Historic Sites of Alton – Grand Theatre

Grand - historic 2

Grand Theatre, 230 Market Street

The Grand Theatre was built in 1920 and was the largest theater in downtown Alton, with an original seating capacity of 1,400. In the 1920s it screened silent films and offered vaudeville acts. The opening feature was The Sin That Was His, starring William Faversham. A ten-piece orchestra played as an accompaniment until 1925, when a theater organ was installed. Theater organs were built to provide the greatest possible variety of timbres with the fewest possible pipes and are playable by one person. They can imitate a full range of orchestral instruments and sound effects from bird calls to train whistles. You can find links to several YouTube videos of theater organ music at the bottom of this Web page: http://www.gstos.org/index.htm

There is a current movement to create theater organ music with pipeless organs using synthesizers, samplers, and other modern electronic components. You can hear some of this new music here, including songs like “It Happened in Monterey” and The Doors classic “Light My Fire.” http://theatreorgans.com/virtualtheatreorgan/Music.htm

The Grand Theatre’s silent movie era ended in December 1928 with the showing of talking picture State Street Sadie.

State Street Sadie paint

The theater experienced boom years in the 1930s and 1940s as the public embraced escapist entertainment to take their minds off the stressful events of the times—the Great Depression and World War II. Everything from World War II bond rallies to cooking classes were held here. Gone with the Wind was one of the most popular film attractions. In 1964, crowds stood in line for hours to see the first Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. I have it on good authority that some local moviegoers spent the entire day watching and re-watching the Beatles’ movie debut at the Grand.

Attendance at all theaters declined with the advent of television. The Grand Theatre closed in 1977.

Grand - now

The last film shown at the Grand Theatre was The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, a 1974 animated film featuring a series of drug-induced vignettes. The film was a sequel to Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to receive an X rating in the United States. I haven’t seen either film, but I did read the Wikipedia entries to get a sense of the content. You can buy both on iTunes or Amazon, and they’re also available on Netflix. But be forewarned: these films showcase an abundance of offensive caricatures and broken laws. Reviews seem mixed for Fritz the Cat, and neither critics nor audiences reacted well to The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat.

However, the Fritz the Cat soundtrack features Billie Holiday singing “Yesterdays,” so it can’t be all bad, right?