Theator Row’s impact on Omaha

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Mallory Bart
CONTRIBUTOR

Today, the intersection of 15th and Douglas streets includes a parking garage, the Dale Clark Library, the Union Pacific Headquarters and the Central Park Towers. But in 1922, it was home to theater row, where fantasy was made reality.

The Rose Theater was saved by the demolition of one of the theaters on theater row, which consisted of four movie theaters along the north side of 14th and 15th and Douglas streets. The Empress, the Moon, the Rialto and the World were all open for business by 1922.

The World Theater was built by John Latenser & Sons and financed by J.L. Brandeis and Sons Department Store.

The Empress showed exclusively moving pictures, while the Moon operated as a burlesque theater, and the Rialto was acoustically designed for silent films.

The World opened as a vaudeville and movie theater house. An American vaudeville performance included multiple unrelated acts grouped together, including musicians, singers, dancers and comedians.

By the late 1920s, most vaudeville shows incorporated talking pictures and live performances with spoken dialogue became less popular. The World Theater was then closed in 1935 and reopened as the Omaha Theater.

Omaha native Gary Domet remembers the World Theater quite fondly, mainly because he had a crush on Hayley Mills, who starred in the original Parent Trap movie.

“I remember it was almost the atmosphere, it wasn’t like now,” Domet said. “It was like you’re going to a movie house, you’re going to some place that had character. Now, not so much character is going on in the movies today.”

As more theaters opened farther west, the Omaha Theater began to suffer from a lack of attendance. The Omaha Theater closed forever on Feb. 26, 1978.

The theater sat vacant for two years. The developers of the planned Central Park Towers across the street claimed the Omaha Theater was in a prime location for their proposed parking garage and sought to obtain the building in 1980.

A group of touring performers known as the Performing Artists/Omaha fought to save the World Theater, dubbing their campaign Save the World. The group raised $400,000 to renovate the theater, but it wasn’t enough to save it in time, despite interest a California theater group.

Right before the World was demolished, people left spray painted odes to the Omaha Theater on the exterior walls and windows, including “Take Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot” and “God Save My Sister, Astro,” referring to the current Rose Theater.

“You can’t ever get those buildings back again, it’s part of not only the history of Omaha but the soul of the city as far as I’m concerned,” Domet said.

According to the Omaha World-Herald archives, the World Theater’s final performance was spilling her brick and mortar walls into the middle of 15th street. No one was hurt by the falling bricks, but it caused a shock wave across downtown Omaha that some called it “the end of the world” because they thought it was an earthquake.

“All those old theaters downtown, what a shame that those have to come down,” Domet said. “Especially those that were built at the turn of the century. There’s so much Omaha downtown history that we would be embracing now if we had the buildings.”

The fundraiser money intended to save the World was then shifted to saving the Astro Theater and it was successful. The Rose was declared an Omaha landmark in October of 1980, just three months after the World’s demolition.

The Rose Theater was known as many names over the years, including the Paramount, the Riviera and the Astro.

Some speculators say Omaha might have been a prime location for broadway shows if theater row survived demolition, because the Orpheum and Rose have been booked to capacity almost every year since the World was demolished.

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