© 2010 Parker Anderson and Jack D. Wilson
On top of the Elks Opera House is “Bill the Elk”. Everyone wants to know why he is called Bill and we will cover that in a future installment. It is an interesting story, especially how we finally figured out why he is called Bill.
In 1910, the Elks Lodge decided to stop operating the Opera House themselves, and leased it out to an independent manager (this would remain policy for the rest of the years the Lodge owned the building).
The first manager to get the lease was Charles Howard, who ran a vaudeville house on Cortez Street. He turned the Elks into a vaudeville house, which meant they had vaudeville acts every night, plus movies (which only ran about ten minutes each in those days).
The Advent of Cinema
Movies arrived at the Elks in 1910, and stayed. The 1915 film masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, was shown at the Elks in 1916. During the silent film era, the theater had a small orchestra to provide the accompanying music. By 1929, the silent movie days were over, their demise owing to the Western Electric sound system. Movies were a mainstay of the Elks Opera House through the 1970s, with live performances returning in the 1980s.
As a vaudeville house, the Elks changed managers several times, but in the mid-teens, Charles Born became manager, and stayed until 1942. Vaudeville was dying by then, and the Elks became largely a movie theater, although they occasionally held live events yet – most notably, the Elks Opera House hosted world-famous opera contralto Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1921.
Charles Born turned the Elks into a successful movie theater through extensive promotion, treating all the films as big events, printing weekly flyers to be distributed, etc.
When we look back today, many question the wisdom of the remodeling in the Elks Opera House. But we need to remember these were business people trying to operate a profitable business and not historical preservationists. Styles were also changing across America and to compete, you needed the new “modern” look. Remember when all the grand oak woodwork was painted white in the 1930s because that was the “modern” look?
The Elks underwent interior remodeling in 1928 (in the Roaring-twenties) and 1933 (during the depths of the Great Depression), resulting in changes still seen today; the lobby was ramped and an extra aisle was added to the balcony, among other things.
Charles Born retired in 1942, and Claude Cline took over a manager. By that time, almost all live acts had stopped, and the Elks Opera House, then always called the Elks Theater, was exclusively a movie house.
This is the second in a series about the Prescott Arizona Elks Opera House in Prescott Arizona. In the next installment, we will cover the later history in the period 1943-1967.
If you have fond memories of the Elks, we encourage you to share those via a comment. Also, please let your friends know about this series of articles about a true gem in Prescott Arizona.
About the authors
Parker Anderson is the official Historian of the Elks Opera House. He spent thousands of hours compiling all known bookings in the first 100 years of the Opera House.
Jack Wilson is the former Mayor of Prescott Arizona. He has had a long interest in history having founded two neighborhood historic societies in Chicago. He was instrumental in providing the funds that allowed “Bill the Elk” to return from Prescott Valley to his rightful perch atop the Elks Opera House.