From the earliest days of silent films in nickelodeons to the convenience of Netflix, Americans have embraced movies with a passion reserved for few other entertainments. What date could be more typical than dinner and a movie? How many of us recall in vivid detail our first film or a movie that inspired our first celebrity crush? And are there many snacks tastier than buttered theatre popcorn?
Like the rest of the nation, the Copper Country took to moving pictures with enthusiasm. Movies were screened at the halls of temperance societies and fraternal organizations, but it was the grand picture houses that became the area’s entertainment centers. The Kerredge Theatre, built for vaudeville acts, began to share the stage with Hollywood films as attracting top live productions to the Upper Peninsula became more challenging. Other theatres were constructed with movies themselves in mind.
Houghton’s Lode Theatre proved to be one of the longest lasting and most beloved of them. According to a November 15, 1941 article celebrating the Lode’s opening, its beginnings lay in the dreams of James Dee some forty years earlier. Dee, a prominent resident of Houghton, in 1901 “organized three local companies: one to build the Old Amphidrome, one to build the new Douglass House, and one to build a theatre.” Dee’s initial vision was for a vaudeville house, but fundraising difficulties allowed William Kerredge to beat him to the punch. Although the Amphidrome and Douglass House rose on schedule, “the Houghton subscribers [donors] to the Houghton theatre project decided that two regular theatres so close to each other would not pay, and they decided to drop out.” Dee conceded the logic of this position but did not abandon his dream entirely. In the mid-1910s, he argued that movies could be profitable in a town like Houghton: indeed, “it was a bad advertisement for a town not to have” a movie theatre. Would-be investors thought the stock market a better place for their money. Still, Dee was undeterred. A few years later, he approached Martin Thomas, a proprietor of several other movie houses, and “even offered to donate a piece of property on Shelden street if Mr. Martin [sic] or anyone else would build a theatre here, and not until then did the business men of the town realize that Houghton should have a theatre.” Thomas agreed.
The handshake concord between the two men took twenty years to bear fruit, but Thomas was true to his word. In 1939, he and other executives of the Fox-Wisconsin Amusement Corporation received blueprints for a proposed theatre to be built adjacent to the Shelden-Dee Block on Shelden Avenue. A.K. Proksch was hired as general contractor to oversee construction of the steel-trussed, brick-faced and tile-accented structure, which finally celebrated its grand opening with a four-day gala in mid-November 1941.
The Daily Mining Gazette received a sneak peek of the new theatre and wrote a glowing article on opening day. “New Lode is last word in comfort and convenience… the Copper Country can now boast of the most modern motion picture theatre in Upper Michigan.” Patrons entered through “an attractive foyer, decorated in warm pastel colors.” Down a small flight of stairs, a waiting room allowed early arrivals to wait for the previous screening to end. When excited moviegoers, clutching their tickets, at last walked into the auditorium, a “sweeping panorama of the north country” greeted them and tugged at their heartstrings. An arched ceiling “paneled in a staggered checkerboard design with acoustically treated material” rose overhead, and sanded glass over recessed fluorescent lights provided a soft filter that mimicked daylight. In the tradition of the great theatrical houses, “drapes of a rich rust colored material cover the stage and screen.” The Lode, though built with movies in mind, also offered the amenities of a live performance hall with stage lighting and an additional movable curtain.
Comfortable seats and a cozy climate went a long way, but visitors to the Lode came for the movie! The Gazette also detailed the technical features that made taking in a show an appealing experience. An outside stairway led to “a large- well-lighted room” that served as the projection booth. “Here.. is the maze of equipment and machinery which is literally the ‘heart’ of the motion picture theatre.” Simplex projectors, cutting edge for their time, and “an RCA Photophone sound system–the same equipment as that used in the world’s largest theatre, Radio City Music Hall” brought the movie to life before patrons’ eyes. That first night, following a Donald Duck cartoon and a newsreel, the film was “You Belong to Me,” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.
Countless movies followed in the decades to come, from Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters to its greatest flops. In 1956, Martin Thomas’s Wisconsin-based company transferred ownership of the Lode to a local group under the leadership of Rance Mason and Norbert Kahn. The theatre maintained its place as a downtown staple for decades to follow, providing a place where families, couples, and students could take in new releases or old favorites. As the years wore on, single-screen movie houses began to fall out of favor, replaced by multiplexes that could play two or more films simultaneously. In 1994, the Lode joined their ranks. Citing a desire to compete with the new multiscreen movie theatre at the Copper Country Mall, the Lode expanded to three theatres: a large one seating 200 viewers and two smaller counterparts that would house 100-120 patrons each.
The early 2000s introduced additional challenges for cinemas, with the economy flagging and new at-home viewing options enticing would-be patrons. In 2005, the Lode sold to an investor group led by Illinois-based F&F Management and Wisconsin’s Rogers Cinema, which hoped to keep the Lode tradition alive. Unfortunately, their hopes were short lived. The theatre entered what Rogers Cinema’s president dubbed a “hibernation” in January 2010, promising to reopen in time for summer blockbusters. It did on May 27–but the lights went out and the marquee stood empty again on August 12. This was the Lode’s last picture show: never again would it screen movies. Yet its legacy remains: above signs for the insurance agency now housed in the building, the stark red-and-yellow LODE letters call out to passersby, just as they did to filmgoers for seventy years.