BY TONY RUTHERFORD
Although Huntington often receives complaints for not having enough places to go, the city has an elegant survivor of a golden era when motion picture patrons stepped into ornate cathedrals of amusement. These palace-like structures allowed ordinary people to bask in the opulence of luxury. Unlike major cities that have paved their paradisiacal movie palaces into parking lots, the Keith Albee still offers first run motion pictures, along with its neighbors, the Cinema (former Orpheum) and Camelot (former Palace).
The Keith Albee’s chrysalis of art and beauty burst on May 8, 1928 at 925 Fourth Avenue which had been the Zenner-Bradshaw Department Store and the Huntington Advertiser. When the two million dollar epitome of beauty, rhapsody of richness and symphony in color debuted, the theatre was second in size to New York’s Roxy Theatre. The stage, which measures 45 feet in depth, 90 feet in width and 83 feet in height, was exactly patterned after both the Capitol and Roxy Theatres in New York. When it opened, the Keith seated 1,800 on the lower floor, 1,000 in the balcony and 200 in the loges.
The opening of the Keith marked the zenith in the careers of Huntington showmen A.B. and S.J. Hyman, who humbly began their careers in 1912 at the Lyric Theatre. When the Keith opened, the Hyman brothers also operated the State, Orpheum, and Huntington theatres.
A.B. Hyman said at the grand opening, “We have realized our ambition to give Huntington something she is entitled to. Huntington has been kind to us and we are anxious to replay that kindness with real service, such as this house represents.”
Sol Hyman added, “We wish the people of Huntington to feel that this is their theatre. It was built for them… and we hope and believe they will use and enjoy it. Not only now but through the long years. We anticipate that this house and the character of attractions which it will afford will not only appeal to the people of the city, but will draw people to Huntington from a radius of 100 miles around.”
Designed by Scottish born architect Thomas Lamb, the Huntington theatre was one of three similar structures erected under the supervision of the B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee vaudeville interests. The Keith’s sister theatres were Keith’s in Flushing, N.Y. and The Stanley in Utica, N.Y.
Lamb’s specialty had been “exotic, classical” theatres, but with Huntington’s Keith he incorporated the growing popularity for atmospheric theatres that created the illusion of magnificent amphitheatres under moonlit skies.
Lamb’s first Mexican baroque design was the Loew’s Ohio (Columbus, 1928). Lamb felt this design blended “the sumptuousness of Spain and the intricacy and construction of modern art [deco] …a mosaic of gold, silver and red of such complexity that it defies the pattern on which it is built. Its effectiveness lies in its texture of metal stars spattered and superimposed upon a ground of red.” Often described as a “cousin” of the Keith-Albee, theatre historian David Naylor said, “Its as if the Ohio in Columbus had been moved to Huntington but with its roof removed and left open to night sky.”
The Keith-Albee was Lamb’s first Spanish atmospheric vaudeville theatre. The Keith-Albee’s had severak sister theatres such as Keith’s in Flushing, N.Y. and The Stanley in Utica, N.Y. The five million dollar Keith’s Memorial (1928, Boston, Mass., now the Opera House) featured a grand baroque auditorium with a magnificent rococo dome opening to a delicately shaded mural of heavenly Paradise. The Ohio (Columbus) has been considered a “cousin” of the Keith-Albee, too.
Lamb also earlier designed the Palace (Columbus,1926, which Resembles France’s Palais de Versailles), Albee ( Cincinnati, 1927, which reflected a shift to the Palladian classicism of 16th Century Italy, including a mixture of baroque and French rococo.
Superlatives, common for the roaring 20s of affluence, greeted the Keith Albee opening. The Herald-Advertiser called it “a perfect theatre…comparable in every detail with the finest theatres everywhere. Marts, mines and quarries of the four corners of the earth contributed to the luxurious magnificence.”
The outside circular ticket booth was constructed of Verdi antique marble and bronze grills with two antique lanterns for decoration. The main lobby was floored with rubber matting panels with dividing stripes of white Italian marble. The marble base is of imported Belgian black. An advance ticket booth faces a large ornamental mirror. The lobby is filled with amber colored chandeliers.
Approximately 20,000 yards of graystone wilton carpet has been laid on floors in the foyer, auditorium, balcony , mezzanine and corridor. The carpet’s dark red backgrounds contribute to the red and gold color scheme of the big house. A grand foyer 85 feet across and 25 feet deep with a 35 foot high ceiling includes 13 foot x 9 foot mirrors recessed in ornamental plaster. The walls have an abobe finish.
Two 12 foot wide stairways with steps and risers of Botticino marble and railings of ornamental wrought iron lead to the mezzanine. Carpeted and draped with Spanish mission furniture, the mezzanine promenade stretches the length of the theatre.
