When the Trail Theater officially opened in May of 1951, it wasn’t as opulent as the Missouri and other long-time city theaters. It was touted as modern in all respects.
The facade and exterior showcased structural glass and glass blocks. “Trail” was spelled out in red neon.
Clyde Weeks, a local historian, remembers the opening quite well. He even kept the souvenir first program.
“They had special concrete that they poured out in front and it was called red carborundum, and it was actually just red cement but they would put some kind of sparkly stuff in it and I mean it just sparked,” Weeks said.
Inside in the lobby, the floor was covered in English red tile. The drapes in the auditorium, made of 200 yards of material, were considered luxurious and added an air of distinction.
The seating was 450 spring-type plush Haywood-Wakefield theater seats set in a sea of lush carpeting. One unique feature was the indirect lighting made by metal troughs mounted on the sidewalls that gave a sunburst light effect. The ceiling and sidewalls were finished with acoustical blocks to ensure superior sound quality. The new screen was the top of the line in its day.
The service was special too, remembered Weeks. He recalled how his wife was impressed with the theater by the way the staff and owners treated her invalid mother who wanted to see ”The Ten Commandments” on the big screen.
“She called (Charles B. Sherman, the manager of the theater), and he said ‘We can make arrangements for this’ and he said ‘Sure come right down,’ and she went down and said they just treated them like royalty,” Weeks said.
The first movie shown at the theater on opening day was “Father’s Little Dividend” starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.
The dedication was given by Sherman and then-mayor Stanley Dale. The theater’s name was explained in the program as “Just as the Santa Fe and Oregon trails of old led the pioneers to new land, may our new Trail lead you to an new land of entertainment.”
The Trail Theater closed in 2007. Now the facade sits dusty and the glass tiles are gone. The inside looks like a shop class with ladders, lumbers, caulk, drywall and other construction items. A stage sits where there were seats in front of the torn screen. There are 250 seats left now, and a bar area is being built and a handicapped-accessible and women’s bathroom are being added.
Winston Bennett and Kim Jennings, two local businessmen, bought the Trial Theater in 2011. They received help form the city for restoration in the form of a $70,000 Save Our Heritage grant.
There have been a few hoped-for opening dates come and go.
“The project has involved more work than originally anticipated by the owners, and the original time scheduled has been delayed,” said Clint Thompson St. Joseph planning and development director.
Bennett said it wasn’t profitable to keep the building a movie theater. For starters, it would cost close to a quarter million dollars to show movies in today’s digital format. The plan is when the building opens is to show public-domain movies for seniors and make it a multipurpose facility.
“Kim and I wanted to buy it before it was torn down and turned into a parking lot,” Bennett said as he stood inside the theater looking at the work that still needs to be done. “Nothing here worked for modern use.”
Road and other construction in the area also delayed the completion of the project, Bennett added, but it will open, he said.
“We don’t know the exact date yet,” Bennett said. “We want to see it used in as many ways a possible, and we had every idea to make it something sustainable for the community.”