Photo by Dr. Ray Kenoyer
Rediscovering a Treasure and a Time of Movies and Stars
Walk inside the Northrup Theatre in Syracuse and you step back in time. Inside the wooden framed glass doors is a world of dreams and fantasies. A small red and blue neon light hangs from the center of the lobby. Concessions are located along the south wall.
Stroll through the red curtains that separate the lobby from the auditorium, and instantly, you are surrounded by an eclectic form of stylish modernism known today as the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 30s. The steeped forms and sweeping curves along the walls of the theater show off the mathematic geometrical shapes consistent with a structure from that period: The Great Depression.
The Depression made entertainment an even greater and important escape for the people. The industry boomed. In April, 1930, Frank and Maybelle Northrup opened the Northrup Theatre in Syracuse. For 35 cents, you could leave the harsh reality of the time by immersing yourself in a fantasy. Children were entertained for ten cents.
Footlights and Fools opened on April 7, 1930, to a near capacity crowd of 750. Ushers brought you to your seat. Movies played for two nights only, then closed for a night. Each show amused audiences and brought them back for more. With ornate costumes, fancy jewelry, and great wealth, movies swept you away with dancing, music, and beauty.
Long time Syracuse resident, Betty Mayers, reminisces. "I remember at ten years old, chopping weeds all day for anyone who had a dime to pay me, so that I might go to the show on Saturday night to see Hopalong Cassidy fight off the bad guys. What a cowboy!"
Photo by Krista Norton
A large stage also provided live entertainment, including a night of boxing. In 1930, fight fans from as far as Lamar, CO, filled the theatre. Blacky Robinson boxed Stanley Felt, and Robinson won with a decision. But Woodrow Hixson fought Ollie Koehler in a back-up bout. Hixson knocked out Koehler.
The stage still offers theatre goers plenty of entertainment. Concerts are held a couple of times a year. Various performers have graced the stage including cowboy poets, doo wop bands, and the annual Miss Hamilton County pageant. Children are offered a free movie each Christmas.
On the theatre's 19th anniversary, the Northrupís received Western Union telegrams from Clark Gable, Esther Williams, June Allyson, and more. Roy Rogers' and Trigger's telegram read, "It is a great honor to congratulate you on the 19th anniversary in the entertainment world. May happy trails be yours and good fortune ride with you in each succeeding year." Telegrams were also received from the movie stars on July 16, 1959, when owner Frank Northrup passed away.
The Northrup Theatre has entertained audiences from western Kansas and eastern Colorado for more than75 years. The building was designed with longevity in mind. The foundation and floor are made of reinforced concrete. The walls are of brick and clay tile. A balcony, now closed, provided 47 wood veneer movie seats.
The theatre office, printing room and living quarters are finished with natural oak hardwood flooring. However, changes were inevitable. In 1948, every other row of seats was removed for comfort and the exterior façade was radically altered to attract traffic into a newly located box office. An ice machine was purchased by Northrup in 1950 and a fountain coke head was added to the concession area in 1959.
With great success, often come challenges as well. In later years, several people tried to manage the theatre. But the high cost of operation made them unable to turn a profit. The theatre closed down for six years. Yet, the community of Syracuse rallied around the theatre. In 1990, the Hamilton County Chamber of commerce assumed the lease to reopen the theatre. The revenue created goes to theatre upkeep and salaries.
However, the roof needed to be replaced. Also, modern digital technologies left the visual and audio systems lacking. A 75th anniversary banquet was held in 2005, to raise funds for the theatre. Tickets were $75.00. The granddaughter of Frank and Maybelle Northrup, Candace Richard attended the event. Candace said, "I grew up in the Theatre, as did my sister and my cousins. The Northrup Theatre survived because of its family. Now, thanks to all of you, the Chamber of Commerce and Syracuse have become its new family, and the Northrup Theatre continues to entertain its audiences."
Frontier Dairy and Hermana Dairy generously donated $10,000 to update the theatre. A new digital sound system was purchased, along with a new, larger screen, and new lenses. And enough money was raised to replace the roof.
While the theatre continues to be a staple of Syracuse, Kansas, there are concerns. Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce director, Krista Norton said, "Small town theaters closing will be a trend in the next four years." Rising heating costs, delivery charges and the cost of movies, has caused many small town theaters to close. The owners of nearby Tribune's theater were unable to continue operating. The Greeley County community has formed the Community Theater Action Team to purchase the business. To date, they have raised $11,000 towards the purchase and renovation of their community theater.
No matter what the future holds for the Northrup theater, the memories will forever be preserved. Patricia Dunagan Matsen from Kailua Kona, Hawaii, fondly remembers the Northrup theater. "I received a quarter every Saturday morning for babysitting. I couldn't wait to see the next serial of Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and Sheena the Jungle Queen. When the lights dimmed, my imagination took me to all parts of the world. And now since I have been to all parts of the world, I still have warm memories of the Northrup Theater."
Tours are available upon request by calling the Syracuse Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce at 620-384-5459.