Henderson County, Kentucky History


'Spectacular' fire darkens Grand Theater's screen forever

When the Henderson Municipal Light Plant whistle sounded to summon all of the community's off-duty firemen on that March morning in 1933, it wasn't only firefighters who responded. Also heeding the call were scores of local residents who knew there had to be a major inferno if every firefighter was needed.

Some likely rushed to the downtown scene to take in the dram and excitement. But others came to help. It turned out that their services were needed, because this fire was, indeed, a big one.

Flames were devouring not only the Ohio Valley Motor Company garage, but also the adjacent Grand Theater. The Gleaner's next-day account noted that for many an anxious moment it looked as if the fire was a threat to "the entire business district."

Trucks from both the central and Audubon stations were dispatched to the early-morning fire that destroyed both large buildings and took with it some 33 automobiles - including a new car that was on display - and an E. & O. V. bus that was housed in the motor company garage.

A pump and ladder wagon manned by 13 Evansville firemen nearly burned up the road getting here to assist. The newspaper said they made an "eight-minute run … but when they arrived it was apparent that the theater was doomed …"

Local residents, who were able to reach the fire in the first critical moments, were lauded by the newspaper, which related that they "assisted the firemen in their fight and others aided in the removal of furniture from the (SMITH) EZELL apartment over the Grand."

Sadly, the EZELL Furniture was all that was salvaged in what The Gleaner called a "spectacular $200,000 fire."

The blaze originated in the garage, where it quickly engulfed vehicles whose gas tanks exploded "and sent flames roaring skyward."

It was discovered by EZELL, who was motion picture projectionist for the Grand Theater and - with his wife - was living in an apartment over the theater. "I was up with my wife, who is ill, and looked out a window and saw the roof of the garage on fire," he told the newspaper.

EZELL phoned the fire department about the same time an alarm was sent in from police headquarters. When the smoke had cleared, the motor company and theater lay in ruins. But it could have been worse. No lives were lost, and - thanks to a brisk wind blowing from the northwest - the flames didn't spread to adjoining buildings such as the T. W. ARGUE Tobacco Factory.

For 12 local residents, they were wishing they hadn't "stored" their cars at the motor company garage on the Wednesday night before the Thursday morning fire, because all the vehicles were destroyed. Especially regretful, no doubt, was Edwin BIGGS, reportedly the only one of the car owners whose vehicle wasn't insured.

Owner of the motor company building was Mrs. O. W. RASH, who leased the property to H. E. HOLLOWELL.

WARNER Bros. owned the ill-fated Grand, having purchased it from Henderson resident Louis HAYES in 1931. It was estimated that it would cost approximately $75,000 to replace the building and another $18,000 to replace "talking picture equipment" and other items.

A WARNER Bros. representative from Louisville was in Henderson Thursday afternoon to survey the rubble and instructed Grand manager Leon PICKLE to have the sagging walls dismantled. One of those walls was threatening its neighbor, Henderson Creamery.

The Grand wasn't the only local theater owned by WARNER Bros. That company also had the Princess Theater, which The Gleaner noted was "fully equipped" and presumably ready to welcome the move-hungry public.

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Judy Jenkins

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS