Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
Along with the massive industrial and commercial growth in Poteau following statehood came a newfound freedom for many of the town’s residents. With more jobs, people had more disposable income to spend on entertainment and recreation. As Poteau continued to grow, larger and more varied businesses soon began to appear. These new businesses offered luxuries that only ten years previously were unimaginable.
By the end of the decade, almost every home had running water, electricity, and telephone service. With a quick trip to downtown Poteau, residents could purchase everything they needed and more. For those items that couldn’t be found locally, mail order catalogs from companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward offered almost anything one could imagine. By the late 1900’s, Sears Roebuck even offered homes for sale that could be shipped across the country by railroad.
Many forms of entertainment that was popular during the late 1800 have remained popular during the early 1900’s. For many, this still meant gathering together around a piano and singing many of the popular songs of the time. For others, this meant a trip to the local billiards hall or the skating rink. The skating rink was once located where the old Poteau Motor Company had its used car lot on Rogers.
One of the largest attractions in the area was the old baseball stadium. This stadium was most likely located where the old fairground was and had enough seating to accommodate 1,000 people.
Besides the more traditional forms of recreation, a new type of entertainment venue could now be found in Poteau. In the McKenna Building, a new opera house had been constructed in the central partition. There were highly fashionable retail stores located in both the storefronts to the left and right of the Opera House. Although the opera house didn't remain in business for very long, it did provide a few years of high-class entertainment.
The Blair and Mills Opera House was located in the central unit of the McKenna building. Seating was located towards the front of the building and faced the large electric stage located at the rear.
Along with showing popular performances, the opera house was also used for dances, political meetings, and other important group events. Local churches and some of the smaller area schools that didn't have auditoriums used the Opera house for all their large functions.
As tastes in entertainment changed, many of the opera houses across the country fell into disrepair and were demolished. In Poteau, the end of the opera arrived as vaudeville shows and nickelodeons became popular.
The first vaudeville theater in Poteau was the AirDome Theater, located on the southeast corner of Dewey and Witte. Although not much is known about the AirDome, it is extremely likely that the theater also showed nickelodeons. Nickelodeons were short films that cost five cents to see.
The vaudeville theaters of the time were made of comedians, singers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers, and anyone who could keep an audience’s interest for more than three minutes. Beginning in the 1880s and through the 1920s, vaudeville was home to more than 25,000 performers, and was the most popular form of entertainment in America. From the local small-town stage to New York’s Palace Theater, vaudeville was an essential part of every community.
These shows, intended for all-male audiences, were often obscenely comical.
There were usually a dozen or more acts in every vaudeville performance. Starting and ending with the weakest, the shows went on for hours. The performances ranged from the truly talented to the simply quirky. There were musicians, such as the piano player Eubie Blake, and the child star, Baby Rose Marie. There were great acts of physical talent; everything from contortionists, to tumblers to dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers. Actors performed plays, magicians put on shows, jugglers juggled, but the real focus of vaudeville was comedy. Great comic acts such as Witt and Berg and Burns and Allen brought in the biggest crowds.
Vaudeville’s attraction was more than simply a series of entertaining sketches. It was symbolic of the cultural diversity of early twentieth century America. Vaudeville was a fusion of centuries-old cultural traditions, including the English Music Hall, minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater. Though certainly not free from the prejudice of the times, vaudeville was the earliest entertainment form to cross racial and class boundaries. For many, vaudeville was the first exposure to the cultures of people living right down the street.
Ironically, it is through the movie and TV industry that vaudeville eventually left its greatest mark. Nearly every actor in the beginning of the century either performed or visited vaudeville. The silent movies, with former vaudevillians such as Burt Williams, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, incorporated the animated physical comedy of the vaudeville stage. Many of the big names in vaudeville went on to be movie and TV stars, such as Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Burns &Allen, and Fanny Brice. Even today, shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live continue the traditions of popular variety entertainment.
The Nickelodeon was a multi-purpose theater that was popular from about 1900 to 1914. Usually situated in converted storefronts, the Nickelodeon featured motion pictures, illustrated songs, slide shows and lectures. Nickelodeons were one of the two main exhibition venues for motion pictures, apart from Vaudeville theaters.
Nickelodeons declined with the advent of the feature film, and as cities grew and industry consolidation led to larger, more comfortable, and better-appointed movie theaters.
Though strong through the period between 1905 and 1913, Nickelodeon theaters would also face their downfall after the arrival of longer films and larger audiences. Box office attendance grew rapidly, necessitating larger auditoriums. Longer films caused ticket prices to double from five cents to ten cents.
In addition to sports, theater, and opera, residents would spend much of their time outdoors. City Lake was especially popular. Residents would relax beside the lake or take small boats out on the lake. The lake was also especially popular on Sundays, when many church services were held on the banks of the lake.
There were numerous billiard halls downtown as well. These were quite fashionable in the beginning, but a few of the parlors were a bit more on the seedier side.
One of the most popular pastimes revolved around the church. In general, the churches were the centers of the community and very few people didn't attend a local church.
As the decade drew to a close, Poteau had expanded to nearly four times its original size. This explosive growth would continue through the Great Depression before finally slowing down in the mid-1930s.
The Birth of Poteau
Chronically of Oklahoma
Oklahoma Corporation Commission Reports
Liz Westwood from UK on January 31, 2020:
This is an interesting historical article. It's fascinating to see the developments.