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20.11.08

History of the Gentry Cinema

Our building is really an old frontier building that has undergone extensive changes more than once. It was originally constructed some time around 1900 give or take 10 years. I'm betting on the late 1890's, even though nobody seems to know for sure. The reason I say that is because of the style of construction. Nearby buildings announce their date of construction across the upper reaches of their facades as 1910, but they are mostly brick and stone construction. The Gentry was originally a completely wood construction on a stone foundation, just like something out of an old Clint Eastwood movie. During our remodeling of the building we even uncovered the original wooden facade. We could just make out the faded lettering from the original sign painted right on the building. It said, "W. Morgan Hardware, Furniture. One Price to Pay." This seems to match the photographs of the street taken around 1913-1918. An architect from the state historical society toured the building and also said that it was likely built in the early 1900's or late 1890's.

It is unclear when the building was converted to a movie theater, but there are records and personal accounts that prove it was a theater by 1940. Some of the original equipment was still in the projection booth and many of the original seats were still on the floor when we bought it. Although unuseable for our purposes, these items also stand testament to the age of the theater. The old projector was a model that was likely built in the late 1930's, and the seats were manufactured in the 1920's or 1930's as well. Some of these things may have been purchased used after opening, but they are consistent with the age of the theater, so it seems more likely they were original.

It was evident that the building had undergone extensive rennovation when converted to a theater. The floors were converted from flat to sloped. A balcony was added. Likely a second story was demolished in an area that became the auditorium. The exterior of the building and the interior of the lobby area were covered with concrete plaster (stucco). The Gentry operated for many years with this appearance, until eventually the stucco began to deteriorate and the facade was covered over with green aluminum siding that ran in a vertical pattern. The white stucco remaining exposed at street level was painted dark green to compliment the light green siding. More time passed and the stucco on the alley side of the building began to fall apart as well.

I've heard several stories from people who went to the theater as early as the 1940's or who knew old timers that shared stories with them. One person told me that at one time the Gentry played host to vaudeville acts on the stage in front of the movie screen. He also said that there were once dressing rooms behind the screen to accomodate the performers. It's hard to imagine considering the tight space back there. But, I'm sure that back then there weren't big air conditioners or other objects that take up all the space. Another person mentioned that they used to have talent shows before the movies. Some people have even suggested that we should have live performances on our stage once again. Sadly, that is not an option with current building codes. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all performance areas, like stages, to be wheelchair accessible. And since we have been told that we are required to bring our building fully up to code, we can't provide wheelchair access to the stage, so nobody will get to use it. Only the memories of yesteryear will grace the stage from now on.

A couple of the former owners of the theater stand out enough that mention of them was made to me. One is the late Dick Crumpler who apparently owned and operated the theater for many, many years. He also owned and operated the old 69 Drive-in as well. For most people in this town, he pretty much defined the movie going experience. Another stand out was a later owner named Mike Earlywine. At one time, he had served as town mayor as well.

Eventually Mr. Earlywine decided to build a new theater in a different location, in another nearby town, Eufaula. It is unclear what the exact reasons for the move were, but I would be willing to speculate that the condition of the Gentry had become so poor that he thought it was better to start over. From accounts I've heard, it wasn't for lack of business. Even though the Gentry had seen better days, plenty of people still filled the seats when it was open.

The replacement theater opened in about 1996, but never went over very well. It was out of business in about a year, and the Gentry sat mostly idle until it was later purchased by people who had a different purpose for the building. One corner of the building underwent more remodeling to accomodate a clothing alterations shop and a collectibles/antiques business. A few years of this, and the building was again vacant. It sat vacant until 2007 when my wife and I purchased the building with plans to remodel, refurbish, and revitalize it as a two screen cinema instead of just a one screen as it was before.

Some of the changes we have made to the building include: all new plumbing, all new electrical system, all new heat and air system, all new sprinkler system (never had one before), all new chocolate brown stucco facade, all new marquee and signage, all new metal exterior on the side and rear walls, a completely reconstructed 50 foot section of the alley wall to replace the buckling wall that was there, all new ADA accessible restrooms, and an all new second theater carved out of the back of the first one. We have replaced the old antiquated projection and sound systems with modern equipment. That is quite an upgrade from mono sound and dim blurry images to surround sound and clear bright pictures.

Now Checotah has a real movie theater once again, and it is called the Gentry Cinema. Just a slight change from the old name of the Gentry Theater to reflect that something new is happening. Even though the name change is slight, the physical changes are immense. Some might have a hard time believing it is the same building when they walk through the doors for the first time in years, but I think they will feel quite at home once they settle into our comfortable lumbar supported seats for a night of escape.

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