When I was a small boy growing up in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1970s, the city’s four still-operating downtown movie theaters clung precariously to solvency: the State, the Granada, the Colfax, and the Avon. People had been charmed away by the ample parking and greater film selection of the new suburban shopping-center theaters. Over time, the Granada, the Colfax, and the Avon were all closed and demolished. The State closed long ago but still stands, a series of different failed ventures having passed through.
A fifth theater, the Palace, fell on hard times first and closed in 1959. Built in 1922, the Palace was arguably the grandest of all of South Bend’s downtown theaters. Local philanthropist Ella Morris stepped in to save it. Renamed the Morris Civic Auditorium, it brought many live acts to town. But there wasn’t money, really, to keep this grand theater in good nick.
I first saw the film It’s a Wonderful Life when I was 11 or 12. I spent that Christmas with my grandparents at their home in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa’s big antenna picked up stations from all over, and I liked to watch the late shows after everyone else had gone to bed. I came upon this film while flipping channels. I was quickly drawn into the story of George Bailey, a well-known and -loved man of modest means who plays the hero against a wealthy and patently evil man named Potter. It’s simplistic and sentimental, but I’m a sentimental man. I fell in love with the film.
Grandpa died in early 1987, and Grandma died just before Christmas that same year. Grandma’s death hit me especially hard, as I had adored her and felt very close to her. I learned that the Morris was showing It’s a Wonderful Life on their big screen the night before her funeral. I knew I had to go. I found a seat near the back and tried to put away my grief for a little while. It worked right up until the end, when George Bailey is rescued by all of this friends. I always tear up a little, but that night I sobbed openly.
My inner preservationist was not yet awake in 1987, but even then I could see that the Morris was in sorry shape inside. I was happy to hear of it when, about ten years later, fundraising was completed to begin a complete restoration of the Morris. The theater reopened in 2000 with a new name, the Morris Performing Arts Center.
I got my chance to see the new Morris in 2006 when one of my favorite rock bands, Heart, played a show there. The Morris had been brought all the way back to its original glory, and it looked fantastic.
Today, the Morris has a full slate of concerts, plays, and events. On a recent weekend visit to town, Indiana’s favorite musical son John Mellencamp was playing the Morris, and downtown was crammed with people. It was great to see!
When Ella Morris stepped in, she purchased the Palace for an undisclosed sum and then sold it to the city for $1. This was enough to keep this grand old place alive so that new generations could enjoy it.
Like so many mid-sized Midwestern cities, South Bend isn’t remotely what it used to be. Its onetime booming economy, centered around manufacturing, is gone, replaced by a much more modest economy based around jobs in the service industry, in healthcare, and at the nearby University of Notre Dame. A grand venue like the Morris just couldn’t be built today. But because it’s already here, and because it escaped the wrecking ball thanks to Ella Morris’s gift, it can be a centerpiece and focal point. It helps make South Bend a more attractive and vibrant place to live.
Many years ago I wrote an article about all five of South Bend’s downtown theaters, with lots of photos. Read it here.