History of the Poncan Theatre

When you walk in the door, you can feel the presence of all those who have performed or been entertained in the past.

 

Poncan Theatre History

 

The headline in the Ponca City News on August 7, 1927 read "NEW THEATRE NEAR COMPLETION."

The Poncan Theatre opened on September 20, 1927. Thirty minutes before the opening show, uniformed ushers led the sidewalk crowd into the lobby. The 1200 seats filled fast. Tickets were $1.10 for the lower floor and loges, while balcony seats were 50 cents. The short subject reel featured "Our Gang," in Harvard vs. Yale, followed by Shanghai Bound, a Paramount film. Added attractions were two vaudeville acts. In addition to movies on opening night, Vera Byerhoff, chief organist for the Poncan, played an organ solo on the new Wurlitzer.

The Poncan, designed by the Boller Brothers (of Kansas City) as an "atmospheric theatre," has elaborate ceilings and ornamentation, giving one the feeling of being somewhere exotic. The building cost $280,000 including equipment, plus it had a new $22,500 Wurlitzer pipe organ. Fred Pickrel was the first managing director of the new theatre.

The building was owned by the Poncan Theatre Co., comprised of Charles Calkins, George Brett, Eugene Wetzel, and Dr. J.A. Douglass. Calkins founded the C.F. Calkins Department Store; Brett had the George H. Brett Implement Co. next door; Wetzel owned the Germania National Bank and Dr. Douglass was a dentist. (Pat Morris, who is currently a board member of the Poncan Theatre, is George Brett’s great granddaughter).

The Poncan is one of the few its size that doesn't have pillars to support the balcony. The support comes from a 5-foot thick "I-beam" that spans the entire width of the building. The "I-beam" was brought in on a series of flat cars, with a crane at each end. Part of the vaudeville equipment was an on-stage elevator, which was unheard of in those days. The elevator moved furniture up and down for plays and was also used for magic acts.

During 1928 - Manager Fred Pickrel brought in musicals, plays, and famous entertainers such as John Phillip Sousa Band, Sigmund Romberg & Sally Rand, who appeared on stage with only her fans and a large transparent bubble balloon. Charles Curtis, a Kansas senator, spoke from the stage of The Poncan. A Republican, Curtis visited Ponca City to campaign for Herbert Hoover for president and for himself as a vice presidential nominee. Francis Smith Carron, head of music for the Ponca City Schools and a prominent Republican, introduced Curtis.

1929 - Sound was added for movies, and in April, the first talkies were shown in Ponca City. Smitty's Boys and Men’s Wear staged their first annual Kiddies Show.

1931 - Will Rogers performed on Feb. 5 to the largest audience in the theatre’s history. On April 20, Ethel Barrymore appeared on stage in "The Constant Wife”.

On May 1, 1931, Fred Pickrel sold three theatres - the Poncan, Ritz, and Murray to the Griffith Amusement Co., operators of a large "chain" theatre system in Oklahoma and Texas.

1933 - Aug. 25 the Poncan closed due to two lawsuits - one by lessors of the Poncan for back rent; and one by Pickrel to establish a prior lien on Poncan equipment. The suits were dismissed and Pickrel proceeded under a new agreement with the lessors. On Sept. 10, the Poncan reopened.

1934 - Smitty's Boys & Men’s Wear sponsored an annual style show at the Poncan. Admission was a lead pencil from each patron that Smitty then donated to the schools. The audience watched film strips of "Our Gang," "Three Stooges," and cartoons. The highlight of the show was the Pie Eating contest.

1935 - Jan 2 "The Green Pastures" a live Pulitzer Prize winning play was presented on the Poncan stage. Tickets prices were $2.24, $1.64, and $1.12, which included tax. October - The Tovarich Road Show presented "Tobacco Road." In December, Jeanette MacDonald starred in "The Firefly" on the Poncan stage.

1936 - Variety" listed America's most popular movie stars - #1 - Shirley Temple; #2 – Clark Gable.

