When you’re in downtown Sandusky, you might notice an unusual sign on one of the buildings (especially if you are a coffee drinker). On the building housing Mr. Smith’s Coffee House, on Columbus Avenue, there is a large white sign built into the cornice that says “Theatre.” This structure opened in 1914 as one of Sandusky’s first true motion picture theaters, but there have been many theaters in Sandusky’s history. The story of the performing arts in Sandusky is diverse and fascinating, and includes live theater, vaudeville, and opera, but let’s just talk about the movies for now.
Although the historical record documents that motion pictures have been shown in Sandusky as early as 1897, most of the earliest movie houses were simply meeting halls and converted storerooms. The first motion picture show was in the Elk’s Hall on Market Street (probably inside the Cable Block on Market and Jackson Streets). It was advertised in the Register as “Edison’s latest and greatest . . . still packing houses in Cleveland” – but no title was given for the presentation. The film was likely just a series of action vignettes, such as trains traveling or people dancing. The attraction was in the technology, not so much in the performance. But the twentieth century became an era of movies, in Sandusky as elsewhere.
The first movie with a story line was The Great Train Robbery, which was shown at Cedar Point in 1905. Shortly thereafter, in 1906, the first full-time movie theater in Sandusky, the Theatorium, opened for business in a former storeroom in the old Post Office annex on Market Street. One thing that some of the earliest movie theaters in Sandusky had in common was their origin in old storerooms: In 1907, the Electric Theater opened in a former storeroom on Market Street, and the Idlehour Theater operated in a storeroom of the Odd Fellows’ building. Other movie houses opened around the same time, wherever the proprietor could find a large room without windows, so that the room could be darkened for the movies at any time of day. The original Star Theater opened in a building on West Market Street before moving to its new home in a real theater in 1914.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, movies were no longer simply a curiosity, but became a significant part of our cultural life; this was reflected in Sandusky by the growth of motion picture theaters, starting around 1914. Along with the Star Theater, the Ivonhoe (later called the Plaza) Theater opened on Jackson Street (next to what is now the Register building), and the Schade Theater began business on West Market Street. Some may remember the Schade Theater under its later name, the Ohio Theater.
Today only one movie theater from the glory years of motion pictures remains in downtown Sandusky. The State Theater, opened in 1928, is Sandusky’s last remnant of the days of the “movie palace,” when the grandeur of the motion picture was reflected in the beauty of the ornate theater.