Olympia Theatre

40 Main Street,
Woonsocket, RI 02895

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This was a major theatre in downtown Woonsocket. It was demolished many decades ago.

Contributed by Gerald A. DeLuca

Recent comments (view all 14 comments)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 26, 2005 at 8:58 am

I’ve searched hell and high Blackstone water, but there doesn’t seem to be one miserable photo of the Olympia Theatre anywhere!

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 30, 2006 at 9:08 am

The 1949 Film Daily Yearbook gives the seating capacity of the Olympia as 875.

ChetDowling
ChetDowling on June 27, 2007 at 12:22 am

We don’t see photos of The Olympia Theatre’s Main Street entrance because the popular entrance to the theatre was on the street behind the Olympia. The theatre was built on a hill, and it had a private back entrance that was reached by walking across a long wooden ramp. The front entrance at 40 Main Street was just a doorway that revealed a flight of stairs that led up to the Box Office. The stairs were pretty tiring, so just about everyone used the back entrance, even tho the wooden ramp was built off the ground and felt a little scary at times. But The Olympia always had a second-run double bill, a cartoon and a Serial. But, most important, every kid got a free toy on Saturday Matinees…and all this for 12 cents.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 27, 2007 at 12:36 am

Chet Dowling,
Are there any photos of the Olympia that you know of? I have never seen even one image of this theatre. Was the Olympia across from the Rialto? Your personal knowledge of this and other area theatres you have posted on are very interesting and valuable. I hope there is much more to come.

ChetDowling
ChetDowling on June 27, 2007 at 3:25 am

Gerald A. DeLuca
Yes, the Olympia was directly across the street from The Rialto. Sorry to say I don’t have a photo; but then, I never made an honest attempt to get one. As a hobby, I’m basically a Vaudeville Historian. So, the great old Vaudeville houses are my specialty..You’ve probably discovered that the Woonsocket Public Library is a much better source for research material than The Woonsocket Call… My information is either first hand, or from interviews I’ve done with some great old -timers who worked the circuits. I’m happy to share it with anyone who truly cares.

ignatz
ignatz on August 8, 2008 at 6:42 pm

I remember the Olympia & Rialto as strictly second-run theaters. I remember people referring to them as “scratch houses.” I don’t know how accurate that epithet was, but I do remember that my parents wouldn’t allow us to go in those theaters. This was during the days of the polio scare (late 40s/early 50s), and my folks (probably mistakenly) thought they weren’t safe. The only theaters I was allowed to enter were the Park and the Stadium, on the other side of the downtown area. The latter were the only first-run theaters in Woonsocket, while the Olympia & Rialto showed second-run movies. The Bijou did both, but more 2nd than 1st. This, of course, being all based on personal memory. I think the O & R theaters went out of business around 1950/51. That’s a calculated guess, but I think I’m close. The conventional wisdom was that they couldn’t compete with TV, which was beginning to get very big. I wanted to go to the Rialto so bad that I was practically sick over it; they often showed re-releases of the old Warner Bros. gangster & Universal horror flicks and older Tarzans & cowboy pics. But my folks wouldn’t budge. Now I can rent ‘em from Netflix, lol!

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

From an article on Woonsocket theatres in The Providence Journal.

Copyright Providence Journal/Evening Bulletin May 16, 1985

“BUT BACK then the Stadium’s competitors were not the multi-screen shopping center cinemas. There was the Olympia, successor to the city’s original theater, The Music Hall, which opened around 1850. Located at 40 Main St., across from what is now Bob and Ray’s Furniture (for many year’s Kornstein’s), it became the Nickel Theatre and, in 1900, the Strand. It has at least one claim to local theatrical fame – the great actor Edwin Booth played Hamlet there on Thanksgiving Day, 1872.

“Fire took the lives of two children at the Strand on New Year’s Day, 1926. After repairs it reopened as the Olympia Theatre, but also became known as the "scratch house” because of the fleas that shared seats with patrons. The Olympia’s slogan was “Big Shows, Small Prices” and lower budget Republic pictures were featured, along with the chance to play “Honey” for cash prizes,

“The Olympia showed its last movies in the 1950’s, its insides removed and shrunk from its original five stories to two-and-a-half floors of office and retail space when remodeled in 1956. It played home to such local fixtures as the Coney Island weiner restaurant and the Brass Rail bar before falling to the wrecker’s ball only last September.”

Shortly after the turn of the century, Lynch’s Theatre opened across the street at 41 Main. From its original vaudeville fare it switched to movies, changing to the Rialto, offering “Entertainment to Chase the Blues Away” and “Free! Beautiful! Five Piece Dinette Set. Bring your green coupons” (according to a 1944 ad).

On the other end of Main Street, where Chan’s Restaurant is now, was the Bijou Theatre, referred to in some local history books as the Electric Theatre. It was a house of worship befiore becoming a vaudeville and movie house.

The Social Methodist House was moved a block near the turn of the century to 273 Main St. to make way for a new post office. In 1912, to the church auditorium was added space for a stage and wings, and the building leased to famed theatrical figure Edward Albee. Stock companies, vaudevillians and movies played there.

