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Amusement: Opera Houses and Entertainment
Willimantic was known to have been a fine show town at the end of the 19th century. According to Allen B. Lincoln in A Modern History of Windham County, Connecticut: A Windham County Treasure Book Vol. 2, theater shows and balls lasted until sunrise. By 1910, there were three well-known places for entertainment in the city:
- The Bijou located on 662 Main Street established by the pioneer of moving pictures Harry W. Gale in a search for larger quarters. The building for the Bijou had been in use by The Jordan Hardware Dealers beforehand. In 1916, a fire started in the building and then traveled through the second story windows into the Jordan Building.
- John H. Loomer Opera House, which had its opening night in 1880, was located on 751 Main Street. This opera house was particularly successful between 1880-1890. If you want to learn more about the history and shows presented in this opera house check out "Loomer Opera House", a website compiled by Clark Hinckley.
- Scenic Temple, also known as "The Bank Street Theater" was located on 23 Bank Street. It was the brain child of John P. Hurley in 1909 and built in conjunction with his partner John R. Pickett. The business was sold only a year later to Arthur P. Dorman.
- The Elite Theater located on 856 Main Street. This theater did not last long in the face of local competition.
- The Gem Theater, located on 834 Main Street, was built in 1912 as a silent movie theater: the movie theather only showed moving pictures with no synchronized sound (not even dialogue). Years later it was closed to be remodeled and have an organ installed; the theater did not open until 1926 again. This theater was under the management of several people, one of which was the Warner Bros. in the 1940s.
It is pertinent to mention that although motion picture technology was created in the late 1880's, it was still not a customary form of entertainment even in 1910. Interest in moving pictures was low in Willimantic. The first moving pictures were run in Willimantic at the Loomer Opera House but it was short-lived. A local organization whose aims were to safeguard the morals of the individual and community protested. Later in 1907, Harry W. Gale managed the first moving-pictures theater Willimantic at a store west of Kimbel Block. Unfortunately, business was very slow in the beginning. Once business for Mr. Gale picked up, James F. Clude entered the moving picture business successfully.
First "Movie" Theater
The first movie theater in Willimantic was the Gem Theater. It was the product of Manger Dorman who managed the Scenic Temple. Dorman envisioned the assured success of movies in the future and decided to purchase land on Main Street just west of the Maverick Laundry Building to erect a theater with a seating capacity for almost 1,000. This project costed Dorman $30,000 and opened its doors to the public in September 25, 1912. Its first manager was John R. Pickett who was at some point involved in the moving picture business as well.