Starting in the 1910s, neighborhood theaters littered Omaha. These were simple box theaters with a single screen and located at almost every major intersection throughout the city. Huge movie houses were downtown. However, there were a few exceptions and one of them was at North 45th and Military Avenue. This is a history of the Military Theater.
Building a Marvel
On February 1, 1928, the neighborhood around North 45th and Military Avenue was granted a lavish recreational experience unknown in a lot of North Omaha. A suburban shopping area in a growing neighborhood on the way to Benson, this intersection was already hopping when the theater was built. Along with a popular stop on the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railroad, there were cafes and boutiques, restaurants and stores lining every street at the intersection. With six streets pouring in from the surrounding neighborhoods, there was a lot going on there!
Designed in an opulent Commercial Vernacular style, the building was two-stories with architectural flourishes abounding. It was covered in dark brick with an outstanding 20-foot tall marquee covered with lights. Costing between $150,000 and $200,000 to build, the Military Theater was constructed at 2216 Military Avenue in the busy intersection of North 45th and Military Avenue of North Omaha. Originally seating 1,000 people, the building had a balcony and a main floor and one screen, with an orchestra pit in front of the stage. The “Military Grand Organ” was installed soon after it was built. The theater took over nine months to build. In addition to the theater the building had four storefronts and offices. There was also a four-room apartment for the manager right in the theater building, too.
The theater was designed by a prolific Omaha architect named George L. Fischer, was built by a company called Omaha Suburban Theaters, Inc., which also owned the nearby Hamilton Theater and the Beacon Theater on Ames Avenue. In addition to his Fischer’s role as the architect, Crawford Electric Co, Great Outdoors Advertising Co, US Theater Supply Co, US Scenic Studios, the Omaha Steel Works, Interstate Heating and Pluming Co, and painter/decorator James F. Willer were all involved in the construction.
The theater was opened with “an elaborate stage bill” including 25 performers. There were dancers, a 10-piece band and two songs composed just for the event. The original prices were .10¢ and .25¢ on the floor, and .35¢ in the mezzanine. In the beginning, movies showed three times daily four times a week, with stage shows twice nightly on the other nights. Gordon Ruth was the first manager of the theater.
In 1936, Ralph Goldberg took over the theater from the Military Theater Corporation, and the theater then had 953 seats. Gordon Ruth remained the theater’s manager. In 1941, Goldberg was sued for anti-trust issues by a competitor. Goldberg’s company ended up running the Military until 1958. That year, the theater was bought by a nonprofit organization called the Cooper Foundation. Apparently focused on maintaining the movie-going experience in Nebraska, Cooper Foundation owned several theaters and was responsible for installing the first Cinerama in Nebraska. In 1964, the Cooper Foundation sold the Military to the North Star Theater Company, which was run by Omaha theater mogul Walter Creal. Creal renovated the theater. One of the stipulations of the sale was that the North Star Theater Company would not show first-run movies at the theater, which was intended to ensure that the neighborhood had long-time access to inexpensive movies.
A Commercial District Dies
Streetcars stopped running along Military Avenue in front of the theater in 1955, and white flight struck the neighborhoods around the Military starting in the early 1960s. As more white people moved to west Omaha, the businesses in the area started closing and transitioning, and in March 1972 the Military Theater closed for the first time. In April 1972, the theater was listed for sale. Advertised as home to a barber shop, cleaners, office space and an upstairs apartment as well as the theater, the parking lot was also a feature.
The last owner of the Military Theater was the North Star Theater Company, which owned several other theaters in North Omaha. In 1971, the Cooper Foundation sued the North Star Theater Company for violating the purchase agreement for the theater when they showed first-run movies. Apparently this was a non-compete clause meant to keep the Cooper Theaters in operation. In 1972, the North Star Theater Company started exclusively showing movies made by Black people for Black audiences at the Military Theater. For a few years this model worked, but after business went downhill in late 1974, the theater closed permanently in March 1975. In 1976 there was an auction of all the theater equipment and supplies at the Military Theater location.
In 1975, a national listing said the theater had a 2/7 Wurlitzer pipe organ that was played often. This was a typical theater organ that had become rare by that point, with fewer than 150 existing in the United States at that time.
The Grace Apostolic Church has owned the Military Theater building since 1992. Six years earlier, Rev. William Barlowe founded the Grace Apostolic World Wide Ministries and in 1995 he told the Omaha World-Herald his sanctuary was packed every Sunday morning. He said it sat 600 people, which was much bigger than the storefront he began at at North 33rd and Parker in 1986. Grace has hosted youth programming and much more at their church, and has taken care of the building carefully since acquiring it.
The building has not been recognized for its historical value because of its architectural value, commercial relevance in a developing suburban neighborhood, or religious role. There are no historic markers, historic districts, or other acknowledgements, either.
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