Business Outside, Opulent Inside: the Evansville Victory Theatre
By Mary Giorgio
In the 1920s, Americans obsessed over movies.
The first true motion pictures were produced in the late 1800s, and from the beginning, the American population was hooked. By the 1920s, movies had become so popular that it was not uncommon for small towns across the country to support two or three theaters. The same held true in Indiana, where theaters sprung up even in the smallest communities.
In Evansville, the opulent Victory Theatre opened its doors in 1921. In anticipation of its great popularity, the theater accommodated a whopping 2,500 people. It was said to be one of the largest theaters in the Midwest. On the upper floors of the building, the Sonntag Hotel offered out-of-towners an equally luxurious place to sleep.
The building was designed by Chicago architect John Pridemore. While its exterior is a plain 1920’s commercial design, the interior was filled with opulent patriotic decor in blue and gold. The decor, like many similarly designed theaters across small-town America, was so ornate that the theater was often referred to as a palace. Constructed on the heels of World War I, the interior commemorated the Great War. The building even had air conditioning!
The idea for the theater and hotel came from stockholders of the American Trust and Savings Bank. They saw the presence of a theater and upscale hotel in Evansville as a lucrative proposition. Marcus Sonntag led the group’s efforts to complete the project.
In the 1920s, the theater featured a daily program consisting of a Vaudeville act, movie, comedy routine, organ music, and performance by a 10-pc orchestra. The variety of acts literally offered something for everyone. By 1926, however, American Trust and Savings Bank decided to relinquish management of the theater facility to Loews Theatres. The building thereafter became known as Loews Theatre.
In 1928, the theater featured Evansville’s first talking picture, an epic tale titled “Tenderloin.” Later that year, Loews became the first theater to run a stand-alone talkie show in Evansville, “The Jazz Singer” featuring Al Jolson.
In the ensuing decades, the theater’s popularity dwindled as newer, more modern facilities appeared in Evansville. Loews Theatre closed in 1971. It was divided into a triplex for a few years, before permanently closing in 1979.
In 1998, the City of Evansville began restoring the theater building to its original glory. The facility is co-managed with the Ford Center Arena and hosts a variety of performances each year. The Victory Theatre is now home to the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. It also hosts local ballet and modern dance companies, a theater company, and a tour company.
Today, the Victory Theatre is one of the remaining examples of the opulent movie palaces so popular in the 1920s. Americans’ obsession with extravagant European style decor faded as the century wore on. Eventually, many older theaters were torn down. The Victory Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a testament to the theater’s enduring legacy in the history of Hoosiers’ favorite pastimes.