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.
The theater was built in 1927 by Walter Creal, an Omaha movie house impressario. He closed the nearby but dated Suburban Theater that year, and built his fine new theater.
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 confectionery 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
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
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!