The Bijou was hit twice by fire. The second, November 23, 1936, closed the theater for 13 months. It closed again in 1952 because business was off, reopening weekends only in 1955, but dark for many months at a stretch before its demolition began the final day of 1963. It’s last owner was U.S. Sen. Theodore Francis Green.

THE SOCIAL NEIGHBORHOOD had its Laurier Theater at 17 Cumebrland St., named for Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. “One of our finest movie houses,” is how one-time Woonsocket Historical Society President James C. Byrne remembered it.

Today’s head of that group, Phyllis Thomas, recalls how her prim and proper French teacher urged her high school pupils to sharpen their ear for the language by attending the French films sometimes shaown at the Laurier, and unwittingly recomending some rather “racy” movies.

Ads for the Laurier’s second-run and B-movie fare in 1944 bore the slogan “Always a Good Show.” Those shows sometimes included a breath of home for Woonsocket’s many Canadian immigrants. For instance, a two-night stand that April by the “Fameuse Troupe Jean Grimaldi de Montreal… an all-new French 3-hour Riot of Fun” crowed the billing, with such attractions as Rolando Giraldo “The Canadain Cab Calloway.” All for 65-cents in the orchestra and 55-cents in the balcony. The Laurier fell victim to Hurricane Diane that flooded the Social District in 1955.

The life breathed into the Stadium to rescue it from its X-rated days in the 1970’s is a spin-off of the interest in historical preservation and incubating the local arts scene stirred by the Woonsocket Opera House in its final years.

The Opera House, a six-story giant that was one of New England’s finest which, in its posterity, will probably always lay claim to being the largest stage ever in the state, opened to rave reviews in 1888. Monument Square hotels and guest rooms were packed as 1,700 people crowded the 1,500-seat Opera House to see Maude Banks in “Ingomar the Barbarian.”

In 1910, as road shows lost popularity to the “flickers,” boxing was tried. Three years later, as the Park Theatre, the typical bill combined three vaudeville acts with six film reels, but was short-lived because the Bijou was the dominant vaudeville house. By 1915, it was mostly all movies.

What one later-day critic dubbed “a gaudy middle-aged fling in vaudeville” was attempted during World War II when the Stadium’s builder, industrialist Arthur I. Darman, made $25,000 in renovations and reopened the New Park Theater on Labor Day, 1942.

It proved a money-loser, but a cultural boost for Woonsocket and a big hit with big-time performers. As with the Stadium, Darman designed meticulous facilities for the troupers. He arranged limousine rides from Providence’s Union Station and lavish post-show buffets. The favorable reputation was summed up in the title of a 1945 Saturday Evening Post article, “Book Me in Woonsocket.”

The New Park’s ads proclaimed its “2-in-1 stage and screen shows… All for 40c and 50c plus tax… The Best Fun Investment” in town. But as the red ink mounted Darman sold out in 1945.

DESPITE innovations such as a CinemaScope, screen movie audiences waned in the 50’s. By 1961, the Park’s twin horseshoe balconies only saw action on weekends and closed altogether in 1963, a “Watch for Reopening” sign presiding sadly over increasing vandalism and sporadic small fires. When the city took control in 1970 because of unpaid tax bills demolition bids were sought.

A battle ensued in which preservationists and arts buffs tried to convince city fathers that grant money could be assembled to revive the Opera House. A state offer of $250,000 helped convince the city, but as the legal formalities were being ironed out, two weeks before the transfer to the Opera House Society the building mysteriously burned on September 22, 1975.

So attention was turned to the Stadium, still in fine physical condition, but deteriorated culturally into an X-rated cinema with occasional nude dancing.

The Stadium was hatched by the manager of the vaudeville-strong Bijou. He convinced the Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky circuit that the city needed a first-run movie theater and a wealthy widow friend put up the money.

Darman, who’d left home at age 14 for a road show called “Humpty-Dumpty” and later was a successful Springfield, Illinois restauranter, helped secure the original Stadium mortgage and took over the project when the widow’s financing faltered.

He expanded its scope to include the equally elegant office building and embellished the theater’s design. Darman didn’t want the gaudiness of the moviehouses of the day. Along with Paramount’s head designer, he settled on an elaborate but stylish look that has held up well.

The long, low lobby features Adamesque relief work, painted floral arches, Dutch-influenced murals, Italian Renaissance-modeled side tables, chairs and benches, and distinctive drinking fountains of Art Noveau-patterned tiles in a classical framework.

The auditorium’s configuration was considered ideal for medium-sized theaters, sweeping the seating upward without the use of a suspended balcony. The absence of pillars (the so-called stadium plan) gave the theater its name.

For 36-year-old Darman, the Stadium was another statement of his civic commitment. At the time a deluxe movie house was regarded as a prime physical and cultural asset, and an educational one as important as a library or school. In his later years, he proudly noted his theater’s capablities, “If there’s anything in the world that is good in theater and Woonsocket wants it, we can get it.”

