Poncan Theater: Ponca City, OK

Hey friend – welcome back to another post! Today, we’re talking about the historic Poncan Theatre in Ponca City, Oklahoma. This beautiful theater is located on Grand Avenue in the heart of downtown Ponca City. Let’s go look around!

The Poncan Theatre is located in the historic district of downtown Ponca City. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1985 and is an example of a Spanish Colonial Revival Style Theatre.

TRAVEL TIP: The Poncan Theatre has tours for visitors to learn about the architecture and the history. The Poncan Theatre hours are Tuesday through Friday 1-5 p.m. and they open an hour before show time on other days.

Poncan Theatre History (1927-2005)

The Poncan Theatre was designed by the Boller Brothers of Kansas City and was oringally owned by the Poncan Theatre Co. It was designed to be an “atmospheric theatre” with a special emphasis put on the ornate ceilings. Scroll through the photos below to see the beautiful ceilings!

The building cost a whopping $280,000 to complete. (An inflation calculator estimates this is around $4,486,468.97 in 2022 [when this article was written]). That’s a lot of money, y’all! This included the price of the equipment inside the theatre. The Wurlitzer Pipe Organ alone cost an impressive $22,5000 ($360,519.83 in 2022)!

The Poncan Theatre opened for business on September 20, 1927 featuring Our Gang and Shanghai Bound. Upon opening, the theatre seated 1200 people between the lower floor and the balcony. Lower floor seats were $1.10 and balcony seats were 50 cents. Fred Pickrel was the first director.

Fun fact! The balcony is not supported by any pillars, rather it is supported by a 5-foot thick “I-Beam.” After having walked through the balcony – I find this very impressive!

History of Film

Originally, movies didn’t feature sound and were called “silent films.” There were many stars in the “silent era” like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. These actors often exaggerated their movements to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Movies with sound (music & sound effects) were released throughout the early 1920s.

The first movie to feature a spoken dialogue was The Jazz Singer released in late 1927. Al Jolson changed cinema history forever when he uttered, “Wait a minute… you ain’t heard nothing yet.” The scene that changed cinema history is linked below – hear Al Jolson speak!

Movies with dialogue became known as “talkies” because the actors and actresses spoke in the film. Initially, many of the movie theaters didn’t have the technology to show such films because the technology was expensive. The first “talkie” film was shown at the Poncan Theatre in April 1929. People flocked to the shows to see!

Below are some of the show advertisements in the local newspapers throughout the decades. This was a random selection and that the newspaper archive had some years where there was a newspaper ad for every week with the movie listings. So, if this interests you, go check out a newspaper database!

Famous Faces

The Poncan Theatre catered to both silent films and stage entertainment – it was truly a vaudeville venue. Many famous silent film stars got their start on the vaudeville stage including Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini.

Vaudeville:

1. “A light often comic theatrical piece frequently combining pantomime, dialogue, dancing, and song.”

2. “A stage entertainment consisting of various acts (such as performing animals, comedians, or singers).”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

On February 5, 1931, Will Rogers gave a performance to the largest crowd in the Poncan Theatre’s history. Other entertainers like Sally Rand and Ethel Barrymore also appeared at the Poncan Theatre.

The historic painting of Will Rogers was returned to the theatre in 2007 (center, below). It had been kept safe at Central State University [now the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) in Edmond, OK]. Some have suggested that Richard Gordon Matzene (pictured right, below) might have painted the portrait. Matzene donated a large portion of his art collection to the Ponca City Library. For more information on Matzene and the Matzene Art Collection – check out this article on my blog!

Theatre Upgrades

The first of many updates took place in 1938 with new seats being added. Bob Browning became the theatre manager in 1939 and a new marquee was also installed. (The current marquee is styled after the original one installed in 1927.)

Donald R. Hall became the manager of the Poncan in 1946 and didn’t retire until 1977. There is a painting of Hall in the lobby on the left side of the Will Rogers painting (pictured above). Donald Hall was responsible for writing movie summaries for advertisements in the local newspaper. You can still read the summaries in The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK) back issues!

Donald Hall’s wife Frances Hall also worked in the theatre. Tragically, she collapsed in the theatre, spent two weeks in the hospital, and didn’t recover. Frances Hall passed away in 1967.

The Poncan was remodeled from 1954 to 1955 with the renovations being completed in time for a Christmas Day open house. The marquee was upgraded to a larger one so that everyone could see the movie titles up and down Grand Avenue. The inside of the theatre included 1,000 new posture-design seats – time to relax at the movies! Additionally, the mezzanine furnishings and the air conditioning system were both replaced.

