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Friends of Fairmont reveal History of The Fairmont Theater

From the Book "An Ornament to the City"

The History of the Fairmont Theater; 410-416 Adams Street Fairmont West Virginia

          Part of the site at 410-412 Adams Street Fairmont West Virginia, was originally a vacant lot; a house at 414-416 Adams Street, which had been constructed around 1890 according to the Sandborn maps, had been used as a storeroom by the Kelley Music Company.

          Talk of constructing a new theater for Fairmont West Virginia on this site began in March of 1920. Samuel Spicer, a New York investor, secured an option on the lots on Adams Street just east of the Watson Hotel, and proposed to construct a theatre which would cost from $100,000 to $150,000, with a seating capacity of 1,500 people. It was to be a modem structure, equipped with a stage on which the largest productions could be given, and adapted for the use of motion pictures as well. They intended to use the slope of the lot to accommodate the raked seating in the theatre, and the stage would be at the level of the alley in the rear. "The house will be in keeping with the progressive spirit of Fairmont West Virginia and the building will be worthy of a place in her greatest business street."

          The first rendering of the building, used to attract investors to the project, resembled a Roman triumphal arch; it was a three-story structure with a two-story monumental Roman arch in the center for the entrance. However, this was not the final design for the facade of the building.

          The West Virginia Amusement Company was incorporated in June 1920 for the purpose of constructing the theatre. The intention was to begin the building by June 1920 and to have ready for opening the first of October 1920. The first architect hired to design the building was F. W. Dreher, of the firm of Dreher, Churchman, Paul and Ford of Philadelphia. By this time, the expected cost of the theatre had increased to $200,000. The building would have a white terra cotta facade, and would be equipped with a Wurlitzer-Hope-Jones pipe organ, to be used for music as well as for theatrical sound effects such as rain, thunder, and trains. It was thought that the theatre would be completed in a "short period of time. "

          In September of 1920, the West Virginia Amusement Company had purchased the lot adjoining the Watson Hotel at 310-312 Adams Street, and was selling stock for the theatre's construction. October came and went without even the beginning of the construction of the building. March 1921 headlines stated, "New theatre is now assured is rumor prevailing," and that the plans were "to rush ahead the construction of the new playhouse" for the fall. In May of 1921, it was stated that a new theatre was assured for the city; the Amusement Company had purchased the property at 314-316 Adams Street, and the additional 43 feet of frontage was sufficient ground for the theatre. This gave the proposed building a total frontage of 90 feet and a depth of 165 feet. There was a change in the architect at this time; Mr. Fred W. Elliot of Columbus, Ohio was hired to design the theatre. He planned a structure with a seating capacity of 1,400. Mr. Kelley, who used space in the house on the site for storage for his adjacent music store, planned to extend his music store to the rear to make up for the space lost to the theatre. It was hoped to have the theatre open for the coming season.

          The name of the theatre, "The Fairmont," was decided upon in June 1921 at a meeting of the Amusement Company. This was done to advertise the city of Fairmont WV, just as the famous Fairmont Hotel did. It was also noted at this meeting that the cost of the new theatre would perhaps run as high as $350,000. Still, no theatre materialized in this year, in spite of all the publicity and good intentions. It was not until April of 1922 that the bids for the construction of the theatre were opened. The lowest bid of approximately $200,000 by Valley Engineering Corporation was accepted. The Amusement Company still had to sell stock for the company; although $100,000 had already been raised, they still needed to pay for and to secure title to the real estate before the other money would be available. It was thought that the construction would take seven months to complete, and they hoped to have the new theatre open for Christmas week.

          The campaign to finance the new theatre was on. The Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary, as well as other service organizations, gave the proposition their full support. It was noted that carloads of people had to go to Clarksburg, Wheeling, or Pittsburgh to see large theatrical production, which could not be shown here for lack of a proper facility. Fairmont West Virginia, it was said, would benefit greatly by hosting these large productions, as well as being able to house state meetings they were missing out on. The operation of the theatre would have a positive impact on all trade in the city, the persuasive argument went, as the profits of the operation would be distributed back into the channels of trade. It would be owned and operated by people of the city, and there was a liberal plan for financing any potential investors. The revised cost of the new theatre was $300,000: $100,000 for the land acquisition, and $200,000 for the construction.

