Simply stepping inside the OKLA Theatre still makes people smile.
An open house in Downtown McAlester held from 3-6 p.m. Monday brought a continuous stream of visitors into the OKLA, the former cinema theater that is now closed.
Virtually all eras during the theater’s long run were represented during the open house, from the time the OKLA was built in the early 1930s until it closed as a movie house in the late 1980s. Even after movies were no longer shown at The OKLA, it endured for a while longer as the site of plays, Christmas shows and haunted houses conducted by members of the Kiamichi Actors Studio.
Members of the Ardeneum of Oklahoma hosted the open house a day prior to the McAlester City Council’s consideration Tuesday night of the Ardeneum’s offer to give the city ownership of the OKLA for $1.
In return, the city would be required to restore the OKLA and use it for the people of McAlester.
Many of those attending the open house hoped the city accepted the offer.
James Jarigin has some special memories of the OKLA. Not only did he watch movies at the theater, he worked there as well.
“I used to work here in 1964 in the concession stand,” he said. “I worked there a couple of years and then worked in the projection booth.
“I got to see all the movies and it didn’t cost me anything,” said Jarigin.
Saturday movies started in the morning.
“We’d start shows about 10:45 on Saturday and show it continuously,” he said. The OKLA had 50 cents admission on Saturdays at that time, said Jarigin. Some parents would bring their kids off and leave them at the OKLA all day, he recalled.
“We were the cheapest babysitter in town,” Jarigin said.
Bess Cotton found an iconic T-shirt for her visit to the OKLA — a commemorative T-shirt of the Kiamichi Actors Studio, or KAST community theater performance of the play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which she showed to McAlester Tourism Coordinator Eddie Gray.
Ann Owens spoke with enthusiasm of her favorite movie to play at the OKLA — the Robert Preston-Shirley Jones version of “The Music Man.”
“I watched it twice,” she said, recalling how she phoned her mom so she could watch the entire movie again.
Owens said she sometimes goes to the McSwain Theatre, a restored movie theater in Ada. “Every time I go there, I think ‘I hope they do this in McAlester,’” she said.
Sue Conn Ernst, who is Owens’ cousin, now lives in Wichita Falls, Texas. She was in McAlester on Monday and couldn’t resist stopping the OKLA again, where she talked with Owens and Mozelle Proctor about the theater.
“I grew up here,” Ernst said. She recalled how her mom would drop her off to watch the movies.
“There should be a black pay phone here,” she said, pointing to a place on the wall where a phone used to be that children would use to phone their parents when the movie was over.
She said the Wichita Theatre in Wichita Falls is a vintage theater that’s been restored.
“It’s the best thing they ever did for our community,” she said. “That’s helped a lot.”
Amie Whorton recalls going to the OKLA when she was a kid to seethe movie “Annie.”
“I went to the balcony,” she said. “I miss it.”
Shirley Donaldson spoke about how other theaters have been refurbished. “They redid this one in Lamar, Missouri,” said, referring to the Plaza theater. She hoped something similar could be done to the OKLA.
Alyssa Latty, of McAlester Main Street, noted the good turnout for the event. She recalled going to talent shows put on by Curtis Baker.
“I would sing ‘My Heart Will go On’ from ‘Titanic,’’’ Latty said, recalling how Baker would get limos to drop the performers off at the front.
“It was a good time,” she said.
Gail Aragon said “I used to be with the community theater.” She said there were times when the group looked for a place to stage its plays. It would be nice to have the OKLA available, she said.
Nearby, Rodney Briggs placed popcorn in bags with the OKLA logo printed on it. Dr. Bert Thomas, president of the Ardeneum of Oklahoma, pointed out some of the improvements.
Nina Fereday Barthel brought her granddaughters to the open house so they could see where she used to go to the movies. She said her mother was a school teacher who sometimes had to attend meetings when school was not in session.
“I’d come down here and she would go to the meeting,” Barthel said.
Jack Southard recalled how he would find his seat. “I remember how they had ushers that would seat you,” he said.
Pat Tucker and Diane Lee also recalled watching movies at the OKLA.
“This should be a historical landmark in McAlester,” Lee said. “It is a wonderful place, We want the city to buy it,”
Jean Boyd remembered the big concession area that extended to the middle of the lobby.
Bob Miller remembered coming to town as a child with his family in a horse-drawn wagon and going to the OKLA.
“It cost a quarter,” he said.
John Bray stopped by with his wife, Mary. He said he used to go to the OKLA in the 1970s. He said Mary Sullivan, who later became his wife, would sit behind him and his friends and eat pickles — and they couldn’t figure out the source of the aroma. He too had a favorite movie.
“My favorite was Don Knotts and ‘The Apple-Dumpling Gang,’” he said.
Glena Raleigh Baggs, a former McAlester High School coach, stopped by to shoot some photos and reminisce.
While local historian Tom Crowl snapped some photos of hos own, David Jones remembers seeing movies starring Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, such as “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Sand Pebbles.”
Josh Mabray was too young to attend the OKLA during its heyday, but he checked out the theater during the open house.
“I like the brickwork behind the stage,” Mabray said. He already knows what he would like to see at the theater.
“I’d like for them to get some bands,” he said. With McAlester between Dallas and Kansas City, he figured that groups could work a McAlester appearance into their tour schedules.
McAlester Tourism Director Billy Sumner felt pleased with the turnout at the open house.
“I was very happy to see the people who came to see it,” he said. “It’s great to hear the old stories.”
Sumner was among those hoping Monday that more generations will have an opportunity to experience what will one day be their stories about the OKLA Theatre.
“It’s well worth the investment in the community,” he said.
Contact James Beaty at [email protected]