Lon Chaney in “Tell it to the Marines” was the Blake Theater’s featured movie when this photo was taken. Jim Murphy’s dad happened to have the amazing job of playing the organ for the silent movies at the Blake.

Ancestors, Legends & Time

When the Blake Theater burned, the town's 'Civic' pride replaced it

Jeanne Newby

Cyrus O. Blake was born in 1839. He felt his main accomplishment in life was serving in the Civil War as a Union soldier. 

But when the name of Blake was mentioned in the Webb City area, most people would say, “Well, I remember the Blake Theatre, but I didn’t know who it is named after.

Cyrus was a telegraph operator and railroad man for 25 years after the war. He decided to make the journey west, as so many had done before him. He was accompanied by his wife Loella, and his son, Roe E. Blake. Leaving the state of Virginia behind them, they settled in Jasper County.

I don’t know if it was the culture they left behind or just the ability to see a need, but Cyrus and Roe took on the awesome task of building an opera house in 1901. The location was in the 200 block of West Daugherty Street. The building was of brick construction with arched windows and room for businesses at the front entrance area.

The theatre was referred to as the New Blake Theatre. I don’t know why they used the word “new.” The opera house eventually became a movie theater, and a popular one it was. [Note: When a building is used for “on stage” performances, it is a theatre, but when it is for film purposes it is a theater. So the Blake started out as Blake Theatre when used as the opera house and then later for Vaudeville acts, but became Blake Theater when used as a movie house.]

The Blake was so popular as a movie house that when the building was destroyed by fire in 1931, the citizens of Webb City banded together and helped finance construction of a replacement building through pledges.

Cyrus had passed away in 1917, at the age of 78, so he wasn’t around to see his creation burned, but his son, Roe, who was employed with Empire District Electric Company was 64 years old and was there to witness the pulling together of the citizens of Webb City in support of rebuilding the Blake. Roe lived to be 84 and passed away in 1951.

 

The Blake Theatre.

The Civic Theater in all her neon splendor.

The replacement theater was appropriately named “The Civic” Theater, as it was built with civic pride.

Emily Hardy Kramer wrote a letter to me in 1992, in which she related special memories of the Civic. She said the weekly serials kept her in suspense wondering if her favorite hero or heroine would be saved. It cost her a nickel each week to keep up with those movie serials, but she said it was worth it. On Saturdays, when several movies were played for the matinee, it cost a dime.

Emily’s most unusual memory was when MGM brought its mascot, “Leo the Lion,” to the little town of Webb City. The majestic beast was kept in a cage outside the theater. The roar of that Lion started many wonderful movies started though the years.

The design of the Civic Building was nothing like the Blake. The brick building held artistic designs of the new era and of course, the marquee with its neon lights was something that the Blake never experienced. The bright neon lights lit up Daugherty Street like sunshine, creating a festive atmospherethat called the people inside to see what magic was in store for them.

The beauty of the neon lights and the billboards with their inviting pictures and the excitement of the magic screen have beckoned many people inside the theaters, making memories to last a lifetime.

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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