Robb's and Rowley's "The American"
Bonham Daily Favorite, March 26, 1995
Something must have fired the interest of Bonham citizens in the motion picture industry after the end of World War I. Perhaps it was a marked improvement in the output from Hollywood and New York, or perhaps it was a growing interest in the stable of motion picture talent with the recognition of such stars as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mabel Normand. Whatever the reason there seemed to have been an increase in the demand for a movie theater of the first rank for the entertainment of the movie going locals.
According to the area journals and the reminiscences of different residents of Bonham at the time, the entire summer of 1921 was filled with excited expectation awaiting the completion of the first building erected strictly for the showing of the motion picture.
The previous efforts in Bonham, The Queen, The Mystic, The Best, and The Palace had all been shoehorned into existing stuctures and by various accounts were less than satisfactory places to while away an hour or so watching the images parade across the flickering screen. One Bonhamite reported that the seats in the existing theaters were harder than the "deacon’s benches in a country church during a two hour sermon."
Nothing is known of the background of the two men who endeavored to upgrade the motion picture facilities in Bonham. Nothing remains of any contracts that must have been signed nor do the newspapers identify the two men’s given names. The continuous references are only to Mr. Robb and Mr. Rowley. Understandably, given the excitement of the undertaking the two gentlemen were probably well known to everyone in Bonham and the news reporters felt it unnecessary to identify the men by their full names.
Robb and Rowley did not construct the actual building themselves. Instead they entered into an agreement with A.B. Scarborough, president of the First National Bank, and Will H. Evans, local businessman, whereby these two men would invest in the actual construction of the building which would then be leased to the theatrical pair.
The Bonham Daily Favorite described the building, while still under construction, as being fifty-two feet by one hundred thirty-seven feet, two story in height. The seating capacity was rated at 800. Although no mention is made of the balcony it must have been in the original construction plans in order for the building to accommodate that number of seats .
On either side of the front exterior, two small store buildings were included. Over the years a variety of retail enterprises were housed in these two areas until the early 1950's when the box office and concession took up the space used by the southside retail space.
The boxoffice is not described in these accounts of the building, but existing photographs show it located in the middle of the exterior lobby much in the manner of most movie houses of the day. Several glass covered display cases were arranged around the walls of the lobby for the display of posters of coming attractions.
A gentleman's rest room was built on the first floor. The second floor housed the ladies lounge and rest room. One newspaper account quoted several women as saying that the lounge "was a dream" with its beautiful furnishings and "everything a woman could wish for in a home parlor."
As an addition to the movie screen the stage was constructed much as the stages to be found in "legitimate" theatrical houses. The Favorite reporter pronounced it as being "a very fine stage and orchestra pit." Of particular interest to many who followed the construction progress was the announcement earlier in the summer that a $7,000 pipe organ would be installed.
Even though the stage was seemingly eguipped for a variety of entertainments, Robb and Rowley announced that no vaudeville shows would be allowed only "high class" motion pictures. They also announced that from time to time presentation of educational and cultural musicals and lectures would be presented such as the great singers of the country.
The citizenry was much impressed when the owners declared that the pastors of the Bonham churches and the presidents of the mother's clubs would be asked to be guests of preview showings and pass on the guality of the scheduled pictures. They were, in fact, according to newspaper accounts, expected to be a board of censors.
This action by the movie owners was probably done in response to a rising criticism throughout the United States of the subject matter and screen portrayals which were then beginning to emanate from Hollywood. The failure to recognize and deal with this criticism was to later result in the creation of the Hollywood censors offices under the control of Will Hayes.
As the September completion date grew nearer Robb and Rowley announced that because of their splendid cooperation in constructing the building to the specifications of the tenants, Mr. Scarborough and Mr. Evans would be accorded the honor of naming the new theater. Consequently the two businessmen christened the theater the "American" in honor of the American Legion of Fannin County and in tribute to those men who served so honorably during the recent war.
The early September opening date came and went with no annoucement as to the reason for the delay. Finally in the October 6, 1921 edition of The Bonham Daily Favorite a large display advertisement appeared.
"Just Think! Only a short 48 hours until the new R & R American will open. It will occur promptly at 1:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8th. At the opening attraction Wallace Reid will present 'Two Much Speed.' The cast also includes Agnes Ayers and Theodore Roberts. An extra added attraction will be Clyde Cook in 'All Wrong,' a short subject. Special music performances on the new $10,000 pipe organ will feature Mr. Tucker. Shows start at 1:00 p.m.. Last show 10:20 p.m. Admission, Adults 25$, Children, 10$. Coming Monday and Tuesday, Mary Pickford's latest picture, 'Through the Back Door."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas