Chalk Beeson Theater Then and Now

This is another building that makes me queasy to even consider. But I will tell you that every time someone wins hundreds of millions of dollars playing the lottery, like nearly everyone else, I think about what I would do if I were in their shoes. Some people waste it all on hookers and blow. I, on the other hand, would spend every last penny turning the Chalk Beeson Theater back into a theater. So basically, I would light all of the dollars on fire and have my heart ripped from my chest with a dull, rusty chisel. Same, same.

Photographer Unknown

First of all, it was “Theater,” not “Theatre.” Zoom in on the sign above. Check out the letterhead below. Merritt wasn’t known for being fancy. And it didn’t take long for the “The” to be eliminated.

“Ida was very worried about [Ote’s] lifestyle [as a professional musician] and convinced Merritt to help him settle down by building a theater and putting Ote in as manager.

Irene Beeson

The newspapers of the day gushed about the brothers’ desire to honor their legendary father but really, it was about trying to keep Uncle Ote in Dodge. I assume this story was Ida’s doing and can only imagine Ote’s face when he saw what they had planned for him.

I laugh every time I see this. Like, you think the Paige is a big deal? Wait til that brand-new Stutz Bulldog Special arrives on the rail in September!

The Dodge City Kansas Journal, February 25, 1915

I’m unsure if it was an assumption on the part of the reporter or a promise made to Merritt and Ida but there was no way Ote was staying in Dodge during construction! He was hired as manager of Thurlow Lieurance’s orchestra, which was engaged in a Santa Fe tour all the way to California in April of 1915 and he was gone for nearly a month. There was a motorcycle promotion tour in June, a trip to Denver, and several orchestra engagements in Kansas City, including an 11-day contract at Electric Park. In mid-October, he was joyriding around Kansas City in his new Stutz with Al Jolson.

The Dodge City Daily Globe, October 23, 1915

Managing the theater construction was all on Merritt. You may remember that Merritt had a sand pit and he made his own concrete blocks to build his house south of town. By April of 1915, 3,000 of the 17,000 blocks needed to construct the theater had been made. The building permit was issued in May and the wood frame structure (built by Henry Sturm) that had been on the site for about 30 years was torn down on May 28. The 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows how the site looked prior to demolition.

Excavation began immediately. By July, the walls were going up and a gasoline engine was attached to a mechanism used to haul the concrete blocks up to the masons.

The concrete balcony was poured in August. I have no idea what happened to them but I remember looking at portrait-size photos of the balcony while it was under construction and it was incredible. The steel-reinforced beams were absolutely massive. Merritt built things to last. He and Ote (haha) hoped to have the theater opened by October and employed two shifts of workers but it was just too much work in such a tight timeframe. The concrete roof was completed on September 9, 1915. Work began on interior finishes in October. Sidewalks were poured by mid-November. Here’s how the building appeared on the 1918 Sanborn Map.

According to the newspapers, C. E. Smith was hired to be the first manager since Ote obviously wasn’t going to do it. This could be the same C. E. Smith who managed The Dodge City Abstract Co. and he pulled double duty for a while. But I was looking at box office receipts and I swear they say “E. E. Smith” so I’m not sure. “The Only Girl” was chosen for the theater’s opening and it was headlined by Dodge City’s own Elsie Baird. Elsie credited much of her success to encouragement she received from Chalk as a youngster.

The Dodge City Daily Globe, November 23, 1915

Ote was remarkably skilled at rounding up outstanding musicians to play at events and in military bands. He played with Arthur Pryor’s Band and was able to persuade another Pryor veteran, clarinetist Fred Joste (last name is misspelled in the article below) to play at the opening along with his friends from the Shubert Theater and Colorado Midland Band.

The turnout was excellent despite the crappy weather.

Dodge City Daily Globe, December 17, 1915

My family seriously scrapbooked everything.

Here’s an undated shot of the stage and I can only hope this was for a special production.

Photographer Unknown

In addition to traditional performances, the theater was used for parties, graduation ceremonies, and large meetings. Irene’s older sister, Betty, had her ninth birthday party there in May of 1916.

It’s my understanding that the Chalk Beeson Theater was the first in Kansas to have Pantages Vaudeville.

