How many movies have you watched from home over the last few years? What TV shows have you been binge watching? Today we take for granted the wide range of visual and audio entertainment that is available to us on demand, whenever and wherever we want it, but it was not much over one hundred years ago that the residents of Libertyville were able to attend their first “picture” at a local movie theater.
J.T. Robertson established the first permanent movie theater in Libertyville in 1909. The Lyric Theater sat on the west side of Milwaukee Avenue about where the Libertyville Bank and Trust is today. Success was not guaranteed. According to the Lake County Independent: “Moving pictures thus far have never been successful with the Libertyville public but the present promoter has shown such enterprise and has been so fortunate in securing a central location that everything points to success.”1
1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. Library of Congress
Apparently the Libertyville public embraced moving pictures this time. In early 1915, a second movie theater, called the Liberty Theatre, was opened up by Frank Suydam across the street in the F.H. Just building which was constructed in 1904-1905 for the Lake County Independent offices and printing presses (current home of Morgan’s Bar & Grill).
In June of that same year, Mr. Robertson of the Lyric Theatre accepted a position as manager of a new film production company in Chicago and Owen Woolridge took over the business.
Woolridge must have struggled with the business because by October 1915 he had “jumped town.”9 Local creditors appointed A.C. Murray to be the theater manager to run the business until they were able to make enough money to recover their losses or were able to sell the business. The Lyric Theatre did not last much longer. The last Lyric Theatre advertisement found in the Lake County Independent was published October 29, 1915.10 The theater ceased to be listed in the city directory by 1916.11 This left the Liberty Theatre as the sole motion picture theater in Libertyville – at least for a time.
When the First National Bank building (current home to Joyful Gourmet, Clucker’s and La Villa Lofts) was constructed in 1913, the rear of the top two floors featured a 55′ x 57′ meeting hall with a stage. The Amici Club held the first event, a dance, in the new space on Tuesday, July 1, 1913. The hall was variously referred to as the Auditorium or the Libertyville Auditorium over the next several years. It played host to a variety of live theater and events including a “Tom Thumb Wedding” with the bride, groom, and wedding party all played by local school children, vaudeville shows, the 1917 Farmers Institute and Corn Show, masquerade balls, a performance by well-known contralto Marie Morrisey, and even an indoor golf tournament.12
It is not clear whether motion pictures were shown at the Auditorium during its early years, but movies became the primary offering in 1921 when Mr. Sauter & Mr. Waldman took over management. The new management redecorated the hall and built a fire-proof projection booth built to hold two projectors, which eradicated the need to pause a show for reel changes. The new Auditorium Theatre held its grand opening on Saturday, August 13, 1921. Over 600 people attended the showing of “Hold Your Horses.” Tickets cost 25 cents for adults and 11 cents for children 12 and under.13
Meanwhile, next door the Liberty Theatre struggled. Kate McGee of Waukegan had taken over the movie house about 1921. After problems with a manager who skipped town, Ms. McGee sold the theater to Roy Edwards in June 1923, but by the end of the year the theater was out of business and the building had been sold to the Libertyville Battery and Electric Service Company.14
Now the only movie theater in town, the Auditorium Theater redecorated, rebranded, and redefined the movie-going experience in Libertyville. A 1926 project introduced a Spanish-theme to the interior with silk fabric wall panels in a “sunset color,” columns and beams “inlaid with a walnut design,” and a stairway “finished in Roman gold.” New cushioned seats and an improved ventilation system to cool the space added to audience comfort.15 Three years later, in the summer of 1929, the theater announced the coming of a new name, La Villa Theatre, and a new technology – talking motion pictures.16
The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue.17 Film reels on a projection system synchronized with records on a turntable. In the June 13, 1929 Libertyville Independent, theatre manager Nathan Slepyan announced plans to install sound equipment within the next month. By June 27, the equipment and arrived and local electrical contractors Titus Bros. had begun the necessary work.18