Forty-four curtins and backdrops are still at the ready to host most any kind of production. The Wurlitzer concert organ has been scrupulously maintained and can produce the sounds of horses' hooves and thunder and lightning.

A typical show in those early years (there were three, starting at 2 p.m.) included an overture from the 12-piece orchestra, an organ concert – often with singalong, a chorus girl rountine, vaudeville act , newsreel and feature film.

Darman’s close rapport with the head of the Publix Pictures managing circuit (the expanded product of a Paramount merger) and their shared opinion that “Rich people can go to New York for amusement. I want the working man to be able to get just as good right here at home” kept big name acts coming to Woonsocket (aided by Darman’s reputation for generous hospitality). That commitment to live entertainment made the Stadium one of the last places in the country where vaudeville played on a regular basis (into the early 50’s) .

THE LATE industrialist was never an absentee owner. Darman’s daughter, Sylvia Medoff, remembers his “tremendous capacity for detail… He always had a finger on it, was always active in it.”

That involvement intensified in 1956, when Publix’s regional subsidiary stopped managing the Stadium. Darman assumed management by forming the AIDCO Corporation and invested in alterations that included a new marquee, air conditioning and more spacious seating.

For some 18 years, he continued to operate the theater at a substantial loss. Darman leased the Stadium to a Boston outfit in 1974 that assured him, “Don’t worry. We’ll be able to get enough pictures.” He was shocked when they began showing X-rated films and didn’t set foot in the theater during their tenure, but he was powerless to break the seven-year lease.

There were police raids in 1975, but the city found itself without legal grounds to revoke the new operator’s entertainment permits. The pressure was stepped up when historical and arts groups succeeded in getting the Stadium placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The turning point was the city’s changeover from phone cable to radio-connected fire alarm systems. The porno promoters balked at the installation cost and the last movie was shown on New Year’s Eve, 1976.

Boosters of the local arts scene active in the Opera House fight, Paul Lawhead and Larry Leduc, approached Darman about returning the Stadium to family films and live entertainment. A deal was struck and the two high school teachers reopened the Stadium with “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” four months later.

Their weekends-only policy helped cut overhead and tapping Darman’s experience, the newcomers were able to confound predictions that they wouldn’t last a month. Lawhead says it’s taken a few years to learn the ropes (and jettison a booking agent that “had us booking along with NBC and ABC”).

NOW, they’re enjoying “one of the best quarters we’ve ever had,” according to Lawhead and continuing to lure back downtown moviegoers who had deserted to the suburban malls. He sees a trend where “the theater experience” of a giant screen, resonant sound and big hall is proving an attraction over small, sterile cinemas.

Not only that, but Lawhead says because the cinema complexes “are cutting their own throats” by having too many competing high-priced screens, more recently-released films are available for the $2-a-seat Stadium to choose from (“If it’s top ten, eventually we’ll get it.”).

The new broom at the Stadium has swept live shows back in. The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Arthur Feidler and the Boston Pops, country and western music, hometown jazz great Dave McKenna and the Alexander Peloquin Chorale are among the live acts that have brought life back to the Stadium stage.

The Northern R.I. Council on the Arts is in its third year of live presentations bringing in student audiences from as far away as South Kingston and Framingham, Mass. The next one (open to the general public as well) May 7 has a double bill of one-man shows, Ken Richer as Mark Twain and Jerry Rockwood as Edgar Allan Poe.

At this rate, the Stadium may revive its advertising motto of the 40’s, “Woonsocket’s Finest Theatre – The Biggest Show Value in Town.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 2, 2011 at 11:44 am

Flood in Woonsocket, then fire.

From a piece found in Tri City Herald (Washington state), August 22, 1955:

“The flood-weakened bridge over River Street collapsed yesterday, leading local authorities to close all but one bridge to all traffic except for emergency vehicles.

“The city suffered additional woe yesterday when fire destroyed the abandoned Olympia Theatre and three stores.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 17, 2011 at 11:26 am

This theatre was part of the September 1923 6th Paramount Week. In this advertisement from the (Providence) Evening Tribune, September 1, 1923, we see a fascinating list of Rhode Island area theatres, many long-gone and long-forgoten, or even unheard of, as well as what they were showing during that week. The Olympia was then called the Strand. CLICK HERE

ginshaw
ginshaw on August 6, 2011 at 1:13 am

My mother-in-law, Jean Rabinowitz worked at the Olympia theatre in Woonsocket starting at age 14 (1940). Her uncle, Maurice Safner owned 3 or 4 theatres in Woonsocket, as she recalls. Jean’s father, James “Jack” Rabinowitz (later changed his name to Robins) ran one of the theatres c. 1936. Jean sold popcorn, candy and pop in the concession stand and worked Friday night and all day on Saturdays and Sundays. She made $2.50 (later raised to $3.00) for the entire weekend. Once in awhile, she sold tickets at the back entrance (sounds like the Main Street entrance according to earlier posts here) to the theatre and could see the movie at the same time.

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