Nearly a century of history and memories come together as a feature showing at the Fallon Theatres.
Even though Bob and Mary Beth Erickson purchased one of Nevada’s oldest movie theaters in 1983 as a business investment, their venture has turned into much more than that.
“It is special when you figure it’s been here since 1920,” said Bob Erickson, a city councilman and former mayor. “If you think of all the people who have come through those doors and all the events that have occurred here. It’s a special piece of Fallon’s history.”
Many changes have taken place over the years, and many more are still to come. The twin-movie complex has been on the market for the past two years, according to Erickson, who added that a foreclosure auction was avoided this week when financial negotiations were successfully completed.
“We enjoy the business and we enjoy the people,” said Erickson, noting operation of the theater has been a family affair (Bob and Mary Beth’s son, Ryan, worked there in his youth). “But we’re looking for an energetic local couple that are willing to take this over.”
Someone who has a passion for movies, and the special place this theater has in downtown Fallon. After all, there was a time when 71 S. Maine St. was a hub of social activity.
“Even when we moved here in ’75, a trip to Reno once a month was kind of a special thing,” Erickson recalled. “There was no television and no home entertainment. But one of the places where you could go and have a nice evening on the town was the theater.”
Even today, it attracts customers from around the region, he added.
“We still draw people from the east from Austin and as far away as Eureka, from down in Smoky Valley and Tonopah, and that’s a three-hour drive for them,” Erickson said. “We also get people who drive here from Fernley and Sparks, so it’s still kind of a hub.
Some patrons come in just to walk around and look through the building.
“It’s always interesting to talk to someone who used to be the projectionist or someone who got engaged here,” Erickson said. “A lot of times when they have high school reunions, people will come in and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been here in 40 years, we used to come all the time.’”
The 1920 project, was a dream for John Walton (J.W.) Flood and his wife, Maebelle E. Hayes, who a few years before had bought the Rex Theater on South Maine Street. The newly constructed building became known as the “New Rex.”
“The Floods themselves were fairly famous vaudeville players,” Erickson noted. “Mr. Flood had a traveling vaudeville troupe probably from the 1890s. He and Mrs. Flood both came from performing families and were fairly well known for their time.”
Documents and newspaper accounts at the Churchill County Museum reveal ground broke for the project on March 6, 1920, and the grand opening was held Dec. 28. Every seat was sold and dignitaries in attendance included Lt. Gov. Maurice J. Sullivan and U.S. Senator-elect Tasker L. Oddie.
The first silent film in the theater, “Humoresque,” was shown on Dec. 30-31, 1920. Reserved seats for opening night were 50 cents. General admission for pictures at the time ranged from 10 cents for children to 35 cents for adults. Vaudeville show admission was 15 cents for children and 55 cents for adults.
Churchill County In Focus reveals the new theater opened with seating for 1,150 — 800 on the main floor and 350 in the balcony — and featured a Steinway piano and a $20,000 pipe organ. The buildings were fireproofed, according to the Feb. 14, 1920, edition of the Fallon Eagle-Standard. The steam heating plant and electricity were placed in a separate building behind the theater.
“This was their dream and they spared no expense,” Erickson said. “They spent $20,000 on an organ, which in today’s dollars, that would be a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”
The theater was designed by prominent Reno architect Fred DeLongchamps, whose work around the state includes the Nevada Supreme Court, as well as the Washoe, Ormsby and Douglas county courthouses, to name just a few. In Fallon, the work of DeLongchamps further includes City Hall and the Oaks Park Grammar School (now the Art Center).
There was one common bond between owner and architect: Flood was in San Francisco for the 1906 earthquake and DeLongchamps had a hand in rebuilding the city afterward.
“One of the mandates Mr. Flood had was that it be built to withstand that event,” Erickson said.
Another reason for the focus on fire suppression, Erickson added, was that film in those days was highly combustible.
“They had hydrants throughout the building, and it has its own internal fire hoses which aren’t connected anymore, but they’re still functional,” he said.
Flood ended his show business career in 1930 and sold the business to H.A. Stone and W.G. Hall, owners of theaters in Ely and McGill. Flood passed away two years later at age 59.
Under the ownership of Stone and Hall, meanwhile, the theater’s name was changed to Fallon Theatre and reopened on Sept. 1, 1930, as one of two theaters built especially for sound at that time in Nevada.
“That structure is in rare company,” said former State Archivist Guy Rocha. “Not a lot of buildings go that far back, and the fact it’s still being used for the purpose it was built for, this is a very special feature not only for Fallon but for the state.”
Movie theaters, and the industry as a whole, have seen tremendous change since those days.
“The industry has gone through a number of periods like this where there have been major changes,” Erickson said, “and it always seems to kind of rebound, maybe in a little different format, and maybe not as strong as it was before. Television had an impact, and then you go into cable and expanded home viewing options, and along comes VCRs and DVDs, and then you come into current technology where you can watch movies on your cellphone.”
When the Ericksons partnered with Bill and Nancy Janess to purchase the theater (and drive-in theater) from Walt Whitaker in 1978, they completed a remodel that created twin theaters and added automation to keep up with technology of the time.
“Now the technology is digital sound systems and you have digital and 3-D options for projection,” Erickson said. “We still need to do that; if you don’t keep up you’re going to be out of a product real quick.”
There is still something special about watching a movie on the big screen with a good crowd.
“I think that to some extent you can recreate the experience in a home theater, but that still doesn’t get you the social aspect of watching it with 50 or 100 other people,” Erickson said. “When you have a good movie, I think comedies bring this out more than anything, when the audience really gets into it — the laughter is almost contagious — or a horror movie where everybody screams.”
Ah, those old walls could surely tell some entertaining stories if they could talk.
“Theaters aren’t going to go away because people will always look for that experience to go out and enjoy watching movies with others,” Erickson said.