To promote the new name, a towering neon sign with the theatre’s name, a large sunburst of amber and orange lights, a running green border and a flashing “Talkie” was added to the outside of the building. The sign boasted over 800 bulbs. The 1940s postcard below shows the scale of the sign. It must have been quite a sight when illuminated on July 25, 1929.19
The La Villa theatre showed the first “talkie” in Libertyville on Thursday, July 18, 1929.20 Dolores Costello and Ralph Graves starred in The Glad Rag Doll, the story of a Philadelphia scion’s love for a showgirl.21 [Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0leLeJuxIAI]. Neither local paper ran an article about opening night, so immediate resident reaction is difficult to determine. An August 22, 1929, a Libertyville Independent article concerning additional acoustical refinements suggests the theatre may have had few kinks to work out after the grand opening.22
Regardless of initial reception, the La Villa Theatre served as a draw for local residents. On one night in November 1929, the theater offered free admission to anyone holding a Red Cross membership card as part of a Red Cross membership drive. They filled the seats. That same year, each new First National Bank Christmas Savings Account holder received a movie ticket. Periodically, the Libertyville Independent newspaper printed a lucky subscriber’s name with an invitation for the reader and one guest to attend a movie paid for by the newspaper.23
Just a few months after the La Villa Theatre’s debut, a fire forced the theater to close. During a Friday, December 6 showing of Acquitted, the theater manager noticed smoke coming from the ceiling. According to the newspaper, the 150-person audience exited “in an orderly manner” and the Libertyville, Mundelein, and Grayslake fire departments rushed to the scene. The fire burned a 25-foot hole in the ceiling of the theater. Temporary repairs allowed the theater to reopen the following weekend. The theater closed for almost two months after the New Year to complete repairs and redecorate.24
Movie goers continued to throng to the La Villa Theatre throughout the 1930s. In 1932, the installation of “the Newest and Latest Western Electric Sound System” under the direction of new manager V.F. Mikesell and projectionist Del Mar Bock, further enhanced the experience. But when Frederick Dobe announced plans in 1937 to build a new stand-alone theatre with all the modern conveniences, the La Villa Theatre’s days were numbered.
In July 1937, V.F. Mikesell sold the business to A.J. Balaban, the owner of the theater under construction, with the promise to stay open until the other theatre debuted. He kept his promise. The La Villa Theatre showed its last movie, Criminals of the Air, on August 26, 1937 – the night before the grand opening of the Liberty Theatre. The La Villa Theatre’s darkened, towering marquee served as a landmark for almost another sixteen years. This last physical reminder of the La Villa Theatre was removed in January 1953.25
For more information:
Photographs of the Lyric Theatre from the Libertyville Historical Society collection: http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/cookmemo11/search/searchterm/lyric%20theater
Photographs of both Liberty Theatres from the Libertyville Historical Society collection: http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/cookmemo11/search/searchterm/liberty%20theater
Listen to or read a transcript of an 1974 interview with Del Mar Bock, long-time Libertyville movie projectionist: http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/cookmemo11/id/8291/rec/1
The sources used in this post can be found in the Cook Memorial Public Library District collection.
- “The room in the Kaiser building…” Lake County Independent, August 27, 1909, p.5. Newspapers.com.
- Image 2 of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Libertyville, Lake County, Illinois. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4104lm.g019731912/?sp=2. Accessed May 22, 2020.
- “Wednesday of this week…” Lake County Independent, June 4, 1915, p4.
- “Lionel Bull Buys the Lyric Restaurant.” Lake County Independent, June 18, 1915, p.4. Newspapers.com.
- “Libertyville is to have a second moving picture house…” Lake County Independent, December 11, 1914, p.4. Newspapers.com.
- “New Home for the Independent.” Lake County Independent, November 11, 1904, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “In Our New Home: Independent to Move This Week to Newly Erected Building.” Lake County Independent, January 13, 1905, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “Lyric Theatre: Owen Woolridge, Prop.” Lake County Independent, June 11, 1915, p.3. Newspapers.com.
- “Libertyville Businessmen have advanced a new idea…” Lake County Independent, October 1, 1915, p.4. Newspapers.com.
- “Lyric Theatre: P.E. Chinn, Prop.” Lake County Independent, October 29, 1915, p.3. Newspapers.com.
