Theater in the Hub City has been a source of pride for over 140 years. Starting on the 4th of July in 1878 the Bain Opera House (323 Lincoln Highway) held its first performance with “The Madrigal Club of Chicago.”
For the next 35 years the Opera House featured everything from nationally-recognized troupes to local talent. In 1908, Earl Chapin May, renowned local writer, wrote and directed a historical play about the famous race horse January at the Opera House.
The play included a live horse. Some say watching the troupe get the horse up and down the stairs to the second-floor theater was equally-entertaining as the play.
By the early 1900s, small theaters, better designed to show moving pictures, spelled the end of small town “opera houses.”
In Rochelle, the Princess Theater (424 Lincoln Highway) and the Majestic Theater (425 Lincoln Highway) went head to head for theater supremacy. Located directly across the street from each other, there was no hiding from the competition.
The Majestic featured everything from movies to replays of prize fights. But it wasn’t Max Schmeling vs. Paulino Uzcudun that settled the issue, it was sound.
In 1929, the Majestic presented the first talkie to play in Rochelle. “Desert Song” with Vitaphone played through speakers and the theater was packed to standing room. The Majestic won the battle. As crazy as it may seem, victory spelled the end for the Majestic.
Ben Berve, manager of the Majestic, could see the writing on the wall. Sound was the wave (get it, sound waves?) of the future. Talkies put people in the seats. Unfortunately, the Majestic was small and talkies were more expensive. A larger venue was needed.
Rochelle Community Theater Company formed and shares were sold to help finance a new theater for Rochelle. With a planned seating of almost 900, the envisioned Hub Theater construction had begun.
On Sept. 11, 1930, the doors were opened and the Hub Theater presented “Rain or Shine.”
Reminiscent of the theaters of the past, the Hub Theater not only showed moving pictures, it featured live plays.
The theater was ever-evolving. In 1932, Max Schmeling fought Jack Sharkey, this fight included sound and action. Lester Capes married Francis Jeanguenat live at the Hub. In 1938, Bobby McLean presented a live ice-skating show in the Hub, yes actual ice skating in the Hub.
Tom Mix talked for the first time in “Destry Rides Again.” You could have won a prize if you guessed Tom’s first two words. “Hello Kids.”
Incidentally, talkies were the downfall of Tom Mix. A bullet to the throat and repeated broken noses over the years took a toll on his voice. He had a face for radio and a voice for silent movies.
“Aladdin’s Arabian Nights Spiritualistic Séance and Ghost Show” in 1934 made believers of many. But like the opera houses before it, even the Hub was vulnerable to progress.
Multiplexes opened offering multiple choices. Newer theaters had better seats, better sound, better options and everything was clean.
Many tried to save the Hub but it was not financially viable. Today the Hub is a distillery offering its own kind of entertainment.
Today, theater still exists in Rochelle. Much like days of old it is local talent that provides the best in entertainment. Started in 1981, the Vince Carney Community Theater (VCCT) provides humor, drama and mystery. The new Lincoln Arts Center at 103 S. Main St. is getting ready to fully open. Do yourself and your family a favor and attend a VCCT show. Now that’s entertainment.
Tom McDermott is a historian for the Flagg Township Museum and a Rochelle City Councilman.