Our Movie Theaters
Story by Teresa Nguyen
""Performances presented more elaborately than anything Janesville has ever before enjoyed."
~ From a 1924 newspaper ad for the new Jeffris Theatre
I Remember When...
Oh, that nostalgia of a movie theater! It is something we’ve all felt. Much of it has to do with that rather magical experience; the special people who went with you to see a great film, or maybe it was the movie itself…perhaps it was a blockbuster. Those fabulous memories evoke a time in your life, an era, much in the same way the melody of a favorite song takes you back.
The collection of memories of those people and the movies are intertwined with that place, the theater, where you escaped from reality for an hour or two out of your day. Was it a romantic date, maybe family, or a group of friends who made the night so amazing? Was a heartthrob actor or a screen siren suddenly larger than life, or seemingly IN your life for just a short fantasy?
Maybe it was walking down that familiar city block you remember so fondly, or the weather that day, the way the lit-up marquee glowed as you approached, the dim theater lighting, the smell of popcorn or perhaps chandeliers that set the mood. Do you recall the comfort of the movie seats or your favorite row and distance from the screen? Yes, there’s something about the experience of the movies that has fascinated us ever since motion pictures arrived on the scene.
Change is usually a difficult adjustment, and seeing a building changed or demolished, one where so many positive memories were created, truly tugs at our hearts. It kind of tips our world upside-down, because, as we so fondly recall, that place, that experience was a piece of the puzzle of our life.
Janesville’s oldest theater was first an opera house! Built in 1870, the Myers Theater, on the corner of East Milwaukee Avenue and South Parker Drive, entertained Janesville residents with fantastic live shows. The Myers was the place to go!
1910s – 1920s
A Greek immigrant and Janesville businessman by the name of James Zanias became interested in the new entertainment of motion pictures. So, in 1908, he and a business partner opened the Lyric Theatre, a 5 and 10 cent show at 113 W. Milwaukee street. The business saw great success and Mr. Zanias purchased the Nickelodeon Theatre at 210 W. Milwaukee street in 1909.
In 1909, a place called The Majestic Theatre opened at 119 W. Milwaukee St.
In 1913, Mr. Zanias then expanded his businesses with the Apollo Theatre, which opened as a vaudeville house. The Apollo, located at 306 W. Milwaukee St., could seat 700-800 on the main floor, the balcony, and box seats. It was then sold to Saxe Brothers of Milwaukee in 1926, though Mr. Zanias continued to manage the Apollo for the Saxe Brothers company.
Looking west on W. Milwaukee St., Apollo Theatre on the left
Meanwhile, The Beverly Theatre at 17 S. Main Street opened in 1916. It had one screen and 500 seats.
The early 1920’s saw the construction of the Jeffris Theatre. During construction at 319 W. Milwaukee St., in 1923, an accident killed a plumbing contractor. Work resumed on Saxe’s Jeffris Theater until it opened in May of 1924. Mr. Zanias managed the Jeffris for a time, as well.
In an ad for the new Saxe's Jeffris Theatre is the wonderful description, "Performances presented more elaborately than anything Janesville has ever before enjoyed."
An announcement for the new Beverly Theatre from 1916
James Zanias then resigned and spent a year with family in Greece. When he returned to Janesville, he leased the Myers theatre which he remodeled and opened on Dec. 27, 1929.
The Myers Theater became a motion picture destination with 1 large screen, 708 Seats!
1930s – 1940s
In 1930, the Majestic Theatre on West Milwaukee closed.
The Jeffris Theater went through a complete remodel in 1937.
In 1939 Mr. Zanias suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized and resigned from the business.
In 1943 movie goers waited in long lines. The theater was a great way to get the latest war updates prior to the start of the movie, and then a wonderful escape from the fears and insecurities wartime brings. That same year, in 1943, buying a war bond was the price of admission to the Jeffris' feature movie, “Sonja Henie in Wintertime”.
An ad for the new Jeffris Theatre from 1924
The Myers Theatre on the corner of E. Milwaukee and S. Parker Dr.
The crowds lined up at the Jeffris in 1943
On June 21, 1949, Hi-Way 26 Outdoor Theatre, a drive-in theater, with 1 33x46' screen and room for 500 cars was launched by the Badger Outdoor Theatre Company. Rod Cameron starred in “River Lady”. The movie cost only 60 cents!
