Yesterday's News

Henderson theaters had bad luck with fire

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
April 30, 2006

Oscar Baskett got two pieces of bad news on this date in 1931 -- one right after the other.

The first was when he was notified by telephone that he was being replaced as manager of the Kentucky Theater, which was Henderson's premier house of entertainment at that time. About an hour later an employee told him the theater was on fire.

"I was standing out on the street when one of the employees ran out and said the stage was on fire," he told The Gleaner. "I ran inside and the flames were leaping over the top of the stage."

For three decades the Kentucky was the classiest theater in Henderson. It was located in the Masonic Temple on Second Street, in what is now the Citi-Center Mall. It had opened only two years previously, in 1929, and closed in late 1960.

The theater was badly damaged by the 1931 fire, which can be attributed to the fact that burlap was a big part of the original decorating scheme.

"For a time it appeared the entire Masonic building, in which the theater is located, might be consumed by the flames due to the rapidity with which they spread," The Gleaner reported.

"Quick work on the part of the firemen, who dashed into the inferno, caused the fire to be extinguished before it reached the front section of the building, where burlap material lines the walls," The Gleaner reported. Had the flames reached that area, Baskett said, "there is no telling what would have happened."

As it was, though, the damage was severe, virtually gutting the theater portion. And there appeared to be some controversy about the cause of the fire. Fire Chief O.C. Womack told The Gleaner that the fire originated "when a lighted match came in contact with the burlap and cotton padding around the speakers of the talking apparatus back stage." Womack characterized it as "highly inflammable" and that it "immediately burst into flames, which spread rapidly."

Womack said an employee lit a match to locate a towel rack, but Baskett said that was not the case. "I am sure he did not strike a match because it was not necessary," Baskett said. "He had the lights turned on."

The fire first destroyed the stage area, including the sound equipment, screen, curtains and draperies before encroaching on the auditorium, where seats began to catch fire.

By that time firefighters had arrived, braving the thick smoke that was pouring from the building, and they began directing their fire hoses on the fire. "The metal strip ceiling will have to be replaced, as will the inside walls, installed for decorative purposes. Both the walls and ceiling were cracking and parts of both had begun falling last night."

The fire broke out just after 11 a.m., but by the end of that day a crew was at work readying a replacement theater. One of Henderson's oldest movie theaters was rushed into service to take the place of Henderson's newest.

The Princess theater was located at 210-212 Second St. and it dated to about 1916. Gleaner columnist W.G. Schoepflin noted a few days later that the Princess was sort of a "spare tire" for the Kentucky.

"Just moved down to the old movie house and things are going on just the same. George Meyers comes to Henderson as the new manager, and I just have a funny feeling that we will eventually find Mr. Leon Pickle (who was manager of the Grand Theater) back at the Kentucky and Mr. Meyers at the Grand," which was Henderson's other big theater at the time.

Schoepflin was exactly right; Pickle eventually wound up managing the Kentucky simultaneously with the Kraver Theater, which was established a few years later.

The crew at the Princess worked fast; 75 years ago this evening that theater was back in operation.

Schoepflin said it was "tough" that the Kentucky was hit by fire when three of that season's best movies -- "City Lights" with Charlie Chaplin, "Trader Horn" with Harry Carey and "Connecticut Yankee" with Will Rogers -- had been booked for that week. The above-named movies were instead shown at the Grand to accommodate the expected large crowds.

The Grand was located where the Henderson County Judicial Center now stands. It was destroyed by fire on March 9, 1933. The Princess also was a victim of fire, burning on Valentine's Day of 1943.

100 years ago

A new social club called the "Midnight Owls" was organized in Henderson with the idea of conducting various amusements for young people, according to a 1906 article in The Gleaner. The focus was on such things as a baseball team, a bugle corps and "all kinds of athletics."

50 years ago

Seven-digit telephone numbers were coming to Henderson, according to a 1956 article in The Gleaner.

Up to that point, all local telephone numbers consisted of either four or five digits. The addition meant that the numbers "82" would be added to the front of all local numbers. Similar systems were already in effect in Evansville and Louisville, which eventually would allow customers to dial long-distance numbers directly without using an operator.

25 years ago

Illinois Central Gulf temporarily closed its 86-mile-long rail line from Henderson to Princeton for the third time in nine months, according to a 1981 article in The Gleaner.

The closure was the result of an inspection by the Federal Railway Administration. The railroad had been threatening to abandon the line since 1978, and eventually sold it in 1985.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS