208-216 Main St., Springfield, Oregon
The Bell Theatre opened in 1912 at 208-216 Main St. in the ground floor of the Seavey Building, which J.A. (Jess) Seavey had built the previous year. The theater space was long and narrow, measuring 34’ x 90’. It had at least 300 seats, since that number of men attended a lecture on social hygiene in the theater in 1916.
Prior to 1920, the theater was simple with none of the luxurious seats and decorations found in the larger Eugene theaters. After the theater changed hands in 1917, for example, the new owner received only two motion picture projectors, chairs, and stage settings. The silent pictures did have piano accompaniment sometimes. Eunice Parker and Flaud Townsend were two local high school girls who were hired in 1915 and 1919, respectively, to play piano for Bell audiences. Admission ranged from 5-15¢ on weekdays and 10-15¢ for Sunday shows. Prices could go as high as 35-50¢ for special shows, such as traveling vaudeville troupes. prices that were comparable to the theaters in Eugene.
The Bell Theater was a vibrant and dynamic part of the Springfield community. In addition to serials, educational shorts, feature-length films, and newsreels, the theater hosted vaudeville, live theater, music, dance, and other non-movie events. The Bell was also a community meeting space, with political meetings, civic clubs, the Red Cross, the local high school band and theater group, and even election results (projected on the screen) all making use of the theater during this period.
In 1915 the Bell showed a Pathé serial based on the stories of the character J. Rufus Wallingford. The print tie-in ran in the Lane County News and encouraged readers to see the story “picturized” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Bell. The Wallingford serial ran in several other theaters throughout Oregon in 1915, which suggests that the Pathé Exchange in Portland had a distribution deal in the region.
The various owners of the Bell promoted the theater to the Springfield community in ways that were typical of exhibitors in the 1910s. Small news items and advertisements ran in the Springfield newspaper early on, and larger ads with the weekly program ran regularly by 1918, despite the Bell being the only theater in town. W.J. White installed an electric revolving device to display movie posters outside the theater. Owners offered coupons, hosted baby voting contests, and provided free movie tickets for students who earned good grades.
The Bell Theatre changed hands rather frequently in the 1910s, reflecting the rapid changes in and uncertainty in local movie theaters during this period.
Wallace Potter ran the Bell from 1912-1914. J.J. (Joseph) Bryan took over the theater sometime in 1914-1915; the first mention in the Springfield newspaper of Bryan in connection to the Bell was in early 1915. But by July of that year, Bryan sold the theater to E.F. and F.A. Rudrauff, brothers who also owned a typewriter business in Eugene. Bryan said that he wanted to devote more time to running the Folly Theatre [link] in Eugene, in which he had recently purchased a half-interest.
In May 1916, the Rudrauff brothers sold the theater to W.J. White, who also ran a movie theater in Cottage Grove at that time. White became the manager off and on for the next few years. In May 1917, White was badly burned on his hands and face in a projector fire that also damaged the theater. Within a few months, White sold the theater to C.W. Doane. Doane fell into legal trouble shortly after and turned over the keys to the building owner Jess Seavey in early November. The theater was closed less than two weeks when W.J. White resumed management. In January 1918, White turned over management to E.W. Bladen. In that same month Bladen spent a good deal of money to make improvements in the theater, purchasing a new projector, painting new scenery, and installing new drop curtains. But in May the theater had closed, and by July Bladen was arrested in Los Angeles for larceny committed in Lane County, Oregon. W.J. White again stepped in to keep the theater going, and it remained under his management until November 1919. W.J. White finally retired from the movie theater business in late 1919 when he sold the business to J.H. Peabody.