1937 - Periodically, the theater sponsored "Bank Night" in an effort to boost attendance. Each patron was given a number and the numbers were drawn for a pool of money. If the winning number was not present, the pot was increased. At times, it was as much as $600 and the crowd was so large they had to stand outside and listen via a loud speaker system. Walt Disney released the first feature length cartoon - Snow White.

1938 - MGM bought the movie rights to the famous children's book, The Wizard of Oz. Some of the theater seats were upgraded.

1939 - A brilliant new marquee was installed on the front of the theatre. It was powered with neon lights that were maroon, yellow and blue. It also had a three-sided, two-row "letter board," that identified the movie title and the cast (the current marquee is patterned after the 1927 one). Bob Browning was the manager, employed by Consolidated Theatres, Inc., owners of the Poncan. Consolidated later became Video Independent Theatres until the theatre closed in 1985.

1946 - Donald R. Hall became the manager and had the longest tenure of any manager of the Poncan and retired in 1977. Frances Hall, his wife, helped with the business until her untimely death in 1967. She collapsed in the second floor theatre offices and died shortly after.

1954-55 - In an attempt to revive interest in theatre-going, the Poncan was remodeled, the marquee was enlarged, and a flame-proof waterfall type curtain was substituted for the original curtains. The original heating and air conditioning system was replaced with a 68-ton air conditioning system. The 1,000 new posture-design theatre seats were installed on the main floor and the balcony. The original mezzanine furnishings were replaced with new furniture from Jay G. Paris, who had furnished the Poncan in 1927. Mayor Herman Smith welcomed the patrons to the refurbished theater on Christmas Eve. The featured movie was Artists and Models, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

1957 - Children, together with a few parents, extended from corner to corner on Saturday morning, April 6, as they waited for the theater to open. It was the 30th annual Kid's Party sponsored by Smitty's, and the boys and girls packed the theater. Following the movie, the Boy Scouts advanced the colors, the audience sang "America," and gave the Pledge of Allegiance. Three groups of dance students performed, then an accordion solo, a comedy song and dance number, and a fashion show. The hit of the day was the Pie Eating Contest. George Goldsmith, an Attucks student, successfully defended his pie-eating title when he defeated eight boys and three girls. The A&M Dairy furnished treats for the party. Also, for two Dr. Pepper bottle tops, kids could attend the “Dr. Pepper Kiddie Shows”.

1962 - The marquee was enlarged again, and downstairs restrooms were added to the theatre.
During the 40s 50s 60s and 70s large hand-painted framed canvas banners were displayed in front of the Poncan Theatre that were created by the theatre artist, Earl Sturgis. The banners were painted in the third floor “art shop” near the projection booth. The theatre has photographs of many of these banners that were used to promote movies during this era of motion pictures (see movie list below). In addition, movie stars often made the theatre circuit to promote the pictures. The theatre has pictures of Francis the Talking Mule in front of the theatre. Tonto, Jay Silverheels (from the Lone Ranger), was also at the theatre promoting “Indian Paint”. Employees would regularly dress up in costumes to promote the motion pictures and bring life to the theatre. Photos of the following hand painted movie banners are at the theatre: “The Vigilantes Return” (1947), “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949 - John Wayne), “Frances the Army Talking Mule (1950), “Above and Beyond” (1952), “Son of Paleface” (1952 – Bob Hope and Roy Rogers with Trigger), “The Robe” (1953), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), “Shane” (1953 – Allen Ladd), “White Christmas” (1954), “Night People” (1954 – Gregory Peck), “Saskatchewan” (1954 – Allen Ladd), “Jet Pilot” (1957 – John Wayne), “Old Yeller” (1957), “The FBI Story” (1959 – Jimmy Stewart), “The Unforgiven” (1960), “Indian Paint” (1964 - Jay Silverheels), “The Restless Ones” (1965 – Billy Graham), “Seconds” (1966 – Rock Hudson).

1974 - Reclining seats were installed on the ground level of the theater.

1985 - The theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to historical inputs provided by Barney Alston (one of the first and longest tenured employees of the theatre, 1927-1985). Ironically, this same year, the theatre closed its doors for the first time, and remained closed for almost 10 years. Barney’s wife, Geneva, also a long time employee, began collecting articles about the Poncan and started a scrapbook that currently holds 20 plus years of Poncan Theatre history.