          A contest was held by the Amusement Company for the five best short letters telling why Fairmont West Virginia should have a modem theater and why the citizens of Fairmont WV and the vicinity should own it; the cash prizes increased if the letter was accompanied by either money for theatre tickets or for stock. With a big influx of cash to the tune of $150,000 from the Conservative Life Insurance Company of Wheeling, the project was finally well on its way to fruition. The Fairmont Mining Machinery Company also subscribed to $10,000 worth of stock; this was seen as a mark of civic pride on the parts of the employees of the company. Construction began on the theatre on May 29, 1922.

          One early problem with construction was an alleged encroachment of the building in the rear on Ogden Avenue. A survey of the property was made, and it was discovered that the theatre encroached 3/4 of an inch on one side of the lot, and 1/4 of an inch on the other side of the lot. In the interest of the public welfare and "to quiet vexatious questions", the city Board of Directors decided in favor of the Theatre, and it was allowed to remain as begun. In September of 1922, the West Virginia Amusement Company, apparently not pleased with the rate of progress on the new theatre, bought the contract for the construction from Valley Engineering Company; it placed Samuel D. Brady in charge of the construction and named William C. Hawkins superintendent of construction. Two shifts of workers were put on the job, in the hopes of having the building under roof by December 1, 1922.

          The next problem with construction involved the foundations. A strata of quicksand was discovered, and it caused considerable delay in constructing the pilings for the building. The first three feet of soil on the site was yellow dirt. Next, there was approximately fifteen feet of blue potters clay. It was below this clay that the vein of quicksand was discovered. To mitigate it, it was necessary to drive sheet pilings down about twenty-three feet; each of the thit1y-five piers required thit1y-six hours of time to perform this task. The other delay at this time was the lack of bricklayers. Even though there were eighty men working on the site, Mr. Hawkins needed as many as thirty-five bricklayers at once, going as far as New York to try to secure this type of worker. Because of the vast amount of construction in the country in the year 1922, this was difficult to do. "I haven't time to sleep," he stated. "My mind is never off this building a single moment. I must have bricklayers! That's my big trouble now!" By the beginning of November, the goal was to simply have the building under roof by December 1, 1922; the goal of opening the week of Christmas was out of the question, although the Virginia Theater (316 Adams Street) was doing just that. The height of the walls in the rear of the Fairmont Theater were about eighty feet tall at this point in time, and the walls in the front sixty feet tall. The trusses were expected to be placed within the week. "Fairmont's New Theater Being Rushed to Completion," the headlines read. The terra cotta work for the front facade was placed by the middle of November, as well as the steel frame for the marquee overhanging Adams Street.

          The walls of the theatre were twenty-two inches thick and extended down as deep as twenty-five to thirty feet to a solid bedrock foundation. By the beginning of December, the heavy trusses supporting the roof were mostly in place, as well as much of the frame construction work. The side walls and the rear wall were completed, and the placement of the steel joists for the first floor had begun. The seats for the theatre arrived in January of 1923, They were manufactured by the American Seating Company; they were upholstered in tan velour, and the aisle seats had gold standards with an oval shaped plate on which the letter "F" was emblazoned. The 1,272 seats cost $17,000. A sample of the seats was displayed in the window of the Fairmont Furniture Company.

          The completed building designed by Fred W. Elliot was very different from the rendering by the first architect. It was now a three-story, five bay structure with Roman arched windows on the third floor, pairs of rectangular windows topped with a transom on the second floor, and three pairs of French doors and a store front on the first floor. There was an ornamental cornice between the first and second story windows, and a bracketed cornice at the roof. Pilasters in stone separated the windows on the second and third floors. In May, it was announced that the official opening for the theatre was planned for June 4, 1923; the opening performance was to be the musical show "Helen of Troy, N. Y," which would run for three days. It was to be followed by the senior high school play, "The College Widow." By this time, the auditorium was completed and the scaffolding removed; the major work remaining was the installation of the seats, the fitting of the marble for the lobby, the placing of the electrical fixtures and bronze railings, the hanging of the draperies, and the laying of carpet. The cost of the theatre had escalated to $400,000.

