Early in the history of our fair city, there was erected a special gathering place; a place of blinking amber lights and bright posters and pretentious, longed-for confections; a place that beckoned to visitors from town and countryside. This enchanted location was called The Eagle Theatre. The well-loved attraction was first opened for business sometime in the 1920’s. It was where the large, fancy gazebo along Central Avenue now stands; and for many decades was a wondrous, flickering Mecca for hoards of local movie goers.
Not only was it the host to many an old cowboy and mystery film; but the stage was often utilized by small one-night-only travelling shows, like a live wrestling troupe or authentic Hawaiian Tiki dancers. And cinema stars from that era would sometimes make appearances there to promote their movies- Bobby Blake, Roy Rogers, Bob Steele, Tex Ritter, Fuzzy Saint John, to name a few.
Jim Kearce recalls that back in 1947 when he turned twelve, his dad started giving him thirty-five cents for the regular weekend show, instead of the nine cents for a children’s ticket that he use to pay. Even so, Jimmy pretended like he was still eleven when he went. He would reach in his pocket and give the owner’s wife (Eloise- she sold the tickets) his dime, and she would hand him back a penny and a ticket. Then he would give his ticket to R. L. Bailey, the owner. (The Bailey’s had a daughter who was around Jimmy’s age, so Mr. Bailey was suspicious.) Jimmy would use the penny in change and the quarter that was still in his pocket to buy himself and his friends popcorn and RC’s.
He ran this little mischievous, personal scam week after week; for months, actually- being twelve years old while getting in at eleven and under prices. He said he believed that a devil was on one shoulder and an angel was on the other. He could always hear the devil say, “But, she doesn’t know that you had a birthday.” Then one night, Mr. Bailey raised a stern eyebrow and vehemently asked, “Jimmy, when are you ever gonna be twelve?” Jimmy’s eyes bulged and he said, “Next week!”
Years and years later, my kindergarten class had an early morning field trip to watch “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It was 1968. The bus parked right next to the sidewalk at the very front of the theatre; and we all walked hand-in-hand into that place of wonder; calm and well-behaved on the outside, but exited and about to burst on the inside.
I had never been to a movie before and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen: the daring, out of control car race; all the songs; the sweets factory scenes; the old, eccentric grandfather; the fantastical home of the main character, and all his inventions; the life-sized music box deception; and the absolute creepiness of that sinister child catcher with his giant butterfly net, somehow luring children into his wagon with sugary words and the hopes of candy- in spite of everything seeming so very wrong about him. The spasmodically flashing lights from the massive screen in that dark and narrow room were magical to me, somehow.
But perhaps the best story to ever come out of the old Eagle Theatre was something that shocked and caught everyone off guard one night long, long ago. The story goes that late on a Friday, back in the early 1940’s, the place was packed for a new Roy Rogers western flick that had just come out. All that were present were on the edge of their seats as Roy valiantly fought the bad guys- shooting and punching and outsmarting; trying to maintain justice in his small, dusty, one horse town.
There was a particular woman sitting in the cramped balcony, on the front row. She was a huge Roy Rogers fan, and was completely caught up in all the action; drawn into the movie like she was right there. At some point near the end of the show, as the local crowd held its collective breath, a villain (with his pistol aimed to kill) started to sneak up on the cowboy hero when the cowboy hero wasn’t looking. Unable to take it any longer, that same woman high in the balcony jumped out of her seat and hollered, “LOOK OUT ROY!”
With her arms erratically flinging the alarm, she jerked at an extreme and awkward angle as she yelled out to Roy, and lost her balance. She then doubled over the waist-high banister that was in front of her and let go a panicked scream. THEN her legs kicked up behind her, causing her to exit the balcony all together. The enthusiastic and unfortunate fan cartwheeled through the air and landed with a hard crash onto the preoccupied crowd that was ten feet below. No one was seriously hurt, but there was a lot of talk for quite some time about what ended up being the most exciting part of the show that night- of any night, probably.
Unfortunately, sometime in 1972, the theatre caught on fire. Leann Shoemake said that her mom actually signed her out from school to go and watch. The news of it spread quickly, and almost everyone was already there when she and her mom pulled up- out on the sidewalks and in the street, as they helplessly watched an icon burn away to ashes. It had been abandoned for a while before then, but the loss was still very profound for the whole town.
It was never determined how The Eagle Theatre was destroyed. Some say that a local vagrant got careless with an initially harmless flame meant for a scant, unimpressive little meal- or maybe a cigarette. And now, the memories and the stories are all that remain of the long-lost Central Avenue legend; the place where cowboys and Saturday night monsters and travelling side shows made indelible marks on the imaginations of every man, woman, and child who ever chanced to survey that fantastic, flickering stage. . .