1988 - The Poncan Theatre Company, a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation, was organized by Kay County cultural and preservation enthusiasts who recognized the historical importance of the theatre to the community.

1989 - The theatre building was donated to the Poncan Theatre Company through a generous gift from Enloe and Wanda Baumert. Larry Buck’s drive and passion to save the Poncan across the next 20 plus years were monumental and continue to this day.

1990 - The dream of restoring the historically significant Poncan Theatre began in earnest in June, with the kickoff of a membership drive. The goal was to raise $930,000 to restore the 1927 theatre and operate it as a performing arts center. The restoration was slated to be done in three phases: 1) replace roof, update mechanical, electrical, and sound systems, 2) clean/replace carpeting, revamp offices and stage areas, and 3) restore original marquee, secure stained glass panels, and repair exterior masonry.

1991 - Volunteers were chosen to participate in a local fund drive headed up by Charles Casey. On November 2, the theatre presented "Bring Back the Magic...a Preview of the Poncan." The Poncan Theatre Board named Jo Ann Muchmore as director. Ms. Muchmore indicated one of her principal reasons for returning to Ponca City to assume the theatre position was the importance of saving the Poncan for generations to come.

1992 - Restoration began in earnest to bring the original building back to life through the leadership of Bill Goldsberry who organized a dedicated team of volunteers. Leland Smith volunteered to help oversee the many outside contractors. It took 15 tons of plaster to repair the deteriorated interior and DuPont reproduced the original carpet. A list of the citizen volunteers who donated their time and money is in a place of honor at the Poncan Theatre.

On March 28th the Poncan Theatre Company "actors" presented the first annual "Taste and Tasteless" performance as a fund raiser (this production is now an annual event for the theatre).

1993 - The theatre hosted a community telethon as a fund raiser. WBBZ employees commemorated the station's first broadcast in 1927 from the Poncan Theatre stage. Dave May and Joe Anderson were emcees. Cable ONE, KPNC, KLOR, and KIXR radio stations also participated (ironically, in 2010 TEAM radio (KPNC and KLOR), owned by Bill Coleman, will broadcast from new studios in the Poncan Theatre West wing).

The community called in pledges of over $26,000, Conoco announced a grant of $150,000, and a $150,000 grant was received from the Mabee Foundation in Tulsa. Another innovative "fund raiser" was created and crafted by Susan Buck. She took material from the 1955 theatre curtain and made 500 (numbered) stuffed teddy bears nicknamed "Boller Bears," after the Poncan architects. Theatre volunteers sold the bears for $50 each.

Joe Harris of Muskogee donated renovated projectors to the theater. The projectors had originally been in a Tulsa theater. Don Dobbs, who worked for the OSU Educational Television Department, spent months rejuvenating the projectors. "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" starring Ben Johnson played for 3 nights in August. Don Dobbs, projectionist, used the old reel-to-reel projectors to show the film. As a footnote and to honor some of the past full-time projectionist of the Poncan Theatre, they are: Barney Alston, Troy Wideman, Raymond Cox, Fred Wear, and Joe Richardson.

Barney and Geneva Alston, long time employees at the Poncan, donated their American flag to the theater. It had flown over the building on many special occasions, particularly on the 4th of July, marking Independence Day and also the birthday of Don Hall, theater manager for many years. The history of the Poncan Theatre can not be described without also recognizing Mr. Elis Reed who for countless years spent his nights sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the theatre (and polishing the brass frame of the theatre box office); his efforts to maintain the beauty of the theatre for the movie goers of Ponca City will forever be appreciated. Kenneth Bryant was also a long time employee and handyman at the theatre.

1994 - The Poncan held its grand reopening and open house on September 18. For the first time in many years, visitors saw the hand-painted stage curtain that features an outdoor Mediterranean garden with the ocean visible in the distance. The artist signed it "Kansas City Scenic 1927." The million dollar restoration was complete.

