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Ancestors, Legends & Time

What the Civic was and the Blake before it

Jeanne Newby

I was asked questions just recently about the building that is named the Civic. A story many of us have heard through the years but some folks were curious. So we will take a step back into the past and remember the history of The Civic!

Note: Theater is spelled theatre if there was entertainment on the stage. It is spelled theater if it was for film entertainment only.

Prior to the Civic, there was the Blake Theatre & Opera House at 215 to 217 W. Daugherty St., from 1901 to 1931. It was built in 1901 by Roe Blake.

Emma Hardy Kramer was 6 years old when she got to go to her first theater, The Blake, to see the very first “talkie” movie, the “Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. Emma recalled, “We lived one block east of the Blake on North Webb Street. One night in 1931, the fire sirens sounded and the fire truck was coming close to where we lived. It was probably my father who looked out the window to see if he could see a fire. And lo and behold it was just south of us. “The theatre must be on fire.” We heard him say. We were all soon dressed and on our way to see what was burning. Sure enough, it was the theatre… a full scale fire.”

Emily remembered that the wind was blowing from the west which pulled the flames away from Uncle C.W. Oldham’s gas station on the west side of the theatre. But the Spracklen building on the east was badly burned. Emily recalled that in the Spracklen building was a bookstore, a barber shop and, of course, Spracklen’s Photography. Shadwell Shoe Shop was in the same building as the theatre and it was destroyed. Ann Shadwell Bevier once told Emily about Ann’s father trying to save his equipment from the burning building. Luckily he wasn’t injured.

Once the Civic Theater was built to replace the Blake, thanks to the community’s involvement, Emily spent many enjoyable hours being entertained by her favorite movie stars. The weekly serials kept her in suspense wondering if her hero or heroine would be saved. The price of the movie ticket was only 5 cents, but on Sundays they had a matinee where you could watch several movies for just 10 cents.

Then Emily related an interesting story about the time MGM brought their mascot, “Leo the Lion,” to Webb City. They put him on display out in front of the theatre in a large cage. The roar of that lion has started many a wonderful movie.

The theatre wasn’t just for movies. Many special events were held inside, such as a beauty contest.

The new theatre was named the Civic because the citizens of Webb City pledged the money to build it after the Blake burned in 1931.

The Civic had an artistic design created by Larry Larsen. Larry was also the builder who remodeled the Mystic on Main Street to make it the Junior Theater, and he designed and built the majestic FOX Theatre in Joplin. The Civic was air conditioned.

Larsen moved here from Chicago. He traveled all over the states building movie houses. He built more than 100 movie houses in his lifetime.

In later years, after the Civic had been closed. Jane and Bruce Benson purchased the building, but the theater portion had deteriorated beyond repair. They remodeled the front as an apartment and rented two shops.

More recently, the Civic became well known as Bruce Benson faithfully came out the front door at each sundown to play “Taps” on his cornet while facing the American flag by the post office.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.

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