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Perhaps one of the grandest (or some would say gaudiest) symbols of the Roaring Twenties was the movie palace – a large, elaborately decorated theatre designed to “make the average citizen feel like royalty.” Although Roanoke had 11 movie houses in 1920, it didn’t have a movie palace.
Enter Sun Amusement Corp., with plans for a 22-story office/theatre building. By 1927, the plans were scaled back to four stories. Although smaller than originally envisioned, the American Theatre was still impressive with its façade of terra cotta and a huge vertical sign.
The sumptuous interior was done in crimson and gold. The lobby featured two hand-painted wall murals and wrought iron chandeliers. The ladies lounge was complete with a fireplace. Ushers were dressed in white shirts, black bow ties, gray slacks with maroon stripes, and maroon jackets with brass buttons.
The American was the first building in Roanoke and the second theater in the state to be air-conditioned.
The American enjoyed its heyday during the ‘30s and ‘40s, offering the best and latest in Hollywood films.
But by the 1950s, the American was facing serious challenges. People were moving out of downtowns and into the suburbs. Television was catching on, all meaning dwindling audiences for the American.
In the ‘60s, the American continued to host small concerts, live theatre productions, ballet and choral groups, and the Miss Virginia pageants. But the American’s limited space for stage productions and dressing facilities hindered its ability to handle large shows. The coming of the Roanoke Civic Center, with capabililes for large events, meant the end for the American.
The American closed in September, 1971 with the silent movie “Wings.” The American was razed in 1973 and is today the site of a Carilion building.
Also in 1971:
• N&W’s Pocahontas made its last run, having provided passenger service between Cincinnati and Norfolk since 1926.
• Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali made an appearance at Virginia Tech, closing his show with a signature rhyme: “I like your school and I like your style. But your pay is so cheap I won’t be back for a while.”
• On May 28th, Audie Leon Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, died in an airplane crash on Brush Mountain near New Castle.
• The first sports event in the new Roanoke Civic Center featured a Virginia Squires basketball player named Julius Irving.
The American Theatre’s Organ: Alive and Well in California
After the last showing of “Wings” – the 1928 silent film that ended the American’s run – people stayed until five a.m. to hear the Wurlitzer organ and to make recordings of it.
The Wurlitzer was the most expensive of the American’s salvaged treasures. Costing $24,500 when first installed, it was sold to a theater organ enthusiast in Michigan for $3,775. The organ changed hands once more before the Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, California purchased it in 1984 for $27,000. It took three 20-foot trucks to haul the 10-ton organ to California. The church reports the Wurlitzer is still well-used and well-loved today.