Then & Now: Strand and Rivoli theaters

The Rivoli Theatre, located in the 500 block of West Second
Street, is shown in 1938, 12 years after its opening.

Then: “Don’t just woo her ... WOW her (or him)!” an advertisement for The Rivoli Theater’s weekend films exclaimed just before Valentine’s Day in 1953.

The traditionally romantic weekend was, ironically, slated to begin with one of the theater’s signature Friday the 13th events, where two horror films were shown back to back starting at midnight.

But the fun didn’t end with the fear factor.

“It’ll scare the YELL out of you,” the ad said. But it continued: “You can sit close ’n hold hands!”

Because movie theaters like the Rivoli and Strand rank high on the list of American date night destinations, holiday specials like these were common at Hastings’ premiere downtown theaters.

Another ad from 1964 testifies to that, as well.

It was “guy ’n gal night” at the Strand theater, the stately, ornate movie house that had been built on the northeast corner of Second Street and Burlington Avenue in 1916.

“Come in couples for a real, fun-filled movie bargain! All seats $1.00 ... but for a guy ’n gal together, it’s $1.50 for two.”

Treat your valentine, your spouse or your otherwise special someone to the latest entertainment, the theaters seemed to beckon. Pick up your discount tickets at the gazebo-style box office kiosk, grab freshly popped popcorn from concessions, follow the flashlight-toting usher to your seats, and wait for the curtains to rise.

“Anytime there was an opportunity to hang your hat on a big event, the theaters did it. Sometimes we’d give away flowers on Valentine’s Day,” said Fred Teller, a giant in the Hastings theater business who at one time owned and managed the Rivoli, Strand and Drive-In theaters with the help of his wife, Lorraine.

Now: The Teller family sold all three movie theaters in 1984 to real estate developer Tom Lauvetz. He had opened the Imperial Theater on West 12th Street in 1983 and converted The Strand building into offices in 1986.

The Rivoli was closed from 1984 through 1991 due to cost concerns and changes in management. In May 1991, Great American Theaters of Grand Island purchased the Rivoli and, with the help of a pledge from the Community Redevelopment Authority, renovated the building to look the way it did when it opened in the 1920s.

Thus, the nostalgic days of theater, the likes of which had been loved and used by generations of Hastings movie-goers, would remain in the style of at least one of its downtown show houses.

The Rivoli has been owned by Fridley Theaters of Des Moines, Iowa, since 1992. Fridley was responsible for renovating the former hotel building to the east of the Rivoli and constructing two smaller theaters there, converting the building into a three-theater complex in 1994-95.
The Rivoli and Strand played a special role in the life of Hastings resident Dee (Bower) Poppe.

She worked as an usher and concession stand employee at The Strand in high school and, on what ended up being a fateful night more than 50 years ago, she was set up on a blind date with her now-husband, Bob. Their destination? The Rivoli.

“I remember poor Bob had a horrible sore throat. He said he probably shouldn’t have even come, but he said ‘I didn’t want to stand you up,’ ” Dee said with a laugh.

“Oh, of course I remember it!” Bob said of the evening when prompted. “It was a blind date set up by a mutual friend of ours. It was our very first date. I did have a cold, but I had to go!”

And, needless to say, “the date went well,” he added. The Poppes will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary this year.

“You could say that I didn’t really watch the show that night. I couldn’t take my eyes off her!” Bob said.

The Strand Theater was built in 1916 and purchased by Tri-States Film Co., a partner of Paramount Pictures, in 1934. The Rivoli was constructed in 1926 to replace the former Empress Theater, which had burned down in the 500 block of West Second Street earlier that year.

In the early 20th century, film companies like Paramount both produced movies and owned movie houses across the country. In the late ’40s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this business structure as a monopoly, many theaters were sold to local owners or other companies. Tri-States and Paramount maintained ownership of the Rivoli, but sold the Drive-In and Strand.

Teller moved to Hastings in 1952 to manage those two theaters and he would go on to manage the Rivoli as well beginning in 1967.

The Rivoli was dressed to impress from its inception in 1926. Omaha businessman and manager M.H. Garvin invested more than $300,000 in the theater and adjacent Dor-An Hotel, boasting wide aisles, dimming lights, and an electrically powered curtain inside the state-of-the-art movie house.

There was “nothing more elaborate, nothing more comfortable or better equipped in a theatrical way,” Garvin said of the 1,383-seat Rivoli.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the Rivoli hosted talent shows and short theater productions and music events, as well as movies. The theater was equipped with a 40-foot stage and orchestra pit in the front. A curtain painted with scenes from Hastings businesses was used as a backdrop for vaudeville acts that were performed between scenes of plays or other shows.

The Strand was a similarly glamorous staple of downtown Hastings in its heyday. During the Depression years, the price of admission was 15 cents on Saturday. The theater allowed patrons to temporarily escape the realities of tough economic conditions and war.

The historic Strand building, adorned both inside and out with architectural details, hosted Nebraska’s first showing of “The Sound of Music” outside of Omaha in 1967.

As Dee Poppe remembers it, the movies were a glamorous destination in those days. As an usher at the Strand, she had to wear a wool suit complete with a coat and matching hat.
She wasn’t allowed inside the theater to watch the movies but instead had to accommodate a steady stream of guests in the lobby.

“Back then, people came to the movies at any time. They didn’t wait for the beginning of the movie like they do now. They’d watch the news reel or cartoons that played before the main pictures. Or even if they came in to the middle of a movie they would just sit and stay until the end,” she said.

Today, patrons can still treat their valentines, spouses or otherwise special someone to the latest in entertainment.

“It’s an idea as simple as saying ‘bring your sweetheart to the movies,’ ” Teller said. “That hasn’t gone away.”

To read more, see Friday's Hastings Tribune or the Tribune e-edition.>>

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