Cleburne has had many theaters over the past 130 or so years. One of the earliest was the Brown Opera House, which opened in 1877 and was closed down in 1911, when the building was condemned and declared unsafe for large crowds.
The opera house was on the second floor of the building on the southeast corner of East Chambers and South Anglin streets, and the uniform practice of stamping feet caused the walls to quake and the floor to shake in a dangerous manner. It was the universal practice, in those days, to stamp your feet when some outstanding performance was rendered by members of stock companies playing the theater.
The first movie house in Cleburne was known as The Best and opened in 1904. In 1905, W.A. McDonald opened the Rex Theater, located at 105 E. Henderson St. I believe the name was later changed to the Texas Theater. I remember going to see the movie “Black Beauty” at the Texas Theater on East Henderson Street in the late 1940s.
The Majestic and Garden were other early day movie houses. These were followed by the Yale and Palace. The Yale Theater was on South Caddo Street where the Masonic Lodge is now located. The Palace Theater was located about the middle of the block on the north side of the courthouse square.
In 1927, after the death of McDonald, the Rex and Yale were sold to a Dallas syndicate, and in 1929 the Griffith Amusement Co. purchased the Yale. Video Theaters Inc. purchased the theaters in 1949.
In 1951, the beautiful and modern Esquire Theater building was constructed at 209 N. Main St. This completely new theater building, with its wide screen was a far cry from the old time flicker movies, popular when Johnson County was young.
At the time the Esquire Theater was built, the Snow Flake Dairy was located on the southeast corner of North Main and West Wardville streets where Colonial Savings is now located. Snow Flake Dairy started sponsoring a children’s matinee every Saturday morning. You could go to the dairy store and buy an ice cream cone, single dip for a nickel or a double dip for a dime, and receive a free pass to see the movie that morning. I saw several of these Saturday morning movies.
About the time the Esquire opened, or shortly thereafter, the Palace and Texas theaters closed.
Up through the mid-1950s the theaters would often show a midnight preview on Saturday nights starting at 11 p.m. This would usually be an early showing of a feature movie to be shown the following week. However, Halloween was different. On the Saturday night before Halloween, the midnight preview would be some ghastly science fiction movie.
One year the Yale advertised that they were having a real magician on stage at 10 p.m. for the Halloween show. After the magic show they would have a movie to calm everyone down. The magic show didn’t amount to much; however, the movie afterward about aliens invading earth was a little more scary for an 11-year-old.
Technicolor was developed in the 1920s; however, during the 1930s and 1940s this color process was reserved mainly for the big musical productions, a few other major productions and many of the cartoon shorts. This continued on through the 1950s with all the “B’” westerns and low budget sci-fi movies being filmed in black and white, along with some of the other movies. Whenever a movie came to town that was advertised as being in “Technicolor,” that was the movie we wanted to see.
During this time the price of a ticket was 9 cents for a child and 15 cents for an adult. I could take a quarter, buy my ticket, get a nickel bag of popcorn, a dime coke and have a penny left for bubble gum.
In the early ’50s the Chief Drive-in opened on North Main Street just north of the railroad tracks. After the Chief opened the price of tickets went up to 50 cents. The drive-in did have a special every Wednesday, which was 50 cents a car load night. Other nights you might see a car come in with one person in it and he would go and park on the back row. Just as the movie was starting, the driver would get out, go around to the back, open the trunk and two or three more would get out.
There was another drive-in theater south of town on the east side of the Hillsboro Highway. This was the Sage Drive-in, and it didn’t last very long. It opened about 1957 and closed by 1959. They showed mainly X rated movies.
After World War II more teenagers were getting cars and after 1950 the drive-in theater opened north of town. Saturday night a young man would take his girlfriend to the movie. After watching the show, then you would “cruise the square.” Before the one-way streets were put in and the sidewalks extended on each corner of the courthouse square, you could circle the square and not be bothered with having to stop for the red lights as long as you stayed in the lane next to the cars parked at the curb. The usual procedure was to circle the square two or three times to see who was there and then find a parking place and back in so you could see and be seen by others cruising around the square and show your car off and let everyone know who you had a date with. Sometimes there would be as many as six or eight cars circling the square at a time.
One Saturday night a young man and his date were cruising the square after the show, the girl was sitting next to the young man and he had his arm around her. As they circled the square there was a policeman standing on one corner. As they drove by the second time the officer called out to the young man, “Hey sonny, how about using both hands.”
“I can’t officer,” the young man replied. “I need one to drive with.”
That’s the way it was, small town Saturday night on the square.
John Watson is a Cleburne resident who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.