Early Janesville Theaters
ŠTed Schaar 2016


In the early 1900s, gathering in common rooms to listen to radio broadcasts was just beginning, and not many could afford a phonograph, so people regularly left their apartments or homes for entertainment.  Long a mainstay, vaudeville was being supplanted by motion pictures. 

Janesville was much smaller then and it was easy to walk to meet everyday needs for food, clothing, heat, and shelter and seek diversions and distractions, maybe a dose of adventure, comedy, romance, or tragedy.

Automobiles were new and affordable only to a few.  But why drive when just about every necessary destination was a few steps away?  


Neighborhoods around small cities like Janesville in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century had their own groceries, restaurants, taverns—even repair shops as was the case in the business district near the Delavan Drive-Jackson Street intersection (not far from my boyhood home), where Gail's Shoe Repair operated a door or two from the Spring Brook Tavern, Rolling Pin Bakery, and the Corner Store.  Vestiges of similar shopping areas are visible around Janesville at intersections such as Racine Street-Randall Avenue, Washington Street-Highland Avenue, and Milton-Mount-Zion Avenues.

Electric Theatre

Van Pool's theater memories are confirmed by an article that appeared in the Janesville Daily Gazette on June 14, 1946 titled, "City's First Motion Picture Opened Here 40 Years Ago Today; Women Slow to Patronize It." 5 Located near the center of town at 33 South Main Street, it was called Electric Theatre, a  modern-sounding name.  

Partners Jacob Moelk and Forrest Archer, opened the theater after seeing crowds thronging two early movie houses in Newark, Ohio, where they worked as "stove plate moulders."  They resolved to find a city that didn't yet have a theater and wound up in Janesville after rejecting Rockford, which already had one, and Beloit, after the owner of a property they liked "expressed interest in trying to start a show house there himself."

Women suspicious

Their theater soon attracted men and youngsters but women were slow to attend, the 1946 Gazette article noted:  "...[they] thought it probably was a medicine show featuring snake oil products.  The two owners used to have their wives attend nearly every performance, having them sit in conspicuous places near the doorways so they could be seen by passersby..." 7 

In 1956, a Gazette article titled, "First Motion Picture House Opened Here 50 Years Ago Friday; Admission 5 Cents" had a different focus:  "The admission price was only 5 cents and there was no odor of popcorn when the first motion picture house opened in Janesville 50 years ago tomorrow."
8     Pictures shown "rarely ran more than a reel and consisted chiefly of scenery shot from the rear platform of trains." 9   

Patrons sat on kitchen chairs and the walls "were placarded with signs such as: 'The Ladies Will Please Remove Their Hats' and 'All Those Who Expect To Rate High Will Not Expectorate on the Floor.'"

The 1946 retrospective mentions these additional signs:  "All Those Coming in Late May Remain for the Next Show," "No Whistling," and "A Short Intermission While Reels Are Being Changed."

Success breeds more theaters

In its 1913 Janesville edition, Wrights Directory lists the Lyric at 113 Milwaukee and the Royal at 210 West Milwaukee. By 1915, the Royal disappeared and the Lyric was operating at the 210 address.  The Majestic was at 106 West Milwaukee.

The 1956 Gazette retrospective mentions three additional theaters—the Colonial,
Nickelodeon, and Riverside—but doesn't give addresses. A Colonial theater is listed in the 1909 Wright's Directory for Rock County, but its address is in Beloit.
Majestic Theater Janesville 1913
The Majestic Theater at 106 West Milwaukee
Street is inside the green outline. Circa 1913.
Majestic Theater Janesville Wisconsin 1920s
The Majestic Theater is barely visible inside the green outline. What might be a box office is centered behind the pillars.  The man with crossed arms leaning against the right pillar probably is a police officer but might be an usher. 
People on the curb seem to be watching a parade.  Members of two
online classic car groups identified the car as an Essex (a
subsidiary of Hudson) produced in the early 1920s. 

Electric Theater Janesville's first movie ad

 Janesville's Main Street circa 1910.
View south from intersection of Main and Milwaukee Streets circa 1910.
 Hotel Myers is on the left edge of the frame.  The Electric Theatre
 was located on the same side of the street, several doors
toward the trees in the distance.  Postcard purchased
on ebay; no copyright listed.

Lyric Theater ad 1913
1913 Wrights Directory
Janesville, Wisconsin page 201.

Royal theater listing
1913 Wrights Directory
Janesville, Wisconsin page 246.


Mystery  of the Beverly



3. First Myers and Fire