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American Theater in Walla Walla opens on August 25, 1917.
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On August 25, 1917, the American Theater in Walla Walla opens for business with the Norma Talmadge picture The Law of Compensation (Selznick, 1917). Varying trade reports put the theater’s cost between $50,000 and $100,000.
The American Theater was managed by A. W. Eiler, who had originally announced its construction two years earlier, in 1915. (It isn’t entirely clear why the project was delayed.) Eiler was a longtime motion picture man in Walla Walla, having operated the Bijou Grand Theater across the street from the new American. Eiler formally closed the Bijou Grand a short time before the American opened for business.
Interestingly, Eiler chose a very unique design scheme for his new house. In an era when Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, or other exotic motifs tended to dominate theater design, the exterior of the American was based on traditional Dutch architecture.
Standing three stories tall on Walla Walla’s E Main Street (the very spot upon which Fort Walla Walla had stood in 1858), the American was made of concrete, brick, and cream terra cotta. Inside, marble and tile filled the lobby area, with old ivory, gold, and green being the predominant colors. The balcony area (reached by a ramp of gradual incline, rather than the typical stairway) was carpeted in green velour.
The American boasted a seating capacity of 1,000, with each seat made of mahogany and Spanish leather. Patron amenities included a nursery, smoking room, and checking room for coats and packages.
On the technical side, the American Theater boasted two Powers 6B projection machines on opening day, a $10,000 heating and ventilation system, and a lighting scheme that allowed most of the house (in particular the balcony) to remain dimly lit without impacting the screen presentation. The venue was also equipped with a generous stage area that allowed for various types of live presentations in addition to the feature films. (Backstage dressing rooms were installed to accommodate stage performers.)
Finally, no theater of the silent era would be complete without proper musical accompaniment. To this end, manager Eiler invested in a $25,000 organ from the American Photoplayer Company, which was placed in the orchestra pit in front of the screen. For more elaborate presentations, the pit could hold up to 20 musicians in addition to the organ.
A. W. Eiler continued to operate the American until April 1926, when he sold the house to Yakima exhibitor Frederick Mercy. The house, which changed its name to the Liberty under Mercy’s ownership, still stands today (2005) in downtown Walla Walla. The building is now occupied by a Macy’s department store. The theater’s seats and sloped incline remain, covered by a false floor.
“Notes from the Northwest,” The Moving Picture World, August 7, 1915, p. 1035; S. J. Anderson, “New Theater for Walla Walla,” Ibid.,, June 23, 1917, Page 1982; “Splendid New Walla Walla House,” Motography, August 11, 1917, p. 314; S. J. Anderson, “Seattle Film News Letter,” The Moving Picture World, October 6, 1917, p. 121; “First Movie Theatre in Old Store Building,” Walla Walla Sunday Union-Bulletin, July 14, 1935, clipping from the Dunbar Scrapbook, No. 92, P. 24 (University of Washington Special Collections); "Liberty (American) Theatre," Puget Sound Pipeline website accessed December 10, 2005 (www.pstos.org), (www.pstos.org/intruments/wa/wallawalla/liberty.htm).
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