Dodge City Daily Globe, October 17, 1916

“The first thing I can remember was sitting on the marble ticket slab where Mama [Beth Beeson] sold tickets.”

Irene Beeson
Ida Beeson holding granddaughter Irene Beeson outside the theater in 1923

“That left Merritt with the theater to manage. He [Ote] never took an interest except to play in the orchestra pit now and then. Merritt came out a big loser. So much for trying to help others.”

Irene Beeson

I doubt the arrangement with C. E. (or E. E.) Smith to manage the theater was ever meant to be long-term so Merritt managed it until his retirement in 1923. Wolf Goldstein leased the theater and was one of my grandmother’s favorite people. I’m sure that was completely unrelated to him supplying her with Hershey’s Kisses.

The Dodge City Journal, August 30, 1923

You’ll note there is no mention of Uncle Ote! He transferred his musicians union membership to Los Angeles for more than six months and Ida accompanied him for the winter.

The Dodge City Journal, September 13, 1923

Thanksgiving 1923 (L-R) Knight Hallock, Irene Beeson, Wolf Goldstein, Merritt Beeson, Frank Locke

“Daddy had brought out a Jew from Kansas City to help manage the theater. His name was Wolf Goldstein. The citizens ran him out of town for being a Jew. He bought me my first candy. It was a sack of Hershey’s Kisses from a confectionery across the street from the theater.”

Irene Beeson

By “citizens,” my grandmother meant The Klan.

The Dodge City Journal, April 3, 1924

You think? The shit that was going on in and around Dodge at that time? He was smart not to tell “anyone” but I’m certain Frank and Merritt knew. And what exactly is this next headline referencing with “Among Missing?” Who else disappeared?

The Southwest News, April 4, 1924

What do I mean when I blame The Klan? This…is what I mean. How the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks did a real-live newspaper accept money for and print this threatening garbage? If you pay attention to the tone of their reporting, it appears they were sympathetic at a minimum.

The Southwest News, June 5, 1924 – emphasis mine

A search through the archives of The Ford Progress also turned up numerous examples of favorable Klan coverage.

Anyway, Frank Locke managed the theater until it was leased to W. H. Harpole in August of 1924. I would say Locke’s management style was legit.

The Southwest News, June 5, 1924

At that point, the Crown, Cozy, and Beeson were all managed by Harpole. It was to be a long-term lease from August of 1924 until November of 1933.

“When I was about three years old, a road show came to town and during one of the performances I was in the back row with my mother listening to the orchestra. As they started to play a very catchy tune, I climbed down and danced down the aisle to the orchestra pit and back. I could not resist. I could hear the people snicker (at least the ones who could see my small body.) This was during intermission of the performance.”

Irene Beeson

Australian May Robson appeared at the Beeson a few times before she hit it big as a movie actress. I remember seeing an autographed photo she had given to Irene.

I believe it was Harpole who booked the 1923 Broadway play “White Cargo” in January of 1926 and it was apparently “not exactly suited to tastes.” That’s because this was one of the first (if not the first) Broadway plays to portray a white man married to a black woman. *Such scandal* The play was based on Ida Vera Simonton’s book, “Hell’s Playground” about an African rubber plantation.

The Southwest News, January 7, 1926

The Southwest News, January 14, 1926

Since Merritt wasn’t managing the theater at this time, I don’t have the box office receipts to see how it did but I found this next piece wildly amusing. Like, burlesque is TOTALLY FINE but an interracial relationship is DISGUSTING? Calm your tits, Ethel. You too, Leroy.

The Southwest News, January 21, 1926

So that’s that.

The theater hosted a ton of boxing matches from about 1924 into the early 1930s. A boxer actually hit his head on the ring construction and tragically died a few days after a match there in 1928.

The Wichita Eagle and The Wichita Beacon Sunday Magazine, April 23, 1967

I’ve mentioned before that E. M. (Ole) Olson was a close friend of Ote’s. In July of 1930, Ole led a concert at the Beeson Theater that was broadcast on the brand-spanking-new KGNO.

The Wichita Evening Eagle, July 1, 1930

But by this time, the building was showing its age. It had only been 15 years but movie technology had advanced rapidly and sound systems were expensive to install…especially after the market crashed in 1929. The Beeson had competition from the new Dodge Theater in the Million Dollar Block just across the street. The Dust Bowl also began in 1930 so things were on a downhill slide.