- 1913, 1916 City Directory.
- “$25,000 Business Block and $20,000 Church To Be Built in Libertyville.” Libertyville Independent, August 12, 1912, p1; “Dedicate Auditorium with Club Dance.” Libertyville Independent, July 4, 1913; “Midget-Thumb Wedding at the Auditorium.” Lake County Independent, November 20, 1914; “Farmers Institute Held Here Was Big Success.” Lake County Independent, February 1, 1917, p.1; “Play Indoor Golf in Libertyville Auditorium.” Lake County Independent, March 29, 1917, p.1; “Marie Morrisey us coming!” Advertisement. Lake County Independent, November 18, 1920, p.7. Newspapers.com.
- “Grand Opening Auditorium Theatre.” Advertisement. Lake County Independent, August 11, 1921, p.3; “Formal opening of new theatre last Saturday.” Lake County Independent, August 18, 1921, p.8; “Auditorium Theatre Libertyville.” Advertisement. Lake County Independent, August 18, 1921, p.5. Newspapers.com.
- 1922 City Directory; “Announcement.” Advertisement. Libertyville Independent, March 8, 1923, p.9; “Local and Personal.” Libertyville Independent, March 22, 1923, p.11; “Liberty Theater Sold to Roy Edwards, Waukegan.” Libertyville Independent, June 14, 1923, p.12; “Electric Company to Occupy New Quarters.” Libertyville Independent, December 8, 1923, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “Auditorium Theatre is Given New Dress.” Libertyville Independent, August 5, 1926, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “Talking Pictures at Auditorium in 20 Days.” Libertyville Independent, June 18, 1929, p.8; “La Villa Theatre.” Advertisement. Libertyville Independent, July 4, 1929, p.2. Newspapers.com.
- “Motion Pictures.” Gale U.S. History Online Collection, Gale, 2022. Gale In Context: U.S. History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/ZBZPAB928688819/UHIC?u=ccscm&sid=bookmark-UHIC&xid=6b199135. Accessed 17 Aug. 2022.
- “Talking Pictures at Auditorium in 20 Days.” Libertyville Independent, June 13, 1929, p.8; “Auditorium Received Sound Apparatus.” Libertyville Independent, June 27, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “Announce First Sound Pictures at the LaVilla.” Libertyville Independent, July 11, 1929, p.1; “New Theatre Sign Being Installed.” Lake County Register, July 24, 1929, p.1;
“LaVilla Sign in Lighted Thursday.” Libertyville Independent, July 27, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “La Villa Theatre. Screen Comes to Life Thursday.” Lake County Register, July 17, 1929, p.8. Newspapers.com.
- “AFI Catalog of Feature Films.” https://web.archive.org/web/20170711005737/http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=9386. Accessed August 17, 2022.
- “Add More Sound Equipment at La Villa.” Libertyville Independent, August 23, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “Red Cross Committee Nearing Quota in Annual Drive Here.” Lake County Register, November 16, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com; “Bank to Hold Xmas Club Parties.” Libertyville Independent, November 28, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com; “The Libertyville Independent invites….” Libertyville Independent, November 28, 1929, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “LaVilla Theatre, Libertyville.” Advertisement. Lake County Register, December 4, 1929, p.4. Newspapers.com; “Fire Causes Much Damage to Building.” Lake County Register, December 11, 1929. p.1. Newspapers.com; “LaVilla Theatre, Libertyville.” Advertisement. Lake County Register, December 14, 1929, p.10. Newspapers.com; “LaVilla Theatre Closes Saturday.” Lake County Register, January 7, 1930, p.1. Newspapers.com; “LaVilla Theatre Reopens Saturday.” Lake County Register, February 21, 1930, p.1. Newspapers.com.
- “LaVilla Theatre Now Under New Management.” Advertisement. Libertyville-Mundelein Shoppers News, October 27, 1932, p.2. Newspapers.com. “Hail and Farwell.” Editorial. Independent Register, August 26, 1937, p.6; “V.F. Miksell Sells LaVilla Theatre.” Independent Register, July 15, 1937, p.1.