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State Theater
photo of State Theater in 2003
photo of State Theater in 1961
Photographs by Larry House
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Over 100 Years of Movies in Nashville
By Wanda Groennert

Article furnished by Jo House that appeared in the
August 27, 2008 & September 3, 2008 issues of
The Nashville News, Nashville, Illinois           
Shown here with permission of Wanda Groennert

      Washington County had it's share of movie houses. There was one in Okawville, one in Ashley and one in Nashville. Nashville has the only surviving movie house today, all the others closed down long ago, mainly due to the TV showing up on the scene.
      It seems every generation had new interests and with that being said, you had to know that attendance at the show suffered.
      During the 30s and 40s, my generation, didn't have much entertainment. Electric was coming on line to play the radio and there was no TV until the 50s, so the only place to have contact with the outside world was the movies.
      Now if grandma didn't have chickens laying eggs, there were no movies. How is that possible you say? If grandma didn't have chickens, we wouldn't have had a lot of things even through high school. Egg money was the thing.
      "Take a dozen eggs to Kleinschmidts" This was a ticket to buy a quart of Lorenz ice cream, a bag of popcorn at the show and last but not least it was to buy a ten cent ticket to the movies. Chickens were like gold, and we always had them.
      Every Friday night was our show time. It was a time to escape the realities of life and dream.
      We always. had top of the line movies. If they showed up on the national scene, we, in Nashville, had a run of the same movies. Until this year I never knew why, but wondered why our little town had the good fortune of top of the line movies available to us.
      It was because of our Hollywood connection and as I look back I think how lucky we were.
      In the 1890s a traveling medicine man -posted signs on main street inviting the public to show up at dusk and be treated to a short evening of entertainment. He rigged up a line between the First National Bank the the F and M Bank and attached a large sheet to the line.
      As dusk settled in, he lit a box sitting on his wagon and began to crank a handle. This caused a series of moving images on the sheet. Behold the forerunner of the movies we have today.
      Down through the years it was improved with every generation and Nashville is one of the few little towns that still has a movie house. Think about that! Over 100 years we've had movies in some form.
Gem Theater
Court Street - Northwest of Courthouse
Photographs courtesy of
Harrl Beatty Photograph Collection

        The "Gem Theatre was going in the 1900s and owned by the Wagners. By 1933 the name was changed to The State Theatre. By 1948 Harold Rixman bought the old theatre and put in a new building, now the Radio Shack.
In 1948 Smitty and Mrs. Hisey built the new State Theatre on Elm and Court Street (where it is today).
      It is my understanding that there is still an outstanding debt on this building, that some businessmen invested in so that we could still have local movies.
      I have also noted there is other work that needs to be done on the building. It is my hope to generate enough interest to put all of us back in the theatre with our interest and money and get this place on a good footing.
      On July 12, 1995, Capt. Earl R. Smith ran a 20-part series on the "Gem" Theatre and the Wagner family. I highly recommend it if you want the early [history], should have the microfilm.
      In 1931, Prof. Wagner, owner of The Gem, sold out, According to advertisements, by 1933 the name was changed to the State Theatre. My guess is that Mrs. Hisey and Albert Smith Jr. bought it at this time.
      The new entertainment was the silent motion pictures during Prof. Wagner's ownership. To you young folks this meant no speaking parts only live music to accompany the stars of the times and their movements.
      According to the staff oft he Nashville Journal movies appeared in a theatre in December 1900. It could have been the Gem or its predecessor.
      Names of the time included Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, the Keystone Cops, etc. among others.
      Our "Hollywood connection" came by way of Mrs. Hisey's oldest son, Gradwell Sears, who in his later years was an executive of Warner Bros. Picture Corp in New York. He died two years before his mother (1957).
      Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks owned United Artists and when Douglas Fairbank died, Sam Goldwyn bought his shares. Pickford and Gofdwyn didn't get along and the company continued to fail. In 1941 the board of directors of UA appointed Gradwell Sears the vice president of the company. He later became president and finally the feuding stopped. It's a confusing piece of history and I'll stop with the above since I've arrived at the name of Gradwell Sears.
      Gradwell Sears was the son of Ebba Sears and Alpha Morris. He was born in Hannibal, MO and lived with his grandmother, while his mother made a living in St. Louis, after her husband died.
      In the 1910 census Homer Hisey Sr. lived in St. Louis, Homer Sr. and Alpha Sears married Circa 1902 and lived in Webster Groves, MO. Homer Sr. died in Webster Groves, May 23, 1917, and is buried in the OakHill Cemetery, Webster Groves, MO. The 1920 census shows Alpha living with sons Homer Jr. and GradwelI Sears and Albert Smith Jr. is a "border". By 1920 we have all the characters listed that lived in Washington County and were a part of our "Hollywood connection".
      Mrs. Hisey was born Sept, 15, 1873 in Hannibal, MO and died July 23, 1959 in Nashville. She was the daughter of Alfred and Mary (Barker) Morris. She was one of the outstanding women of her time.
      Her obituary reads, "she lived life so richly and fully that to many her name will forever be legend." She was well educated and highly thought of by everyone who knew her.
      She was a big-boned women, white headed and a no nonsense lady who sat in the box office and sold tickets to the night's entertainment. Albert Smith Jr (Smitty) her associate operated the State Theatre for over 25 years. She could scare the heck out of you if she looked at you. Her look commanded authority and no nonsense.
See: Alpha Hisey's Obituaries
      Albert was her associate in the "dental business" when she lived in St. Louis. These people were all involved in business together for years. It is my guess that Gradwell Sears promoted the extension of the State Theatre and if they bought it, he would see to it, they had the top movies to show.
      To me it would have been the "golden years" of movies and we in Nashville witnessed it all.
      The history of these people belongs with the story of the building. I really don't think we would have had a movie house for over 100 years if not for them and our "Hollywood connection". Its been a grand run so lets help these business people out for being so patient.
      I have been asked that maybe we should show the old 1950s movie of Nashville again as a money maker, and also have a board with brass plates and names to make a "memorial" if a person' wanted to do that.
      Lets help out where we can and maybe we'll have this State Theatre for another 100 years.

© 2014 Wayne Hinton

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