His name was Joe Louis. A man Americans called “The Brown Bomber.” He was an African-American man who would go on to claim the hearts and minds of many regardless of skin color, and during a time when it was skin color that influenced civil rights.
Louis wasn’t just any African American. He was a prize fighter, and he was a good one at that. By 1936 he’d amassed a record of 23-0. On a summer night that year, in front of a crowd of 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Louis crawled into the ring to face anothers a well-known fighter named Max Schmeling. Schmeling, too, was no ordinary fighter. He was German, had the Nazi regime behind him and had become a symbol of the Nazis’ racial superiority ideology — albeit to his displeasure.
The bell rang and the fight commenced. As the rounds went by, Louis suffered various injuries, and after 12 rounds found himself the victim of a knockout. The fight was spectacular, not just for the social undertones that hung in the air like cigar smoke, but for the fact that cameramen were at ringside recording the bout for viewing in theaters around the nation.
In the weeks to follow, the fight was showed in movie theaters across America. Men in suits and fedoras lined up at the ticket-taker booths to sit and watch the bout replay on the silver screen. In Hutchinson, at a small theater on Main Street called the REX, the bout was replayed on July 3-4, 1936. It was just one of the many shows that McLeod County residents were treated to in the once popular theater.
The REX opened in 1914, a time when movies were silent and accompanied by a piano player sitting in the rear of the theater to provide mood music based on the scenes that played out on the screen. It was owned by E.B. McGannon and was the first theater built exclusively for entertainment — those coming before it were housed in converted storerooms.
For more than a decade, the REX was the place to go for on-screen and on-stage entertainment. Then, in 1937, a new theater was built just down the street from the REX called the State Theater. The State trumped the REX in design. It was built in art-deco style. A tiered fountain with goldfish, neon lights and a lounge with couches and floor lamps gave the State Theater a sense of grandeur that the utilitarian REX couldn’t compete with. However, crowds still filled the seats of both theaters on Saturday nights.
When the two theaters didn’t show movies, crowds were treated to live acts such as the Gould Family or the Texas Ranch Girls. Like the REX, the State Theater had a stage (until World War II), and on Wednesday nights, wives and mothers would go to the shows for the complimentary dishware given out with a ticket.
Around mid-century, a popular Hutchinson figure, George “Jake” Jacobson, began managing both theaters. Under the guidance of Jacobson, both theaters, as well as the shows they played, were advertised on one ticket.
For several years the two theaters were almost as one, an act best displayed in 1951 when a controversial film came to town. “Because of Eve” was a sexual education film produced in 1948 about a young couple being educated about venereal disease and pregnancy by a doctor.
In many communities, the film created a stir over its use of sexual language and premarital relations. Some went so far as to stop the movie at certain points and host a commentator on stage while women in nurse uniforms handed out pamphlets. It was no different in Hutchinson, where the film was being shown at both theaters simultaneously. No person younger than age 14 was admitted, and men and women were separated — men being allowed in the REX and women being allowed in the State. The community even had Mr. Alexander Leeds, a “famed” hygiene commentator, on stage to interpret scenes deemed too indecent for the public.
In 1953, the REX played its final show. For nearly half a century the REX entertained crowds in Hutchinson. For 25 years it was the sole entertainment hall in town. In 1958 it was re-modeled into a retail store and offices and is now the current location of Kamrath Chiropractic.
The State Theater continued to run as Hutchinson’s No. 1 movie establishment well into the 20th century. The big screen was split in two during the 1970s, and a third screen was added in the early ’80s. With each renovation the State lost a piece of the art-deco style that made it special. As the century came to an end, the future of the State Theater came into question as a multiplex was opened in Hutchinson. Then in 2001, the theater closed its doors.
For five years the State Theater sat empty until a couple from Minnetonka, Red and Linda McMonagle, began renovating the theater, doing their best to give it the art-deco feel that it once had. Today the couple still own and operate the State Theater — a piece of living history in an era where history is all too easily overlooked.