Since talkies were impossible to show at the Beeson, only live events were held for the next few years. The Little Theater Players of Dodge City presented the play, “Sick Abed” at the Beeson Theater on January 31, 1933 and I think it closed after that show. I believe it reopened under the management of George T. Goodwin in March of 1933 but I’ve seen conflicting dates.

An RCA sound system was installed and the theater reopened in February of 1934 with Goodwin still in as manager. Finally, the Beeson began showing first-run talking pictures. That arrangement was short-lived, though. I’m still unclear about exactly how events transpired but the theater closed again in April of 1934 and foreclosure proceedings were pending. I think Fox Theatres in Kansas City was involved with the lease and there was talk that they were responsible for things going sideways. Either way, Merritt sold the theater in February 1935 and Elmer C Rhoden of Fox Theatres began making plans to remodel the building for storefronts on the main floor with a ballroom on the balcony level.

The Ritz Ballroom opened in December of 1935. I have in my notes the first band was “The Oregonians” and 150 couples attended. The Ritz was also used for sound recording and radio broadcasting.

The Wichita Eagle (Evening), May 17, 1941

During WWII, the Ritz Ballroom was the Dodge City USO Club. Here are some undated photos taken by our friend, Frank Locke:

May Drug Company, Inc. was formed May 1, 1944. Clever! The drug store, which had a very unfortunate phone number, was in the corner spot on the main floor and the sporting goods store was right next door to the east.

Dodge City’s Diamond Jubilee Souvenir, 1947, published by the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce

In 1953, May Drug Co. and May Sporting Goods Co. were the only businesses listed at the old theater.

By 1960, the sporting goods store was vacant. That spot was later filled by Kansas Abstract & Investment Co along with Myers Agency (insurance and real estate) and then Harms Music Co. (owned by Lily E Harms) in 1967. In 1967, the ballroom was mainly used for recordings, and occasionally for local dramatics and musical offerings.

The ballroom was vacant off and on for several years. For a while, it housed the Demon’s Den. It was later turned into a nightclub and I assure you it takes more than a bit of arson to bring down a Merritt Beeson building. Although tampering with the hydrants was a nice touch.

The Wichita Eagle-Beacon, May 6, 1983

I’m not sure when the main floor was reconfigured to house three businesses but I do remember The Trophy Shop, George Voss, and Studio De Lari being there for a long time. As far as I know, no one tried to deal with the balcony after the arson fiasco.

The last time I was in the building was probably 20 years ago and I was so excited to arrange a tour with the former owner. But man, when I walked inside it was so insanely depressing that I couldn’t wait to leave. Shit brown carpeting and shit brown paneling and shit brown stucco. It was too much. Like, it was bad when I had my senior photos taken at Studio De Lari back in the…never mind when. But the building was neglected and then neglected some more. I didn’t even ask about the balcony area or the basement. I would have liked to see if it was obvious how the floor was installed to be a level surface. I’m not sure if the basement dressing rooms were removed. I assume so.

The good news is the building has a new owner who had it reroofed back in 2020 and it has also gotten a fresh coat of paint. Somewhere along the way, that rickety old fire escape was removed. You know the one that looked like it could fall and kill someone at any moment? Right. Anyway, here’s how it looks now:

If you haven’t already noticed, Google Maps often has glitches in the Street View which allow you to see before and after shots. Click here to see images from 2007 to 2012 mixed in with more recent shots. On the desktop version, you can actually click on the little slider to choose your view. And if you follow the Street View over to the First Avenue side, you can see the fire escape of death and remnants of the Ritz sign as well as the old lighted awning over the door next to the Osage Building.

That was a lot. I may put together a post containing advertisements, contracts, and other promotional items from the theater but there’s just so much! I also have some questions from readers that I need to research. Thanks again to everyone who has donated. I hope you find all of this as interesting as I do!

If you like what you see, be sure to subscribe (way at the bottom of the post on mobile devices) to receive an email each time a new post is published and share on social media. You can also buy me a cup of coffee using the donation form. Thanks for reading!

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