Oakley’s 20th Century Theater has only been the venue it is today for about the last 20 years. When it originally opened in August 1941, the now-vintage glowing sign that lit up the era-glorifying name represented a simple one-screen movie theater. Its history and how it changed from that to what it is today fits into the citywide and national history of cinemas like a plastic rodent fits a Whac-A-Mole machine.
Willis Vance, a local businessman that ended up owning a string of theaters and other establishments around town, was the original owner of the theater. At the time of its inception, no theater that housed more than one screen even existed. In fact, as silly as it may sound now, that concept wouldn’t seriously surface in the industry for a few more decades.
Cinemas would have a single film they would play every night, generally whatever was very popular at the time. When a new piece of black-and-white gold would come out of Hollywood, they would swap it in, making it the new nightly showing.
Vance opened the theater with the 20th Century Fox (see what he did there) production Blood and Sand. This may have been a thoughtful tribute to the movie’s star Tyrone Power, an American box-office sellout actor that was born in Cincinnati. While he didn’t grow up here, he did return to the Queen City in his early teenage years, during which time he learned and honed his skills in drama. He went on to become extremely well known and sought-after in the industry, appearing in famous films such as The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan and dozens of others.
The theater thrived for some time, having hit the ground running with notable qualities like air conditioning and valet parking. To people of my generation, that is a “What?” factor, but it was actually the first theater in the city to keep your ass cold during a movie. It also boasted being one of the first fire-proof buildings in the city, taking that extra step in keeping the heat out.
But almost a decade after it first lit its tower and opened its doors, the cinema industry began to slowly change.
A Canadian inventor named Nat Taylor erected a second screen right next door to his theater in Ontario. He showed the same movie on both for several years at first, simply upping his audience capacity. However, he eventually got tired of swapping out movies for new releases when the old movies were still making money, so he started selling tickets to two movies.
I call the change slow because although this idea was birthed mid-century, it didn’t begin to significantly affect the industry until the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In 1963 Stan Durwood, AMC owner, cinema pioneer and self-proclaimed inventor of the multi-plex, opened the Parkway Twin Theater. It was the first theater with two screens under the same roof, although not for long. The idea caught on and throughout the ‘60s other dual-screen theaters began to pop up. Durwood expanded his Twin Theater from two screens to four, then six.
Through the next two decades the multi-plex concept exploded, with competition for the most screens and best accommodations running rampant. Nat Taylor, who also laid claim as the original inventor of the multi-screen theater, cofounded an 18-screen Cineplex in 1979. He garnered a Guinness World Record, it being the largest theater in the world at the time.
These large cinemas wreaked havoc on the industry for the small-time, local theaters. The charm of a little art deco theater with free valet and air-conditioning no longer held up to the big dogs.
By 1974 20th Century was owned by Levin Services, a management company that also owned several additional theaters and drive-ins around the area. Union strikes that year brought mayhem to Levin. Angry union members broke into the Ambassador Theater, just a block away from 20th Century on Madison Road, to destroy the seats, slash the screen and split the speaker wires. They wrecked the projectors by ripping out their innards with a crowbar, and poured cement into the reels of The Sting, the movie being shown at the time.
Levin closed the Ambassador and several other theaters, including 20th Century. Most reopened after a few weeks, at least for some time. The Ambassador eventually closed for a while after became an Ace Hardware.
The 20th Century lasted just under another decade, succumbing to the cloud of the multi-plex and closing its doors as a movie theater for good in 1983.
But it wasn’t the only pebble to be crushed by a boulder. F&Y Construction, the company that built the Streamline Moderne style building for Willis Vance, built several other theaters in the region. They built the Madison in Covington, Ky., the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, and the Redmoor in Mount Lookout. Those are the ones that remain open and standing. Among others they built in the area were the Guild Theater, Hollywood Cinema North, Marianne Theater, Norwood Theater, Sunset Theater, Westwood Theater, Valley Theater and the Ridge Theater. All of these are now closed; two of them have even been demolished.
I can’t say for certain that the multi-plex led to the demise of each one, but its reasonable to assume the industry change had great range. And on top of that, those are only the theaters built by that single construction firm.
After 20th Century was closed in ’83, it was left to neglect for almost a decade. It rotted through water damage and vandals left their mark with graffiti and broken windows. To me, imagining this conjures up a similar image to the Imperial Theater, the decrepit building at Mohawk and McMicken that used to screen adult films and host burlesque shows in the ‘60s.
The early 1990s rolled around and found the community caught between demolishing the fallen cinema or pouring money into restoration. Mike Belmont stepped up and went for the latter approach. After extensive work, he reopened the doors of the building as Belmont’s Flooring Company.
His business only remained in the building he saved for a year, moving just down the street to the old Oakley Bank where Belmont’s still resides in modern business glory. Apparently Belmont had a thing for old buildings.
After he left the Cincinnati Church of Christ, then a group just over a decade old, occupied the building for 4 years before themselves moving on to some higher calling.
This brings us up through this old cinema’s rise and fall to 1997. It was then that the building was bought and 20th Century Productions rose like an entertainment-driven spirit out of the floorboards. Devoted to special events and concerts, they have turned the building into a beautiful venue that hosts almost anything from a raucous rock concert to a quaint wedding reception.
In 2010 they took a final step in the renovation of the building that had never been done. The 20th Century Tower that stands over its doorway was given back its glow to illuminate the night again, drawing in all who look to be entertained.
Here’s what’s coming up at the old one-screen (now one-stage):
Oct. 8: Cherub
Oct. 16: Ruthie Foster
Oct. 23: Paul Thorn Band
Oct. 29: Suicide Girls