Retired journalist Foss Farrar long has been known for his love of history and he has built a strong reputation as a local historian through the years.
He gave a presentation on the history of Arkansas City theaters during the March 8 coffee organized by the Arkansas City Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Ark City, by the early 1900s, had the reputation for being a great show town,” Farrar said.
“We had troupes of actors, magicians and bands — all kinds of people — come in and perform here back in those early days.”
Farrar showed many historic pictures of the old theaters, only one of which still is standing today, as part of his PowerPoint presentation.
The original opera house — called Highland Hall — was opened in 1883.
“I have to plug this,” Farrar joked.
“My great-grandfather (H.P. Farrar) was one of the big financiers behind it and helped organize the group to get that built.”
The building, which sat on the location that now houses the Burford Theatre, was built for $19,700, according to Farrar.
It could seat approximately 700 attendees in its heydey.
Fifth Ave. Opera House
Designed by George Masters, an architect from Chicago, the Fifth Avenue Opera House was built in 1888.
It was funded by businesspeople and theatergoers who thought Ark City needed a larger and grander opera house, Farrar said.
Masters modeled it after the Grand English Opera House in Indianapolis, Indiana.
It was a three-story Victorian structure constructed from native limestone.
There was a $70,000 cost to build the Fifth Avenue Opera House, which was located at B Street and Fifth Avenue.
Today, the Arkansas City Recreation Center is at that location.
The Fifth Avenue Opera House had more than double the seating of Highland Hall and was said to hold up to 1,850 people.
As part of the theater’s grand opening, lauded British actress Lillie Langtry and her troupe performed the play “As in a Looking Glass.”
The performance drew mixed reviews from the local newspaper at the time.
“After the live theater was starting to wain and movie theaters were in vogue, we had other things here,” Farrar said.
Those locations included a cooking show at one of the schools in the 1920s and a local acting troupe that put on live performances.
“The opera house was the first venue for the Arkalalah coronation,” Farrar said.
While there were rumors that fire damage eventually destroyed the opera house beyond restoration, Farrar said he had spoken to a resident who indicated the damage was not so extensive that the building couldn’t have been repaired.
The Howard Theatre actually was destroyed by fire twice.
It started operation sometime in the late 1920s or early ’30s and was located on the south side of East Fifth Avenue.
The original structure burned during the winter of 1930-31.
It was rebuilt a few years later and operated until a second fire destroyed it in 1964.
“Apparently … if you knew the right people, you could go down underneath the sidewalk and there was some kind of gambling den going on,” Farrar added.
The original Burford Theatre opened Sept. 15, 1924.
The film shown was “The Perfect Flapper,” starring Colleen Moore. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
The theater has continued to have a long and storied history in Ark City.
Multiple actors have visited the Burford through the years, including Ginger Rogers, according to reports.
“Mr. Burford said — and I have heard it from other people, but I could not find it in the Traveler — that Ginger (Rogers) was part of a troupe called Ginger Rogers and the Red Heads, and they came through as a vaudeville show,” Farrar said.
To movie house and back
In 1984, B&B Theatres purchased the Burford Theatre.
“It was changed into a three (movie screen) theater,” Farrar said. “I didn’t like that.”
After the Burford Cinema closed, B&B Theaters donated it to the Ark City Area Arts Council.
The arts council started fundraising and restoring the Burford to its original state.
“It took a decade or so, and finally in 2016, we finished the job,” Farrar said. “It is beautifully restored.”
Other theater venues
Ark City’s first roofless theater — The Gem — also was located on Fifth Avenue, a block north of the opera house at Fifth Avenue and A Street, where the Arkansas City Public Library is today.
The Gem first was announced in The Arkansas City Traveler in 1907, where it was described as a summer theater.
Several stock companies brought an act into towns and the circuit for two-week runs.
One notable performance happened when Ark City native Nila Mac — an actress who later became famous for her involvement in the popular CBS show, “Let’s Pretend.”
Along with the outdoor theater, there also was a traditional indoor Gem Theater, according to Farrar. It was located on the west side of Fifth Avenue, near Union State Bank.
Other theaters included the Air Dome, the Pastime, the Lotus, the Strand and the Starr.
“At any one time, Ark City had at least three theaters and up to five theaters going at one time,” Farrar said.
“When I was growing up, there was the Burford, the Howard and the Starr, which I barely remember when it closed down. And then there were the two drive-ins.”
Celebrating Cowley History
Farrar presented an even more comprehensive history of Arkansas City theaters at the Cowley County Historical Society’s Celebrating Cowley History event in January.
A book featuring all of the papers presented at the conference — including Farrar’s — is available at the Cowley County Historical Society Museum in Winfield.