When Dawn and I found our Dixie Highway (State Road 37) plans to be scuttled by road construction south of Martinsville, we were free to follow our noses the rest of the day
So we lunched in Bloomington. Then we drove twisty State Road 45 thence to Bean Blossom and saw the covered bridge there. We headed south on State Road 135 hoping to stop in Nashville; it was socked in. The older I get the less I like crowds, so we pushed on to tiny Story for a quick tour.
We doubled back and then followed State Road 46 to Columbus, a small city well known for its beautiful architecture. We photographed none of it in favor of this dilapidated theater skinned in Vitrolite and porcelained steel.
Tucked quietly into the corner of 7th and Ohio Streets in Terre Haute is this grand and gorgeous theater.
Opened in 1922 and designed by John Emerson in Spanish Andalusian style, this is considered the first theater in the nation to embody “atmospheric” theater design, which recreated exotic foreign locales. This style quickly became common and characterized many theaters built during the 1920s.
The versatile Indiana has hosted vaudeville, movies, live theater, and music events throughout its life. But when I lived in Terre Haute, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, it was a dollar theater. It showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight every Friday; I still remember many of the audience-participation lines. A girlfriend and I saw a fair number of movies here because it was a cheap date. I especially remember seeing Born on the Fourth of July here, because on the theater’s enormous screen (54 by 33 feet, the second largest in the state, I’m told) the film’s violence and gore chased us away long before the movie ended.
I haven’t set foot inside the Indiana in more than 20 years. This is the only interior photo I’ve taken, of the atrium behind the box office. What awaits behind those doors is truly stunning — and was even during the dollar-theater days, when the building had fallen into some disrepair. The second balcony, for example, was permanently closed because of rumored structural issues. But since 2013 the building has been renovated and restored. Check out the theater’s Wikipedia page to see some of its gorgeous interior today.
The theater is now primarily an event center. Seats on the floor in front of the stage were removed in favor of tables, which lets the venue host meetings and parties. Taking a look at the venue’s calendar, I see live theater, weddings, and a rock concert booked in the near future.
I try to stop by the Indiana for photographs every time I visit downtown Terre Haute. I’d love to see just one more dollar movie here. And I’d bring a good camera and photograph the interior extensively.
But I, and by extension you, will have to be satisfied with these exterior shots. And so finally, here’s a long shot of 7th Street from Wabash Avenue, the famous Crossroads of America, where US 40 and US 41 once intersected. The Indiana truly is tucked tidily into the Terre Haute streetscape. Do you see it there?
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 1975, The Associates relocated to Chicago, 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 Main Street. All of the other theaters lined Michigan Street, one block to the east. (Curiously, Michigan Street is South Bend’s main street – not 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.
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.
South Bend’s Palace Theater was built in 1921 as a vaudeville house. As it went for so many theaters after vaudeville died, it converted to showing movies. It went much the same way for South Bend’s other grand theaters, the Colfax, the State, and the Granada. All four of them hosted the premiere of Knute Rockne: All American, a 1940 film about the Notre Dame football coach. Michigan Street was packed with people that night; see a photo here. Downtown as a major movie destination lasted until suburban shopping centers came in the 1960s. The Granada was demolished in 1971 to make way for South Bend’s disastrous downtown pedestrian mall. The Colfax closed in 1977 and was demolished in 1991. The State still stands, but has been mostly vacant for decades.
Obviously, and thankfully, the Palace still stands. In 1987 I got to see It’s a Wonderful Life here. It was known as the Morris Civic Auditorium then, and it was in serious disrepair. By the time I saw the rock band Heart perform there in 2006, the theater had undergone a wonderful restoration and was renamed the Morris Performing Arts Center. Gorgeous inside and out, the Palace is a crown jewel of South Bend’s downtown. I’ve tried to photograph it many times, but it is immense and I find it difficult to frame. I’m not entirely satisfied with this photo, because it fails to capture the building’s total beauty. But I like how the light and shadow play on its flanks. I shot this with my Nikon F2 and my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens on Kodak T-Max 100 film.
Today is my 7th blogiversary! Read my first ever post here.