          As the workers were putting the finishing touches on the new theatre, it was noted that' there were six rooms for rent in the building as well. Located on the upper floor, they were arranged in two suites of three rooms each. One had already been rented out before the theatre opened, and it was to be called the Mary Margaret Shop. It was to be established as a library, as well as an art shop. A pre-opening tour of the building gave an idea of the splendor of the new facility. The entrance to the building was through three pairs of French doors, onto the pure Venetian marble floors. The top floor housed a combination assembly hall and dance hall, which was 50 by 35 feet; this was to be rented. It had five arched windows as big as arched church doors. The floor below housed the six offices previously mentioned, and also a big restroom for communal use. The balcony level was divided into three sections, and had three exits. The balcony foyer had a "circle" rounded with white ivory balustrade. Above the circle was an "atriumdome," a great dome which held 135 inverted indirect lights. From this foyer, one could see down to the ground floor.

          The stage itself was 32 feet deep and 50 feet wide, and the hangings and the stage curtain were made of heavy gold velvet. There were nine dressing rooms, as well as a carpenter shop under the stage. " 'Helen of Troy, N. Y.' Beautiful Dancing Show Gives Premier Here Before First Audience in House," ran the headlines after the first performance in the new theatre on June 4, 1923. The ladies were in dazzling evening gowns and the gentlemen in smart black; they were rivaled only by the magnificence of the new facility. Flowers were sent by many of the businesses in Fairmont West Virginia; one of the most magnificent baskets of flowers was from Fred Elliot, the architect of the building, who was also in attendance that evening. The opening was seen as a huge success. A week later, a large electric sign was hung at the new theatre, and the first motion picture, "The Rustle of Silk," was shown. The sign was said to rival those on Broadway, having nearly 200 lights.

          On November 30, 1923, the Edla Shop opened at the theatre building. A total of 1,000 potted plants were given out at the opening. The shop was devoted to women's wear.

          In 1929, less than six years after its opening, the theatre was sold at public auction to Julius and Israel Golden, who owned Golden Brothers Department Store (331 Adams Street). For several months previous to that, it had been operating under a receivership. The proceeding which resulted in the sale of the property was instituted by two of the members of the West Virginia Amusement Company, who had built the structure. The Golden brothers bought the theatre for $256,000 cash. They intended to refurbish the place and operate it. The sale had been the biggest sale ever made in front of the Marion County Courthouse. The bidding had started at $100,000, and "continued snappy until the close." The only other bidder in the proceedings was the Conservative Life Insurance Company of Wheeling, which held the mortgage against the property. Originally, the lot and building had cost nearly $610,000. One week later, the Conservative Life Insurance Company of Wheeling acquired the Fairmont Theater from the Golden brothers. A new local company, The Fairmont Theaters Company headed by Edwin Watson, was formed to take control of it, and would own and operate both the Fairmont and the Virginia Theaters. The new "talking" equipment ordered for the Virginia was to be installed in the Fairmont instead, and the opening show was scheduled to be the Al Jolson flick, "The Singing Fool." The street gossip said that the Goldens were enriched by $10,000 because of the transaction. For the opening of the premier "talkie" under the new management, the Fairmont Theater was "high hatted and decorated like a college senior on Broadway" in April of 1929. The theatre was refurbished for the event, with the exterior washed and repainted.

          The box office, which originally had been in the lobby, was relocated to the right side of the entrance. A new lighting system was installed so that at the start of the motion picture the lights would dim gradually to blues. A new screen, porous for sound pictures, was also installed; two huge towers were erected behind the screen to support the "horns" which emitted the sounds and dialogue. Two new projection screens were also added. John Burchinal was the architect in charge of the remodeling. The magnificent theatre burned sometime around the year 1944, and the building currently on the site was built to replace it shortly thereafter. This structure is Art Deco in style, with simple geometric vertical and horizontal lines on the upper levels, and Carrara glass on the lower level. It is still used as a theatre, although the interior is divided into several individual auditoriums. According to Bill Emery who has worked at the theater since 1946, the theater actually burned in Feb. 1945. Was rebuilt by Warner Bros. and reopened on July 18, 1946. Famous performers such as Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ink Spots, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, George Jones, and Dolly Parton have performed at the theater. The Fairmont Concert Association use to sponsered many concerts at the theater.

          The Fairmont Times also use to sponsord a benefit concert every Christmas at the theater. Joe Carunchia purchased the theater in 1964. The theater capacity was 1700 people.

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