Three balconies overlook the grand foyer. Drinking fountains are made of Botticini marble. Described as offering patrons a “millennium in convenience,” the rest rooms, cosmetic rooms and smoking rooms reflected luxury.
For instance, the women’s rooms are furnished in Louis XVI styles. Both lounges have fireplaces, candelabra and clocks on the mantels. Mezzo-tints, from the same period, are hung on the walls.
Strolling out into the balcony of the main auditorium, you gaze upon stuccoed walls, Moorish influenced glass windows , and high above on the left and right a Spanish town and garden, including potted evergreens. The great dome is finished in beautiful Mediterranean blue creating a true skyline effect. Fluffy white clouds drifted along the ceiling in seeming movement across a star-studded midnight sky .
Near the stage, huge structures resemble opera house box seats which hid the pipes of the organ. Hung with dark red velvet and gold curtains, the boxes were mounted with Golden Bermini pillars, festooned with cherubs and an assortment of rococo décor. Marble and gilt throughout has been compared to the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome.
The gold-framed lobby mirror high in the archway across from the balcony lounge typlifies the baroque opulence of the 20s. Indeed, the bronze gilded frames of mezzanine mirrors over small Romanesque tables and the beaded fringe and tasseled pulls of the lushly decorated floor lamps reflect light in small golden pools.
[Though air conditioning had yet become commonplace, the theatre boasted a sophisticated seven unit ventilation system with a battery of fans to ensure proper temperature and air circulation.]
The Keith has double fire doors on both sides of the building, a fireproof projection booth quarters, and an automatic sprinkler system for fire hazard reduction.
During construction, two million bricks, 550 tons of steel, 97 cars of cement, and 15 cars of plastering were used. Except for the stage floor , the entire building is constructed of brick, concrete and steel. The lobby is 30 x 55 feet. The main auditorium measures 155 x 120 feet.
On opening night, Nineteen ushers in dark red uniforms with gold buttons escorted patrons to their seats. The Keith had its own eight piece orchestra conducted by Joseph Koreberger and a Wurlitzer organ played by H.B. Brown.
1937 TO PRESENT
During its history, the Keith has survived a natural disaster and adapted to changing times.
In January 1937, the Ohio River engulfed downtown Huntington (and beyond). The Keith, along the Orpheum, State, Rialto, Roxy and Palace, all closed January 23, 1937. Theatre employees created a sandbag dam around the building. As the waters turned the Fourth Avenue business section into a canal, the seats and other main floor artifacts were moved to the balcony. During the flood, only the Margaret Theatre on 8th Avenue and 20th Street remained open with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell in “Stage Struck.” The Keith and other downtown theatres did not re-open until February 6-7, 1937.
Culture graced the grand ole’ house for the first time in 1939, as the Marshall Artists Series, organized in 1936, moved to the Keith. The Marshall Artists Series with its annual mixture of symphonies, concerts, Broadway shows, and operas continues to call the theatre its home.
Vaudeville faded when the movies began to talk. The Keith installed … first sound system name…. When new outdoor theatres offered a wider variety of concessions, the Keith installed a stand.
But the theatre’s greatest challenge resulted from television’s impact upon the motion picture business. As neighborhood theatres shut their doors, Hollywood filled larger motion picture theatres with wide screen musicals and epics. Where once the features changed every three days , studios demanded that features run for multiple weeks. Neither cinemascope nor cinerama would save the large now antiquated structures. One by one, the grandiose 3000-5000 seat theatres across the country closed. Most succumbed to “progress” --- making way for parking lots! Financial angels rescued a few lucky structures. These progressive minded individuals saw the wisdom of converting the former movie theatres into multi-use performing arts centers to assist in revitalizations of downtown areas.
During the 70s, the Keith faced its own financial crisis. Although groups formed to “save the Keith,” the Hyman family tastefully converted the “lady” into a three screen movie complex by forming smaller auditoriums from the east and west portions of the main auditorium. Later, a fourth screen was added in former retail space that faced Fourth Avenue.
To celebrate its 50th Anniversary, the theatre hosted Rudy Valee and a variety of other acts .
Dustin Hoffman visited the theatre for a benefit performance of “Rain Man.” Motion picture producer John Fiedler, a Marshall University graduate, hosted benefit premiers of “The Beast” and “Tune in Tomorrow.” A restored version of the campy “Teenage Strangler,” a movie shot in Huntington, had a belated “world premiere” at the Keith more than 20 years after its production.
(The writer relied in part on “Were You There When The Stars Came On” by the late Bill Belanger, fine arts editor of the Herald-Dispatch, “The Keith Albee Section” from the May 6, 1928 edition of the Herald-Advertiser, and David Naylor’s “American Picture Palaces” and “Great American Movie Theatres” in composing this history