When I was a small boy, South Bend’s five downtown movie theaters clung precariously to solvency: the Palace, the State, the Granada, the Colfax, and the Avon. Times were difficult for them then, as the 1960s crossfaded into the 1970s, because more and more people were charmed by recently built suburban shopping-center theaters for their convenience and ample parking. The story was much the same for all of downtown South Bend’s businesses.
As was the case in cities and towns all over the United States, at one time downtown was the place to be. My mother remembers, and can still be coaxed into telling stories of shopping downtown in South Bend during her 1950s childhood. Her parents would even have experienced the October night in 1940 when the film Knute Rockne, All American, had its world premeire at four of South Bend’s theaters simultaneously. Here, people crowd around the Colfax.
This is probably the more famous photo from that autumn night: Michigan Street, US 31, filled with people between the Palace and the Granada.
Here are these two theaters again, photographed in 1927. The Granada was brand new. This photo shows another little theater, the Orpheum, which I gather closed in about 1931.
I don’t remember the Granada. I was alive in 1971 when it was demolished, but I wasn’t quite four years old and memories of those days are very dim. Here’s what it looked like in its final years. It opened in 1927.
I think that the Granada’s demise was related to a downtown revitalization project called The Associates Superblock. I learned about it in a high-school civics class 30 years ago. The Associates was a national investment company founded and headquartered in South Bend. In the wake of Studebaker’s failure, the company wanted to build a new headquarters and revitalize downtown at the same time. Until that time, US 31 followed Michigan St. through downtown. I’m pretty sure it was the Superblock that led to US 31 being rerouted. Southbound lanes were routed one block west onto Main Street, and the northbound lanes followed Michigan Street except for five blocks downtown, where they were routed one block east onto St. Joseph Street. St. Joseph and Michigan meet at either end of downtown; the Granada stood where these two roads now merge on the north end of downtown. Then in 1976, The Associates relocated to Texas, leaving the Superblock a shambles. The project’s legacy was holes in the ground where proud buildings once stood.
The Colfax, which opened in 1928, was on Colfax Avenue. All of the other theaters lined Michigan Street, which is South Bend’s main street. Here’s a photo of the Colfax in its context. Judging by the cars in the photo, this was taken in the early 1980s.
I have a memory of my mother telling me she took me inside once before it closed, but I don’t recall the visit. I only remember the Colfax shuttered and looking terrible, like this. The Colfax closed in 1977 and was demolished in about 1991.
The Avon, which opened in 1926, was the smallest of South Bend’s theaters when I was a boy. I never set foot in the place, for it showed “art films.” In those days, that was the polite name for smut. The theater began its life as the Strand.
The theater changed its name to Avon in 1949. I remember it only as the Avon, but this photo from about the late 1970s shows it was known as the Mall Theater for awhile, probably referencing the disastrous pedestrian mall built on Michigan Street in the wake of the Superblock failure.
Inevitably, the Avon closed. It looked like this for probably twenty years. Bits of the terra cotta facade began falling onto the sidewalk in about 2012, hastening the theater’s demolition that year.
At least the State and the Palace still stand. The State’s wonderful marquee is a South Bend icon. The theater opened in 1921 as the Blackstone. I saw two films here, both Disney feature cartoons: Bambi, in about 1975, the first film I saw at a theater; and Fantasia, in about 1977. Here’s a photo of the State that I took in 2007.
I was about ten the last time I was inside. What I remember most was that the rich, dark colors in which the interior was painted creeped me out. This photo from 2011 backs up my memory! The State stood empty for many years before being reused as a church, a night club, and now as a cultural center.
South Bend’s greatest downtown theater is the Palace. It opened in 1921 as a vaudeville house, but like so many other theaters it converted to showing movies after vaudeville died. Here’s a photo of the Palace from its vaudeville days.
The Palace almost met the wrecking ball in 1959 thanks to declining revenue. But Ella Morris, a local philanthropist, bought the theater and sold it to the city for a dollar. It then reopened as the Morris Civic Auditorium and hosted plays and concerts for many years. However, the building fell into decline and was in sorry condition by the late 1990s. Fortunately, it underwent a complete restoration, reopening in 2000 as the Morris Performing Arts Center. Here’s a photo I took of it in 2007.
I’ve been to two events here: a showing of the film It’s a Wonderful Life in 1988, and a concert by the rock band Heart in 2006. I was shocked by the building’s poor condition in 1988 – but just look at it now. Here’s its lobby.
Here’s the view of the stage from the balcony. When I saw Heart play here, I stood in the area between the stage and the front row of seats. What a vantage point!
South Bend is certainly not alone in having lost so many grand buildings, including theaters, starting in the 1970s. Urban renewal and suburban sprawl touched so many communities in this way. But South Bend is especially fortunate that the State survives and the Palace thrives.
See a recent photo I took of the Palace here.