nightly shows, it had a single screen with a wooden stage located beneath the screen. Offering Saturday matinees for kids and families, movies cost 10 cents in the 1940s. The Beacon, as many others did around that time, showed series of films, like a Roy Rogers western that continued each Saturday. Other stars included Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Tom Mix. 

A single screen throughout its existence, there was a wooden stage in the front. Each Saturday, they would have a drawing of your ticket number and they would call them from the stage during Intermission. The Beacon was built with a “Cry Room” at the back of the theater where mothers with crying children could sit and watch the movie through a large glass and a soundproof room.

During World War II, the owner updated the interior of the theater with new seats, wall decorations, lights, and air conditioning. New florescent carpeting throughout the building was highlighted by black lights throughout.

William H. Creal (1870-1941) owned the Beacon from its construction through the year he died. Living nearby at North 26th and Fowler, Creal was involved in the nearby North Star Theater, too. His son Walter took over the family business afterward and expanded its reach by building and buying other theaters.

Renovating for the City

Beacon Theatre, N. 29th and Ames Ave., North Omaha, Nebraska
The Beacon Theater was at North 29th and Ames Avenue from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Just after World War II in 1946 the building was renovated to feature a large lighthouse and a smooth exterior appearance. The working beacon that shown over the surrounding neighborhood was punctuated by a nautical theme inside. The building had an electric Beacon sign shooting up the side of the lighthouse, and was covered with stainless steel and colored glass panels in the front.

However, success apparently eluded the business. Managed by a longtime theater man named Troxell, the theater continued surviving but struggled. In 1952, owners sought a decrease in the building’s value and won it in order to get some relief from city taxes.

“We’ll keep playing it as long as the crowds are as large as they have been,” Beacon owner Walter Creal told the Omaha World-Herald in May 1967. Exclusively showing foreign films for a few seasons prior, Creal was threatening to close the theater. However, by July of that year the business was closed and the building was for sale.

Racism at the Movies

Much the same as many institutions (banks, stores, restaurants, and more), the Beacon Theater was affected deeply by racism. From the time it was built into the early 1960s, the theater was segregated for white people only, and no Black people were allowed to attend. Movies shown at the theater were selected for their stars who would attract white moviegoers, and the theater was located outside of the historic Black neighborhood to the south of Ames Avenue.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the “color line” between the Saratoga neighborhood and areas south of it was broken, and the theater integrated. Meanwhile, white flight ensued and the historic neighborhood around The Beacon was adversely affected. Over several years, attendance at the theater waned, and it closed permanently in 1967 though, just a few years after African Americans started attending.

Remarkably though, Black buyers showed mercy on the business and tried to revive it.

In 1968, the Omaha Star reported that the theater was bought by African Americans and opened again, saying “the marquee of the established movie house… shines much brighter.” The new owners, J.D. and Barbara Chatman, were reported by the paper as “soul brothers” who “plan to show the best movies in an atmosphere of splendor and comfort.”

However, the Chatmans apparently weren’t able to make it work and in later 1968 the theater closed permanently.

Demolition & Memories

History of the 30th and Ames Commercial Historic District in North Omaha, Nebraska, Adam Fletcher Sasse, NorthOmahaHistory.com.
This is a history of the 30th and Ames Commercial Historic District in North Omaha, Nebraska, by Adam Fletcher Sasse for NorthOmahaHistory.com. The lighthouse on the Beacon Theater is visible on the left side of the pic.

The theater was demolished afterward when the Commercial Federal Savings and Loan building expanded in the early 1980s.

In the history of North Omaha, there have been more than 30 movie theaters throughout the community. Today, there are just two in the entire area between North 72nd Street and the river, from Dodge Street north to the Washington County line.

Today, there is no plaque or marker where this longtime cultural institution stood.

Do you have memories of the Beacon? Please share them in the comments section!

Special thanks to Mary Lou Hawkins and others for sharing memories with me!

You Might Like…

BONUS IMAGES

Beacon Theatre, 30th and Ames, North Omaha, Nebraska
The Beacon Theatre was at N. 30th and Ames from 1925 to 1969. This ad is from 1947.
An ad for the North Star and Beacon Theatres in North Omaha, Nebraska.
An ad for the North Star and Beacon Theatres from the 1950s.
1938 Model of N. 30th and Ames, North Omaha, Nebraska
This 1938 model shows a redeveloped southeast corner of N. 30th and Ames, including several businesses that did exist in a plan that was never built. The businesses included the Beacon Theater, Roy L. Decker Grocery, Thorton Cleaners, Masterson’s Clothing, Kenwood Drugs, Gatchell Hardware and Electric, and a bakery. The featured building was the Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company, finished in 1936.
Beacon Theater, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1938 model of the Beacon Theater, once located at N. 29th and Ames Avenue in North Omaha.
Beacon Theater, 2910 Ames Avenue, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a graphic showing images related to the Beacon Theater in North Omaha.

3 thoughts on “A History of the Beacon Theater in North Omaha

  1. We went to the Beacon nearly every Saturday when I was a kid. My grandparents lived a couple blocks away. I specifically remember seeing Gone With The Wind when I was about 12, wondering if it would ever end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Referenced Timeframe 1956-1968. My family lived next door to Walter Creal on 26th & Flower, who owned the Beacon Theatre. My brother Bob & I mowed grass, shoveled snow and did odd jobs for Walter. I remember Saturday matinees cost 25 cents & a pop was 10 cents. The matinees started with a documentary, cartoons an intermission for the ticket drawings (which I never won) than the Premier Movie. I remember many wonderful memories of growing up in this area including Burke & Berry Grocers, Kenwood Bakery, Five and Dime Store, Buster Brown Shoes, The Coffee House, Kenwood Drug Store and other stores. The Saratoga Belt Line on 24th & Ames were Shavers, Hinky Dinky Grocery, Rexall Drug Store, a cleaners, etc. Holy Angels Grade School & Saratoga Grade School located within blocks of each other resulted in a large group of families. There was never a lack of kids to form baseball teams, kick ball, basketball, croquet, tag, Hoola Hoop Contest with the 50’s music playing & kick the can. Kids ran home for Supper when they heard the Holy Angel Church Bells toll at 6:00 p.m. After Supper, enjoyed playing outside until the street lights came on. If we were Extra Lucky, we would be able to buy ice cream from the Mister Frosty Truck or this lil guy that biked around the neighborhood with a small cooler attached to his fender that sold frozen treats. One last memory is going for an evening walk with my parents. We would chat and maybe sit on the porches of the neighborhood families drinking lemonade. Everyone knew and helped each other though life’s situations. My family was truly Blessed to live in this neighborhood. Also the Broom man sold his wares to our moms!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think my first “going to the movies” experience was at the Beacon. Probably something from Disney like “That Darn Cat” or one of the “Love Bug” movies.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s