By: Lindsey Marschka
Reprinted from the 2016 Ely Winter Times
Let's Go to the Movies!
Since the dawn of the Movie Palace era, the small town movie theater has lifted audiences from their immediate reality, which has included the Great Depression, World War II, and more recent troubled times, into another time and place where luxury, fantasy, humor, and horror provide relief from the stress of the moment. In Ely, four major theaters have graced downtown, and one remains with its original integrity. In the summer of 2015, Ely’s Historic State Theater was named on the National Register of Historic Places, and with its relighting event this past summer and its 80th birthday in October, it is on its way to a rebirth. The exterior renovation phase is coming to an end, highlighted by the restored marquee towering over Sheridan Street. Interior renovation continues, and the search is on for a tenant to operate the movie theater. By next winter, Ely audiences may once again be able to go to the movies without setting foot out of town.
Imagine a motley crew of trained animals, jugglers and impersonators dressed in funky attire stepping out of the train depot where Wilderness Outfitters now stands, gallivanting up to the Opera House, located in a building where the Bowling Alley now operates. It was not unusual to see these groups in the early 1900s, when variety acts and itinerant traveling shows were common even at the end of the road. Ely sported two popular theater venues: the Opera House and the Elco Theater, both constructed in the late 1890s.
The Elco on Chapman Street could seat about 350 people and was notable for its vaudeville entertainments and silent films. The Opera House provided entertainment with traveling opera companies and magician exhibitions, as well as vaudeville shows. Under the management of Archie Swanson, it began to operate partially as a movie theater. After a vaudeville show, the Opera House employees would put up the chairs and show silent films. It was not originally designed as a movie theater, however, and this posed challenges for the growing industry. According to Swanson’s son, Archie Jr., “It was a process: you had to take the seats down shortly after putting them all up, so it was not a space designed for movies.”
Vaudeville and other traveling shows declined in popularity as modern films were taking shape in theaters throughout America. With the 1927 introduction of sound in films, the popularity of a night out at the movies escalated. “Talkies”, motion pictures with a soundtrack, took full reign of the entertainment industry. In Ely, not one but two theaters broke ground in 1935: The State Theater on Sheridan and the Ely Theater on Chapman. Archie Swanson and his brothers developed the State Theater with seating for over six hundred. They continued offering vaudeville shows in the late ‘30s on the 14-foot-deep curved stage. Above the lobby, brothers Jesse and Ralph Swanson lived in a small apartment with Jesse’s wife and children.