American Theatre

215 S. Jefferson Street,
Roanoke, VA 23012

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Sun Amusement & Realty Co.

Architects: Henry B. Boynton, Louis Phillippe Smithey

Firms: Smithey & Boynton

Styles: Renaissance Revival

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There were two American Theatre’s listed as operating in Roanoke, VA in the 1914-1915 edition of American Motion Picture Directory. This American Theatre was built by the Sun Amusement Company in 1928, opening on March 26, 1928 with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Goucho”. It was equipped with a Wurlitzer 3 manual 15 ranks organ which was opened by organist “Norman Stuckey. Closed in September 1971 with a screening of the silent movie "Wings” and was demolished in 1973 for a new First National Exchange Bank.

This was a great theatre. Large balcony, upstairs concession stand. Reminded me of a bigger, grander version of the Byrd Theatre in Richmond. Close to the Carpenter Center in granduer. Was the longtime home of the Miss Virginia pageant. Henry B. Boynton also had a hand in design and construction. Their firm of Smithey and Boynton designed and built many famous buildings in the valley, such as the Shenendoah Life Building. They also built the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg and the Salem Theatre, Salem. Boynton out lived his creation, dying in 1991 at age 92. Saw movies here in 1960’s, last one in 1971 probably. Highlights were “The Graduate” and “Little Big Man”. The Wurlitzer organ was sold to an organ enthusiast in Michigan. It was later sold and installed in the Emmanuel Community Church, Escondido, CA.

Contributed by george hill

Recent comments (view all 22 comments)

lackey on July 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm

When I was a teen and working in Roanoke theaters, there were five! The American, The Roanoke, The Jefferson, The Rialto and The Park. Also there were neighborhood theaters the Grandin on Grandin Ave and The Lee on Williamson Rd. The Academy of Music operated until the late 40’s on Salem Ave. downtown but was for stage productions only. Also years before my time in the teen’s & 20’s Roanoke had the Lyric, The Bijou, The Isis, The Princess, The Virginian, The Comet, The Electric Parlor, The Wonderland, The Azusu & maybe a few others. These were small houses with no stage or balcony & the silent films were 5 cents. The Virginia and The Boston were theaters for African Americans back in that day.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm

The modern address of the American Theatre’s site is 215 S. Jefferson. Roanoke converted its street numbering system sometime after the theater was built. Street View is set to the wrong block. The American Theatre was in the next block south, on the northwest corner of Jefferson and Kirk Avenue.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm

In the interior photo currently displayed, the style of the auditorium looks Moorish/Oriental rather than Renaissance Revival. The facade in the exterior photo looks like a standard commercial block of the period, with a few Art Deco touches and a Moorish arcade on the top floor.

lackey on July 15, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Joe Vogel. That picture above of the American is from the 1928 grand opening. I’m rather sure of that. The screen is not there. The camera was about half way up the long sweeping balcony which seated almost 1,000 people with the main floor seating 1,000. We use to claim the theater seated 2,000 but it as just a few seats short of that and it was in the balcony where it was about 996 or so seats. It also looks as if the lights that shined down on the three steps of curtains that ran down to the top of the stage were off. They were in the attic. Toward the camera was a large square section in the ceiling that had large white lights in each corner & smaller lights running from one side to the other on all four sides. All of the lights I’m discussing now were not on during the movie:–) Running next to the ceiling from the front of the balcony all the way to the back of the house to the projection room on both side was a long row of inset lights that looked like the footlights on the stage. There was a yellow one, then a blue one and a red one and the process repeated itself until it reached the end many lights later. Each color was on individual switches on the big switch board back stage which was on the Krik Ave side of the stage. If the switch was in the middle position, it was OFF. If it was down it was ON. But if it was UP, it would come on when the operator up in the projection room would press a master button up there. Every switch for the house lights and stage lights that was in the UP position would come on or go off when the projection room operator would hit that button between movie showing.

BTW. In the picture above, the entrance you see at the bottom on the main floor on the right led back stage and the one on your left went up steps and then there was an exit door that led to Kirk Avenue which was on the south side of the theater building.

In 1940 the marquee of the American was updated with neon that flashed. It had neon shooting stars that were blue and their tails flashed in sequence in red neon. Lightening strikes flashed in red neon on the sides and the word AMERICAN would flash red then green then red and green together and then start over. At the bottom were running border lights which were just standard 25 watt light bulbs.

At the same time Mr. Hines had the marquees at The Roanoke, The Park and The Rialto updated with action neon. Roy C. Kinsey sign company did it. The same people who put the star on Mill Mountain in 1949.


wsasser on February 24, 2017 at 4:46 am

I just posted an Oct. 2, 1913 ad stating the Opening of the American Theatre

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 30, 2019 at 9:29 am

The American Theatre that opened in 1913 was probably completely demolished to make way for the house that was built in 1928. The new American Theatre had a frontage about twice that of the original house, so it’s very unlikely that any of the old building was incorporated into the new one.

This web page has links to photos of both of them. The original theater was at modern address 217 S. Jefferson, the second theater used the address 215 S. Jefferson. The building on the site now, originally a bank, is today a medical clinic with the address 213 S. Jefferson.

lackey on March 28, 2021 at 7:33 pm

Joe Vogel. The original American Theatre was a remodeled YMCA building. The Y moved into a new and larger building on Church Avenue in 1914. Elmore Hines came to Roanoke as a baseball player I believe from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hines ran a cigar store on the NW corner of Campbell Avenue and Jefferson Street and he and Henry Scholtz purchased the old Y building, remolded it into a theatre called the American. Yes there were about three buildings north of the of the old Y and the First National Exchange Bank which also expanded south of Jefferson Street in 1925 adding to their original building constructed in 1912.

In addition there was a building on the north side of Kirk Avenue between the back of original American and the old vaudeville house The Roanoke Theater which had it’s house was on Kirk Avenue but you entered The Roanoke at 14 W. Campbell Avenue and up a ram through an old remodeled store to the lobby. The actual house was to your right with restrooms and balcony up steps.

When Hines and company built the new American in 1927-28 about four buildings including the old American were razed. The new American faced Jefferson Street and space was made available on the ground floor north and south of the box office for other businesses in the new American Theatre building. It’s been years but I believe the business to the south of the box, I think a dress shop, was 217 S. Jefferson. The theatre was 215 and the Little Mending Shop was 213 and a restaurant and night club which was under the theater lobby was 211 but all in the new American building. Today a 15 story building stands on the site called The Carillon Administration Building. They operate the Roanoke Memorial Hospital and several medical clinics.

Hines leased the vaudeville theatre, The Roanoke, in 1916. The new American faced west and so did the Roanoke and the new American was built all the way west to the Roanoke Theatre and the east house wall of the Roanoke served as the west wall of the new American which was the wall at the rear of the American stage. The segregated African American box office and entrance to the second level balcony was on Kirk Avenue next door to the stage doors to the new American.

The old Roanoke did not have air conditioning so Mr. Hines had ducts run over to the Roanoke so the big refrigeration unit in the basement of the new American also cooled the Roanoke.

Hines ran four downtown theatres for years and in hot weather the American and Roanoke newspaper adds promoted they were “Cooled by Refrigeration” while his Park and Rialto were promoted as “Air Conditioned.”

ghamilton on March 30, 2021 at 9:18 pm

Thank you. I loved the American and still mourn its demise.

rivest266 on February 4, 2023 at 7:38 pm

Opening date: October 2nd, 1913, for the old building.

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