PONCA CITY — When the Poncan Theatre opened its doors in September 1927, admission to see an "Our Gang" short and the Paramount film "Shanghai Bound" would set you back $1.10. If you didn't mind sitting in the balcony, you could have the same experience for 50 cents.
More than 80 years later, northern Oklahoma residents still point to this historic downtown beacon with a pride that borders on reverence. It's a place that holds special memories for generations of people who have enjoyed its many offerings.
Like many structures built in pre-Depressioniera communities, the Poncan has operated as a movie theater and as a venue for live stage shows. Will Rogers, Sally Rand, Ethel Barrymore, Jeanette Mac-Donald and the John Philip Sousa Band all performed here.
The theater fell into a period of disuse in the 1980s but reopened following a costly renovation. In 1985, the Poncan was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the theater also serves as the home of Team Radio, a station that plays country music, classic hits and sports programs.
On a hot day in mid-July, Charles Hall, a former Ponca City resident, took me on a tour of the Poncan, from its projection room to its basement. Hall's father, Donald R. Hall, managed the theater from 1946 until his retirement in 1977. His wife, Frances, helped out until her death in 1967.
"This place is near and dear to me," Hall told me as we walked through the theater, each stop prompting a special memory that he was happy to share. "As a kid, this was my playground. I knew all the nooks and crannies."
From a young age, Hall began tagging along with his father. He started out by sweeping up spilled popcorn and discarded cups. Over time, Hall graduated to become an usher, a doorman and finally a projection room assistant.
"You could earn a dollar and a quarter up here," Hall said as we stepped into the projection booth. "You had to switch back and forth between projectors every 20 minutes. This is where I studied all through high school."
One of the theater's most prominent features is a stage curtain that features a colorful Spanish mural. Rediscovered 25 years ago in some out-of-the-way loft, the mural dates from the same era in which the theater was built.
Visitors get a sense of the movie industry's history when they walk into the theater's lobby. It's decorated with oversized posters advertising movies of a forgotten age: Barbara Stanwyck in "Illicit," Wallace Beery in "The Mighty Barnum," Dick Powell in "Gold Diggers of 1935" and Shirley Temple in "Curly Top." Hall said the Poncan owns the world's largest collection of hand-painted lobby art.
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