NORMAN — When Sooner Theatre opened its doors Feb. 10, 1929, audiences flocked to see "Alias Jimmy Valentine,” a film starring Lionel Barrymore and William Haines. The grand opening also coincided with a new approach to moviegoing. The gangster film was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first talking picture, and Sooner Theatre was one of the first movie houses in the region specifically designed to show talkies.
Admission costs to any of the five showings that day were 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. After the premiere, tickets to watch a newsreel, a cartoon and a feature film cost 40 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Balcony seating was 30 cents.
Situated in the heart of Norman’s historic arts district, the Spanish Gothic-style theater was built of yellow brick trimmed with white limestone. Completed at a cost of $200,000, Sooner Theatre featured Italian marble, mosaic tiles imported from Valencia, Spain, cooled water fountains and refrigerated air.
Like many Depression Era-theaters, Sooner Theatre began struggling when multiplex theater complexes were being built. The Sooner eventually closed its doors in June 1974. In 1977, it was bought from architect Harold Gimeno and donated to the city of Norman. A year later, Sooner Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The former movie theater reopened as a legitimate theater in the late 1970s.
Many aspects of the theater’s interior look much the same today as they did several decades ago. Gemino and his father, Patricio, hand-painted 252 Spanish tiles that decorate the ceiling’s wooden beams. Existing chandeliers are similar in design to the theater’s original lights.
Today, Sooner Theatre is home to a company known for its high-quality musical theater productions. Sooner Theatre’s diverse offerings also include concerts, special events and classes for students interested in musical theater. The company rents the building for $1 a year and has a 99-year contract.
"We’re keeping it very busy,” said Jennifer Baker, artistic director of Sooner Theatre since 2003. "Several years ago, we got seats from a Norman movie theater that was going out of business. We have a continental seating layout that can accommodate 350 people. There is additional seating for 200 in the balcony, but we only open it for concerts.
"The city of Norman has been so supportive.