200716ind history

The Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich opened in 1926 and has had a storied history in Southern Rhode Island ever since.

Last week’s piece by Rob Duguay on the reopening of the Odeum Theatre in nearby East Greenwich got me to thinking about that wonderful place and what it has meant over the years, not only to the residents of East Greenwich, but all of us in South County as well. Why nearly 60 years ago my future aunt Patti Cranston, who was at that time not only my young uncle’s true love, but also my babysitter, took me to see my very first movie there; “Pinocchio” – heck, that whale scene sure got my attention! So, without further ado, lets take a look at the story behind the Odeum.

No doubt about it, the Greenwich Theatre, which had its grand opening on May 26, 1926, was a hands-down bang up success right from the get-go. Its owner/managers, Messrs. Desmarais and Kaufer had pulled out all the stops to be sure. In the weeks prior to its opening, they handed out hundreds of free admission tickets at many of the lunch counters, barbershops, and drugstores in both East Greenwich and nearby Wickford to insure packed houses during its opening weeks. In those first few months, this movie/vaudeville house ran popular films like “The Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney and “Little Annie Rooney” starring Mary Pickford, classic cowboy silent films like “Thunder Hoofs” starring Fred Thomson and his famous horse Silver King, and comedy romances like “Beverly of Graustark” starring Marion Davies. Popular vaudeville acts of the day such as magician “Hathaway the Illusionist and his Cabinet of Death” and “Chief Toma the Internationally Famous Baritone Indian” were booked as well. Newsreels and cartoons, Felix the Cat was a particular favorite, ran before every feature, and local talent like ‘East Greenwich’s celebrated vocalist’ Miss Laura Shogren and the Greenwich Follies featuring Mildred Bates shared time on the stage with all this excitement. Theatre manager Desmarais was proud to call his establishment “commodious, well appointed, and absolutely fireproof.” He organized “The Juvenile Follies of 1926” which featured “15 youthful stars and dancing dolls” from the New England region and offered lessons in that “new craze,” the Charleston, in addition to his grand surprise party every Tuesday evening, to keep folks coming back for more. His holiday carnival on the Fourth of July and his Christmas Extravaganza were big hits as well.  With all this exciting fare, it’s no wonder that the Greenwich Theatre had little problem besting its main South County vaudeville house competitors, the Odd Fellows Hall in Wickford and the Peace Dale Opera House in Peace Dale. The reality is though, that all this was just icing on the cake, as the Greenwich Theatre in 1926 had a secret weapon that nearly assured its success. Two decades earlier, an obscure New York state mechanical engineer named Ellis Carrier came up with an invention that would later revolutionize the vaudeville/movie house industry and Messrs. Desmarais and Kaufer were fully aware of the leg up that this new-fangled contraption, “air conditioning” would give them. Beyond all the fun and top shelf entertainment, the one thing that kept East Greenwich, North Kingstown and Warwick residents coming back for more was the wondrous and extraordinary comfort that was an air-conditioned movie house on a hot summer night. Yes, the Greenwich Theatre was a smashing grand success and it stayed that way through the end of the vaudeville era and the onset of the Great Depression. As a matter of fact it remained successful throughout most of the middle of the 20th century, much of that time under the able guidance of the Erinakes family, until it met its match with the arrival of the multiplex theatre chains to the region. It closed with nary a notice in 1990.

But the Greenwich Theatre was not done yet. With the backing of the civic-minded Erinakes family, and the sweat equity of a dedicated group of volunteers, the old Greenwich arose Phoenix-like from its four-year slumber in 1994 as the re-purposed Greenwich Odeum Theatre, home to the East Greenwich Academy Players and a performance space that helped to revitalize the Main Street area. Changes to the state fire code, brought on by the Station nightclub tragedy, shut her down again in 2007, but the Greenwich was soon open again; as a newly refurbished “commodious, well appointed and absolutely fireproof” addition to East Greenwich’s Main Street streetscape. Let us celebrate this grand theatre in its 94th year by helping the Odeum through this difficult period. Learn more about the rebirth of the Odeum at www.greenwichodeum.com or contact them at greenwichodeum@gmail.com.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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