Ponca City residents proud of the community's 83-year old Poncan Theatre

BY RICK ROGERS
Published: September 13, 2010
Modified: September 13, 2010 at 1:33 pm

— When the Poncan Theatre opened its doors in September 1927, admission to see an "Our Gang" short and the Paramount film "Shanghai Bound" would set you back $1.10. If you didn't mind sitting in the balcony, you could have the same experience for 50 cents.

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More than 80 years later, northern Oklahoma residents still point to this historic downtown beacon with a pride that borders on reverence. It's a place that holds special memories for generations of people who have enjoyed its many offerings.

Like many structures built in pre-Depressioniera communities, the Poncan has operated as a movie theater and as a venue for live stage shows. Will Rogers, Sally Rand, Ethel Barrymore, Jeanette Mac-Donald and the John Philip Sousa Band all performed here.

The theater fell into a period of disuse in the 1980s but reopened following a costly renovation. In 1985, the Poncan was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the theater also serves as the home of Team Radio, a station that plays country music, classic hits and sports programs.

On a hot day in mid-July, Charles Hall, a former Ponca City resident, took me on a tour of the Poncan, from its projection room to its basement. Hall's father, Donald R. Hall, managed the theater from 1946 until his retirement in 1977. His wife, Frances, helped out until her death in 1967.

"This place is near and dear to me," Hall told me as we walked through the theater, each stop prompting a special memory that he was happy to share. "As a kid, this was my playground. I knew all the nooks and crannies."

From a young age, Hall began tagging along with his father. He started out by sweeping up spilled popcorn and discarded cups. Over time, Hall graduated to become an usher, a doorman and finally a projection room assistant.

"You could earn a dollar and a quarter up here," Hall said as we stepped into the projection booth. "You had to switch back and forth between projectors every 20 minutes. This is where I studied all through high school."

One of the theater's most prominent features is a stage curtain that features a colorful Spanish mural. Rediscovered 25 years ago in some out-of-the-way loft, the mural dates from the same era in which the theater was built.

Visitors get a sense of the movie industry's history when they walk into the theater's lobby. It's decorated with oversized posters advertising movies of a forgotten age: Barbara Stanwyck in "Illicit," Wallace Beery in "The Mighty Barnum," Dick Powell in "Gold Diggers of 1935" and Shirley Temple in "Curly Top." Hall said the Poncan owns the world's largest collection of hand-painted lobby art.

"Dave May, the Poncan's executive director, found these artworks and decided to use them to raise money for the theater," Hall said. "For a thousand dollars, you could renovate one. It didn't cost that much for the restoration, and whatever money was left over went to the theater.

"Everyone who bought one got his name on a plaque. I wanted one that featured Will Rogers, but it had already been taken. My wife, Jeannie, and I decided to go with 'The Flame Within' instead. My 'flame within' is this theater. Look at this lobby now. It's just gorgeous."

While many of Hall's memories about the Poncan Theatre are specific to his era, one senses that countless former and current residents have similar remembrances that span multiple generations.

"If you grew up in this town, you went to movies here, held hands here, sat in the balcony here and probably cried at 'Old Yeller' here," Hall said. "What's important are the memories this theater has, not just old ones but new memories being created today.

"About 25 years ago, people put considerable time and money into this place and saved this theater. If it hadn't been for them, this might be a parking lot today. Can you imagine the sadness if this weren't here?"

While the Poncan Theatre won't celebrate its centennial for 17 years, its future seems sound thanks to the care that went into its latest restoration. And while today's generation of young people may not be aware of its history, they're busy creating new memories of their own.

"I see these kids onstage today, and I see what they're doing," Hall said. "Someday they'll come back here and say, 'Wow, I performed here.' Ponca City appreciates that we still have this theater, especially when so many of them didn't make it.

"If you look at that stage and think of the performances that happened here in the 1930s and then look at it now, it's come full circle. It's so good to see young kids working to get ready for performances. It's bringing the theater alive again."


 


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