The restoration honors the past managers including: Fred Pickrel (1927-1937), Robert Browning (1938-1945), Donald R. Hall (1946-1977), Ray Sikes (1977-1979), Nelson Myers (1979-1983), Robert Davis (1983-1983), Leona Jones (1983-1985), Larry Buck (1985-present; restoration and board member & President), Jo Ann Muchmore (1985-1997), Ken Wessel (1997-2000), Michael Varnam (2000-2005), Dave May (2006-2011).

1996 - The Poncan won a major award at the state Main Street banquet. It was voted the best interior renovation in the state. The gilded plaster strip above the front doors was painted three times, after Kilz treatments, and each time, it came back greenish black. Bobby Holroyd, an artist, treated it with "guaranteed poison" for the fungus it seemed to have, and painted it a fourth time. And it turned black again, with the splotches of green showing through. Some thought it was the blood of the ghost seeping down from upstairs. Or, does anyone know where they stored the popcorn oil in the early days?

1997 - The theater received a $124,000 endowment from the estate of Edythe DeMar, a longtime Poncan and Conoco employee.

2006 - Dave May was named the Executive Director. He initiated many innovative actions during his tenure from 2006-2011 to include: starting the Evans Children’s Academy of Performing Arts, the Poncan Opry, the free summer Children’s Film Festival, Andy’s Wacky World television program for kids, and facilitating the move of Team Radio offices and broadcasting to the theatre. This move prompted the design, build-out and funding of new theatre offices. He led efforts to restore and establish the world’s largest collection of 1930s “hand painted lobby art” which directly led to the return of the historic painting of Will Rogers. Other major projects included: re-rigging the stage, updating the sound and lighting systems, restoring the entire brick exterior of the building, re-starting the Friends of the Poncan support group, overseeing the creation of the Poncan Newsreel newsletter, creating the on-screen advertising program, initiating automated online ticket sales, introducing the two cash register system to the concession stand which streamlined customer service and maximized sales. He introduced the concept of outsourcing some of the functions of the theatre like grant writing and technical support allowing the theatre to operate more efficiently and he was the first to champion the yet to be realized multi-use vision for the Poncan to help sustain it well into the future.

In addition to managing and overseeing creative projects of the Poncan, Dave also took an active role in producing and even appearing in many of the Poncan productions including: Taste and Tasteless for nearly 20 years, emcee of the Poncan Opry, magician and ventriloquist for countless tours as well as Andy's Wacky World television program. During Dave's tenure at the Poncan his entire family got into the act with wife Lori directing children's shows and their children Dawson, and Emily always being present to help with all theatre projects.

2007 - The historic Poncan Theatre Will Rogers painting was returned to the theatre by Central State University at the request of the Hall family. The painting had hung in Don Hall’s office during his time as manager of the theatre. The painting is thought to have been painted by Richard Gordon Matzene, a well-known art collector. Originally the painting was commissioned to hang in the Will Rogers Claremore Museum but for some unknown reason was replaced by a nearly identical painting that now hangs in the museum.

2008 - Patricia Evans established the Evans Children’s Academy of Performing Arts through a gift of $25,000 that gives children (K through 12th grades) an opportunity to explore their interest in live theatre. Mrs. Evans is a native of Ponca City and was married to Lloyd “Jerry” Evans, deceased. Her involvement with the Poncan Theatre includes serving on the Poncan Board, being chairperson for “Taste and Tasteless”, and serving as an advisory member of the Poncan Endowment Board.

2010 - New theatre offices were built in the East frontage of the theatre to allow the broadcast stations of Team Radio (Bill Coleman, owner) to be built in the old “Cozy Barber Shop” area. Charles Hall, son of Donald Hall, and Charles’ wife, Jeannie, financed and did much of the labor for the new offices. Michael Morris, Ponca City’s “Artist in Woodwork” did the finish work. Dave May had the vision and drive to make this all possible.

2011 - September 20, Bill Coleman’s Team Radio stations (KLOR and KPNC) broadcast for the first time from the new state-of-the-art radio studios at the Poncan Theatre.

2012 - February 1, The new Poncan Theatre website was brought online due to the efforts of Rick Logan, website designer for The Ponca City News.

 

 

 

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