In this modern era of streaming services, the old time concept of a local movie theater seems almost obsolete. Still the theaters in Shreveport do a good business and we can look back and see that for many years, the local movie screens were an integral part of Minden. The earliest indication of a movie theater in Minden appears in 1911, when a theater opened in the area today occupied by Gorilla Tech. The theater was short-lived but started a period approaching a century when Minden had at least one local theater.
By 1913, the Grand Theater had opened. Its precise location is unclear, but it was a much larger facility than the previous theater and was also the home for traveling troupes putting on variety shows and serious theater. In many ways it filled the role previously held by the Concert Hall of the Minden Female College. That building had been destroyed in 1909 to build the new Minden High School. In 1916, the Grand hosted a viewing of a promotional film about Minden showing local residents and businesses. I so wish that wonderful historical item had been preserved, but the company that produced the film ceased operation in the 1920s and I can find no record of an archive housing their productions.
In 1917, with the Grand apparently closed, Rollin Williams of City Drug Store, opened a new cinema next door to the drug store in downtown Minden. Known as the Scout, this theater would remain in business in one form or another for about four decades. Like the Grand, it also hosted other sorts of performances but movies became a regular part of the Minden community. Severely damaged by the devastating downtown fire of February 1933, the Scout was rebuilt and around 1941, was sold by Williams to Edgar Hands. Hands changed the name of the Scout to the Tower Theater and continued to operate the movie house until the late 1950s, when he converted it into a skating rink. By the mid-1960s, the skating rink closed and today the old theater building is part of Gray’s Jewelry downtown.
In May of 1925, the First Baptist Church of Minden built a new church complex on the corner of Broadway and First Street, leaving vacant their twenty-three year old church building on Broadway near the intersection with Monroe Street. The old church building was acquired by M. M. Press, who operated a chain of theaters in North Louisiana. Local contractor R. R. Lambert did a complete renovation and remodeling of the old building and on July 22, 1926, the Brownie Theater opened in downtown Minden. This theater was a “step above” anything seen before in Minden. It offered a seating capacity of 600 on the ground floor and 300 in the balcony. Of course, in those days of strict segregation, the balcony was reserved for African-American patrons, and was accessed by separate entrances. The theater also featured a Robert Morton organ and an orchestra pit, in those waning days of silent movies. On the opening night program were performances by two orchestras, one assembled locally and the other coming from Dallas. The highlight of the evening was a performance by Minden’s own, Gene Austin, fresh off his success with his recording of My Blue Heaven. The feature film for the night was Kiki, starring Norma Tallmadge and Ronald Colman. Admission for this special program was 75 cents for adults and 50 cents for children, normal prices would be 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for children, except for special features. The Brownie did a great business operating from 2:00 to 11:00 p.m., six days a week.
In March 1928, an issue that would be contentious for many years arose over the showing of Sunday movies. The Brownie had opened for a Sunday movie, sparking outrage among the Minden church community. A delegation led by the Rev. Frank Tripp, pastor of the First Baptist Church appeared before the Council. After a brief discussion, the City Attorney, former Judge Lynn K. Watkins, was instructed to draw up an ordinance forbidding the showing of movies inside the Minden corporate limits on Sundays. The Council passed the ordinance at its April meeting and the law took effect. It would remain on the books in various forms for many years and be the source of controversy on several occasions.
At this point, Minden had two thriving theaters, but the market was surprisingly able to support a third option. In April 1933, Edgar Hands of Shreveport opened the Rex Theater on Pearl Street. Hands was an ambitious business man and promoted his theater very heavily, providing competition to the two existing theaters and making inroads into their business. He was so successful, that by 1937, he was able to purchase the Brownie from Press. Immediately he swapped the names on the two theaters he owned. The large impressive theater became the Rex while the smaller theater on Pearl Street adopted the name the Brownie. The reasons for this change are not clear, other than to make sure it was clear that the larger theater was now owned by Hands and bore his chosen name. By 1941, Hands had a new market in mind and he sold the Pearl Street theater to Joy Houck, who operated a theater chain based in New Orleans and the small movie house on Pearl Street became the Joy Theater. At the same time, Hands bought the Scout from the Williams family and changed its name to the Tower. Thus in 1941, Minden had three movie houses for the white community – the Rex, Tower and Joy. In addition, in the commercial area to the rear of Broadway (Back Street) was the Cozy Theater used by the African-American community.
1941 saw the coming of the Louisiana Ordnance Plant and a big boom in the local population. Edgar Hands saw a business opportunity with all the workers at the plant and brought a new innovation to Minden, the drive-in movie. He chose a location at McIntyre, near the plant and constructed the Hands Drive-In which opened in 1942. The business operated for several years until the cutbacks at the plant caused it to close around 1950. About the same time as the Hands Drive-In closed, Joy Houck opened a drive-in of her own, on the Shreveport Road, just outside the city limits of Minden (that would prove to be important.) The Joy Drive-In would operate on that location until 1984 showing movies, but perhaps the highlight of its existence would be the appearance of Elvis Presley at the theater for a performance in July 1955.
By the early 1950s, television was gradually entering the scene. Although there would really be no option for local TV viewing until around 1953, the competition between the local movie houses grew fierce, sparking at least three different court battles between theater owners and the City of Minden. As mentioned before, the city ordinance against Sunday movies had been in place since 1928, but by 1950, it had been modified to allow movies to be shown after Noon and before 6:00 p.m. on Sundays; however, the Joy Drive-In was outside the city limits and thus able to show films on Sunday afternoon and nights. This was a huge problem in the eyes of Mr. Hands, and on at least two occasions he attempted to open on Sunday night, only to be arrested. On both occasions he was found guilty but not fined or jailed. The shoe was on the other foot when in 1952, the city moved to annex the area where the Joy Drive-in was located. The new owner of the Joy Drive-In and the Joy downtown was Mrs. Ruth Cheshire. She viewed the annexation as a blow against her business and filed a suit seeking an injunction to forbid the city from adding her property and forcing Sunday closings. That case would drag out for nearly three years, during which time the Joy continued to show Sunday movies and Hands continued to fume at the injustice. In July 1954, Hands petitioned the City Council to repeal the Sunday movie ban, putting him on “equal footing” with Mrs. Cheshire. Hands threatened to take the city to court, which was a very believable possibility as he had already sued over another theater issue. The Cozy Theater had closed and the building had come into possession of the Minden City government. The city leased the building to H. L. Bridges to operate as an African-American theater. Hands sued claiming it was the city taking action to hurt his business by siphoning away his African-American customers. Hands lost that law suit and never took the dispute over Sunday movies to court as the situation was resolved in another way. In 1956, the city annexed the property where the Joy Drive-In was located but at almost the same time, repealed the ban on Sunday night movies.
As suggested earlier, television was now cutting into the business at the local movie theaters and soon Minden could no longer support four sit-down theaters and a drive-in. The Cozy Theater closed not long after the new ownership arrangement went into place. Later in the 1950s, as discussed earlier, Hands closed the Tower and converted it into a skating rink. In 1964, the Joy Theater on Pearl Street closed, leaving Minden with only the Rex downtown and the Joy Drive-In. On March 31, 1974, the Rex closed its doors and briefly, Minden had no sit-down theater. By October 1974, the West Plaza Twin Cinemas opened and that business would operate for around twenty years, close, and reopen again for a brief time. The Joy Drive-In, closed for the last time in July 1981. Today, Minden has no local movie theater, and as I suggested, perhaps the time for movies is past in our modern era. But many of us can remember a time when Minden did have movies and it wasn’t that long ago our town had five theaters in operation. Times change and that is now an Echo of our Past.
Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.