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Guest Blog: The Incredible True Story of Film Row

by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: May 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm •  Published: January 1, 2010
TODAY’S GUEST BLOGGER IS BRADLEY WYNN, WHO HAS EMERGED AS THE HISTORIAN FOR DOWNTOWN’S FILM ROW AND THE CITY’S FILM INDUSTRY. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN INTRIGUING LOOK BACK – AND A REQUEST FOR HELP IN FINDING OUT MORE ABOUT THIS GREAT PIECE OF OKC HISTORY.
Coming soon: a resurgent Film Row
Coming soon: a resurgent Film Row

A rare gem from downtown Oklahoma City’s past emerged from obscurity starting in 2003 and has been developed into the new Oklahoma City Film Exchange District.  It was here, between Classen Boulevard and Walker Avenue along Sheridan Avenue (formerly Grand Avenue) that visionaries, developers, and City planners revealed a strip of buildings constructed by young film studios as a Film Exchange. 

It was in a young Oklahoma City, that the likes of Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Fox Films, to name only a few, found a foot hold for the fast developing movie market and a way to distribute these silent wonders to the central part of the US.  It was as early as 1907 when the first film exchange appeared in Oklahoma City above the long lost Olympic Theatre at West Main off Broadway.  In 1910 the General Film Exchange was established in the 200 block of W. 2nd Street.  By 1928 numerous exchanges operated all over Oklahoma City and served the entire state of Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas.

The Paramount staff, circa 1930s, Oklahoma City's Film Row. The building still stands with some incredible architecture inside.
The Paramount staff, circa 1930s, Oklahoma City's Film Row. The building still stands with some incredible architecture inside.

Exchanges like MGM and United Artists operated near the corner of NW 23rd and Classen (today a former bank drive-thru).  Paramount Pictures operated across the street from Oklahoma City’s beautiful Carnegie Library at 133 W. 3rd Street by 1919.  In the mid 1920’s Fox Film was among the studios who came together on the corner of SW 5th and Robinson in what may be the first dedicated Film Exchange structure, while others remained strewn across the city.  But the extremely flammable nature of the nitrate film stock stored in these exchange locations may have forced studios to relocate away from the downtown area.  By 1930, almost all of the studio offices had moved along Grand Avenue (now Sheridan) and would remain for nearly six decades.

Maxine Peak, shortly before her death, at Oklahoma Theater Supply
Maxine Peak, shortly before her death, at Oklahoma Theater Supply

Throughout the 1930’s this small stretch of Sheridan Avenue was affectionately dubbed Film Row.  It was here, that theater owners came to screen and lease films for their movie houses.  Film Row further offered ancillary wares like posters, projectors, concessions, and much more.  Maxine Peek, owner of the former Oklahoma Theatre Supply Company at 628 W. Sheridan, once shared how because of the combustible nature of the nitrate film, her husband would go out and replace an entire projection room at least every two weeks!  She also shared how the introduction of ‘talkies’, movies with sound, landed her company contracts to install sound systems in former silent theatres across Oklahoma and the surrounding states. 

The Peeks constructed their new Oklahoma Theater Supply Company building in 1946, right next door to Warner Brothers at 630 W. Sheridan.  National Screen Services, who controlled the distribution of theatrical advertising materials in the United States from approximately 1940 through the 1980’s operated on the opposite side of the Theatre Supply.  All three buildings are among those still standing.

Business boomed along the row as movie theatres became air-conditioned and theater goers were mesmerized by color films, starting with the Wizard of Oz in 1939.  But by the end of the 1940s, households would embrace television.  It would be in the Oklahoma City Video Vumore and former Paramount Pictures building that the most popular entertainment creation ever conceived would emerge. 

In the late 1940’s, Henry Griffing, of the mogul Griffith Entertainment companies, believed that television audiences would pay a monthly subscription fee to view movies commercial free in their homes.  Together with Milton Jerrold Shapp, the first installation of Tele-TV (also called CATV or Community Antenna Television), which operated from Video Vumore’s headquarters at 11 N. Lee Avenue, took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.  The Bartlesville Pay TV system opened with the exhibition of The Pajama Game (starring Doris Day), which had just been released in theaters – marking the birth of cable television in the United States. 

Through the next two decades the popularity of Drive-In theaters and teen target audiences further added to the success of the Film Exchange.  The Oklahoma Theatre Supply Company became the top installer of drive-in speaker systems for numerous drive-in theatres across Oklahoma and the surrounding states.  For their efforts, a gold drive-in speaker, celebrating the one-millionth installation was presented to owners Maxine and Eldon Peek.  But film fortunes suddenly changed as the advent of technology and economic downturn brought exchanges across the US to a close.

By the 1970’s the only films turning a profit were ‘skin flicks’.  But it wasn’t enough and by 1971 Columbia Pictures departed Oklahoma City without fanfare.  In 1983 Cablecom General, the last of the entertainment distributors along Film Row ceased operations, shutting down the City’s exchanges and signaling an end for the nationwide film exchange network.  By the 1980’s most of Film Row would become a haven for bars, prostitutions, and drugs.  As jobless rates and drug use soared, many of the homeless converged on the former Film Row, prompting one headline in the Oklahoma City Times to refer to it as Skid Row.

As the dust settled from the destructive onslaught of urban renewal, the former Film Row stood amazingly intact, although surrounded by homeless and aid shelters.  Few businesses, other than bars operated in the area over the next three decades.  Only the Oklahoma Theatre Supply Company would continue into the 21st century under the single owner and operator, Maxine Peek.  But sales would become limited to popcorn and ancillary concessions among schools and some local theaters.  In August 2004, Maxine Peek passed away, 2 months after closing her business of seventy plus years.

Now, nearly thirty-five years after the film exchange disappeared, structures that were facing destruction are being rediscovered and restored for future generations.  Starting in 2003, two men, David Wanzer and Bradley Wynn came together and presented a vision of what could revive the film row area to city planners.  Wanzer focused on the historic structures of Film Row, while Bradley looked beyond Sheridan Avenue and toward an eventual District.  Together, they convinced property owners, city planners, and businessmen to invest in the area, saving it from destruction.  By 2007 the small strip of film related buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Oklahoma City Film District was born.

Today, this young district is emerging as the new hot spot of downtown Oklahoma City as new businesses emerge in the former derelict buildings, including one art gallery.  Bordered by Walker Avenue, SW 2nd, Classen Boulevard, and SW 1st & Colcord Drive, the district encloses approximately forty-two square blocks.  Streetscape efforts and strong investment from visionaries like entrepreneur John “Chip” Fudge, area property owners, businessmen, and City Planners are quickly brushing away the veil of time and revealing the only known complete film exchange still standing in the nation. 

Only now, is the story of this amazing downtown area being uncovered, little by little, piece-by-piece, and photo-by-photo.  It’s hard to imagine this unique jewel was almost lost to time.  Perhaps with a little more time, it will serve Oklahoma City and her citizens again in ways they can only imagine for decades to come. 

To learn more, you can contact Bradley Wynn at bradley@scriptfolio.net or visit his Oklahoma City Film Exchange District Facebook Web Page. 

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Oklahoma-City-Film-Exchange-District/184232698210?v=info&ref=mf

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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