The original movie screen was later replaced by a wide screen which was later replaced by a stronger, improved screen in 1966. In an ironic twist, that stronger screen was blown away by a tornado that same year and was then replaced by its final screen.
There was something really special and different about a drive-in movie. It made for a romantic date, and maybe even a chance to steal a kiss!
The Hi-Way 26 drive in closed in the early 1980’s. Eventually, in 1986, Woodman’s Grocery Store moved to that same area, 2819 N. Lexington Dr. The old drive in entrance from Milton Avenue is till used to access the grocery store.
1950s – 1960s
In October of 1951, James Zanias, the man who brought so much theater to our city, passed away. He was a community-minded man and gave generously to a variety of area projects. He supported social programs to aid the needy here and abroad. His obituary in the Janesville Daily Gazette read, “Mr. Zanias' generosity knew no barriers of race or creed, his name having appeared on several Janesville churches’ books and as a donor to community, national and worldwide philanthropic organizations.”
Also in 1951, the Beverly Theatre closed its doors.
In 1954, The Jeffris Theatre installed a wider screen and a new stereophonic sound system!
The Apollo Theater closed in the late-1950’s, the Apollo was converted into a three-story office building, the Cullen Building.
On February 21, 1966, a fire gutted the lobby of the Jeffris Theatre and smoke entered the adjoining Monterey Hotel, killing one of the residents.
1970s – 1980s
The Jeffris theater was again remodeled in the 1970s.
The Janesville Mall was built and the new Janesville Mall Cinemas opened in 1973. The 3-screen cinema stayed in business for over 2 decades until competition from the new Rock Theatres and Movies 10. The Mall Cinemas closed in 1998. This space became the Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurant.
A recent aerial view of the Janesville Mall on Milton Avenue
The Myers theater was demolished in 1977 and Johnson Bank now sits at that location, overlooking the new Black Hawk mural downtown.
In the 1980’s another fire destroyed the overhanging marquee canopy of the Jeffris Theatre, and a great deal of the lobby. It reopened as two theaters with the name Ormson Theatres. Later, one of the two theatres was divided again and, over the lobby, two more were added in the upstairs. The theater was then named Park Place Cinemas after its conversion into multiplex 5-screen theater with a seating capacity 1,500 seats!
1990s – 2000s
In 1992, a new theater complex, the Rock Theatres owned by the small Wisconsin chain, Wildwood Theatres, opened near the business district of the northern Milton Avenue corridor. This theater was located at 1620 Newport Road.
In 1998, Wildwood Theatres opened a multiplex cinema called Movies 10 at the back of the new Pine Tree Plaza strip mall.
In 1998, the Jeffris Theatre/Park Place Cinemas closed its doors, ending an era of movie-going in our downtown.
Wildwood Theatres Movies 10, which later became Movies 16, located in Pine Tree Plaza on the northeast side of Janesville, Wisconsin
In 2008, there was a partial demolition of the Jeffris Theater.
In 2009, the owner of Wildwood Theatres saught permission from the City of Janesville to expand its Movies 10 complex in Pine Tree Plaza at 3100 Deerfield Drvie.
In October 2010, Movies 10 was expanded to 16 screens and became Movies 16 exanpding to 1,980 seats!
The Rock Theatres were closed in summer 2010.
In 2015, what remained of the Jeffris Theater/Park Place Cinema was demolished.
Over the decades, time, urban development and expansion and even changes in our culture have all contributed to the evolution of our local theaters. As we relax in the modern recliners out at Movies 16, we might realize that a whole new generation does not even know of the glory days of beautifully lit, welcoming, smaller theatres with beautiful carpets, rugs and chandeliers.
It was a place where the excitement of a movie was more than just a cozy seat, popcorn and a couple of entertaining hours. It was a big deal, there were great memories made and the movies were of a different caliber with the talent of actors who could charmingly sing, dance AND act all in one!
The movies we remember had a well-told, solid storyline void of all the violence and gore we so often see in today’s movies, just to thrill the senses. They moved us and made us ponder what happened to the characters long after we’d seen the movie.
Perhaps this story will help paint a picture for the children and grandchildren of the folks who enjoyed some memorable times at the Myers, Beverly, Apollo, the drive-in or the Jeffris Theatres Janesville, Wisconsin.