This is the first of a two-part series on the history of the former Laurel Theater on Main Street.
The recent demolition of the old Laurel Theater, known most recently as a comedy club, triggered fond memories around town of the many years enjoying movies, plays and stage shows in the historic building.
The full story of the Laurel Theater starts with its predecessor, the Red Wing Theater. It's unknown when the Red Wing Theater opened for business, but it was Laurel's only "moving picture theater" for years. According to Robert Headley, who wrote Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C., a 1914 insurance map shows the Red Wing was in operation. A common misconception is that it was located on the same lot as the Laurel Theater. It was not. The Red Wing was on Washington Boulevard where the Tastee Diner now stands.
The 300-seat Red Wing offered a mix of live shows and silent movies. Moving Picture World, one of the first trade papers in the new motion picture business, contained information and brief editorial comments about what movies played where. The June 1924 edition described what was playing at Laurel: "Next Corner. Star cast. Very disappointing. Not convincing. Not suitable for Sunday. Had very poor attendance. Draw all classes in town of 2,000. Red Wing Theater, Laurel, Maryland."
The Red Wing's demise occurred on a Saturday night, Dec. 22, 1928, when fire broke out on the roof around 7 p.m., just after the show had started. According to the Washington Post, owner Philip Merrill was in the projection room when he noticed the smoke. Merrill and Scoutmaster Henry Coates were credited with safely leading the 200 patrons out and keeping everyone calm.
The wooden structure was quickly engulfed in flames. Ellsworth Fairall, who lived two doors away on Washington Boulevard, put in the first call to the Fire Department. Fearing that the fire would spread to Main Street, the Laurel fire fighters called on the fire departments from Hyattsville, Mt. Ranier, Bladensburg, Cottage City, Washington and Baltimore for aid. As the Post described it, "Water poured on the blaze formed into ice shortly after it fell on the building or the street in front and this hampered the work of the fighter. Another fact which handicapped the … volunteers who labored to extinguish the blaze … was the inadequacy of the Laurel fire apparatus, which consists of a Ford fire truck, once the property of Hyattsville."
Along with Fire Chief G.B. Timanus, other Laurel firefighters mentioned were G.W. Baker, J. Skaggs, H.W. Skaggs, F.L. Erwin, H. Poist, L.A. Fulton, Charles Ruby, E.W. Stanton and Frank Owens.
Timanus told the Post that the fire started due to "defective electric wiring." Apparently Merrill, who, according to Headley was known to be a rather difficult person, did not appreciate the reporter's presence. When asked for information about the fire, Merrill "curtly" said, "You can put in what you damn well please."
The Red Wing Theater was a total loss, including a newly installed organ, which, according to the Post, "cost several thousands of dollars, exactly how much could not be determined owing to Mr. Merrill's disinclination to discuss the matter."
The financial success of the Red Wing Theater did not go unnoticed, which directly led to the Laurel Theater being built.
Lust in Laurel
By the time the Red Wing Theater burned down, Sidney Lust was a very big deal in the movie business. His D.C.-based company, United Film Service, controlled the exhibition rights for movies in an area that extended from Maryland to Florida and westward from Florida to Texas. A one-time partner of Jack and Harry Warner (of Warner Bros.), he built a chain of theaters in Washington and its suburbs. It was only natural that someone with his background and contacts would be aware of the situation in Laurel when the only (and financially successful) movie theater in town burned down.
Curiously, though, Sidney Lust was not the first to express interest in a new theater, publicly at least. Only two weeks after the Red Wing fire, the Leader reported "New Picture Theater, The Chapmans to Build Large Fireproof Amusement House." Apparently a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Chapman planned to construct a 500-seat theater on Main Street "between their residence and the property of Mr. William E. Beall." The site was somewhere further up Main Street, as the article describes the location "as far better than Washington Ave."
The following week, on Jan. 18, 1929, the Leader reported "there is general satisfaction among Laurelians over the fact that we will soon have a new and modern moving picture house. …Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Chapman have about completed all arrangements for the building … and expect the contractor to begin work next week."
And yet, less than two weeks later, on Feb 1, 1929, both the Baltimore Sun and the Leader reported "Sidney Lust to Build Picture House Here." What happened to the Chapmans? They were never mentioned again in the papers.
According to the Sun, "Plans for the erection of a motion-picture theater in Laurel, Md., for Sidney B. Lust … have been completed. The proposed theater will have a seating capacity of 1,000 and will be of Spanish type of architecture." The Leader added the theater would be "equipped with a modern multi-sound organ, a stage and typhoon ventilators." The cost was pegged at $70,000. The sale of the site was brokered by Charles H. Stanley Inc. Stanley, the former Laurel mayor and Confederate soldier, seemed to be everywhere in those days.)
Lust's announcement was a bit premature because it wasn't until six months later, on July 12, 1929 that the Leader reported "Movie House for Laurel Seems Assured." The announcement said that Lust had "purchased a lot front on Main Street, opposite 'A' Street, from Mr. C.D. Frost" and that the "contract to erect the building has been awarded to Mr. C. Ernest Nichols." According to Headley, the author who wrote on movie houses during that time, Nichols claimed to have the first steam shovel in Laurel.
There was one more hurdle to clear. When Lust applied to the Laurel City Council for a permit to build and operate his theater, he was told that the city needed a traffic light on the corner of Main Street and Washington Boulevard, just a half block from his site. There were no traffic lights in Laurel at that time. So, in order to build the Laurel Theater, Lust had to buy Laurel's first traffic light. It cost $400 to buy and install.
"A little bit garish"
Movie theaters built before World War II were ornate, elaborate buildings and going to the theater was a big event. Theater archivist George Merrike, in Jeff Krulik's short film, "Twenty-Five Cents Before Noon," put it best. "They were made purposely a little bit garish just to attract people and make them feel they were out of this world."
Laurel was no different. When ground was broken in July 1929, a Leader story promised big things: "It will be equipped with a Wurlitzer organ and the best electrical sound equipment for talking and synchronized pictures. The interior will be attractively decorated and will have the latest lighting devices and pleasing draperies."
On Wednesday night, Oct. 16, 1929, the Laurel Theater opened, number 12 in Lust's empire. According to the Leader, "the new theater, which has been named 'Laurel,' is not completed, but will have the finishing touches put on it as rapidly as possible." The first film shown was "Noah's Ark," starring Myrna Loy and Noah Beery. John Wayne made his film debut in the picture as an extra, and the director was Michael Curtiz, who went on to direct Casablanca, among others. The film, according to IMDB.com, was "the Biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, with a parallel story of soldiers in the First World War." It was mostly a silent film, but had two talking sequences in it.
Lust offered both films and live shows, and the Laurel Theater was an immediate hit. The theater also had two storefronts on each side of the entrance, one of which became a restaurant; its owners were described by the Leader as "Misses Anna and Dorothy Hill, well known in Laurel." Although the Leader failed to include the name of their restaurant, it assured readers that they would "give that service which has popularized them among those who eat at public places."
It's unknown why, but Lust sold the profitable Laurel Theater in 1933, after just four years. Being the successful businessman he was, he may have gotten a price too good to turn down. He still had a dozen or more theaters and added a few in later years, including the Beltsville Drive-In in 1947. Headley describes how at Beltsville "in the early years, there were 12 ushers, one to each ramp; they explained how to work the speakers and patrolled to see that there was no 'monkey business.' During the drive-in's first season, the ushers would even wash windshields."
That's quite a contrast to the 1970s, when area teenagers referred to the place as "Sidney's Lust" due to the X-rated films shown there.
The sale of the Laurel Theater by Lust ushered in the era of the Winelands
Part 2 will look at the Winelands era, how Jim Crow affected the theater, Laurel's foray into X-rated movies, the conversion to Petrucci's Dinner Theater, a succession of comedy clubs and the final indignity of the wrecking ball.
Richard Friend contributed to this story. Information was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Contact Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-776-9260.