More renovations and upgrades were made throughout the sixties and seventies. In 1962, the marquee was made bigger – again! There was no way you could miss the theatre marquee. A decade later in 1974, new reclining seats were installed on the bottom floor of the theater. These would have been perfect to watch a show in!

Restoration & The National Register of Historic Places

The eighties were a good decade for the theatre. The Poncan was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Three years later, the Poncan Theatre Company was established as a non-profit in Kay County to preserve the history of the theatre. In 1989, Enloe and Wanda Baumert made a generous donation allowing the theatre to be donated to the Poncan Theatre Company.

The restoration of the Poncan Theatre began in 1990 and would take place in three phases according to the Poncan Theatre website.

  • Phase 1: “Replace roof, update mechanical, electrical, and sound systems.”
  • Phase 2: “Clean/replace carpeting, revamp offices and stage areas.”
  • Phase 3: “Restore original marquee, secure stained glass panels, and repair exterior masonry.”

In 1992, 15 tons of plaster was used to repair the interior which was seriously deteriorated at this point. That is a lot of plaster…

Many community members and companies donated funds to help fix the Poncan Theatre. The renovation cost roughly a million dollars! CONOCO donated a grant of $150,000! For more information about the history of CONOCO – check out my forthcoming post about the CONOCO Museum also located in Ponca City!

The grand reopening of the theatre was held on September 18, 1994.

Poncan Theatre (2006-Present)

In 2006, Dave May became the Executive Director of the Poncan. He was responsible for the restoration of the world’s largest collection of “hand painted lobby art” from the 1930s (1931-1937). Below are a couple of examples of the art – if you are interested in seeing more photos please look at my instagram post about the lobby art. You can find me on instagram @the_active_historian!

In 2011, Team Radio broadcast from the Poncan for the first time. Their office and recording studio are located there now.

Kelly Mayers became the Executive Director of the Poncan Theatre in November 2015. More restoration projects have continued to take place at the theatre.

The Poncan Theatre celebrated its 90th birthday in 2017! I can’t wait to see what they do for the centennial celebration five years from now in 2027!

Christopher Radaker-James took over the Executive Director position in June 2019. Today, the Poncan Theatre shows movies and hosts performances. Check out the Poncan Theatre Website for the list of events or to purchase tickets!

Is the Poncan Theatre Haunted?

Several people claim to have had encounters with ghosts in the Poncan Theatre. For more information, please see this article from the Ponca City Monthly.

Sometimes, the Poncan hosts ghost tours so check that out if you’re interested in that kind of stuff. I spoke with local gentleman in town who attended one of the ghost tours and he said it was cool.

Concluding Thoughts

Walking through the Poncan Theatre was really cool! I dropped by on a Friday afternoon and the man at the front desk let me look around. The hand-painted lobby art and the dome ceiling inside the theatre were my favorite parts of the building! I hope to go back one day to either see a show or a movie! I hope you’ll go visit this important piece of entertainment history!

Happy traveling! I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂

Visit

104 E. Grand Avenue

Ponca City, OK 74601

Phone: 580-765-0943

Sources

Websites

Chelsea McConnell, “A Haunted History of the Poncan Theatre,” Ponca City Monthly, October 29, 2021.

“Ethel Barrymore,” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Open Access.

“The Jazz Singer” – Clip from Warner Bros.

Inflation Calculator

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Oklahoma Haunted Houses

“Poncan Theater Ghost” – Discover Oklahoma

“Poncan Theatre” – Northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country

Poncan Theatre – TravelOK.com

Poncan Theatre – Website

Rick Roger, “Ponca City Residents Proud of the Community’s 83-Year Old Poncan Theatre,” The Oklahoman, August 2, 2010.

“Will Rogers,” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Open Access.

Newspapers

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), December 1, 1947. Page 10.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), December 21, 1947. Page 4.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City), February 11, 1948. Page 8.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), August 11, 1948. Page 6.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), April 18, 1949. Page 8.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), May 6, 1948. Page 16.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), May 2, 1949. Page 10.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), June 30, 1949. Page 15.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), September 23, 1953. Page 4.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), April 12, 1954. Page 4.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), March 12, 1957. Page 3.

The Ponca City News (Ponca City, OK), June 19, 1959. Page 6.

2 thoughts on “Poncan Theater: Ponca City, OK

  1. Excellent presentation – will place the Poncan Theater on our list as a definite site to visit – thank you !

    Like

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