Tales of Ironton: Day the Outlaw Visited

Published 10:24 am Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Recent articles in The Tribune about restoring the old Ro-Na theater have brought to mind another of my dad’s old stories.

Before television and video games, and all of our electronic toys, there was a completely different form of entertainment — the “movie houses.”

He told me that during Ironton’s boom years, he believed there were six theatres in town. An amazing number for such a small town.

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There was the Lyric on the south side of town on 2nd Street The Eastern (later renamed the State) was on 3rd, across the street and up a door or two from Arby’s.

I remember this one on a trip back home maybe 15 years ago. We stopped and looked around. It had been abandoned many years ago and was in a very rough condition. I noticed on our next trip the following year, it had been torn down.

Then there was the Star on Center Street, which opened during the silent movie era. It sat empty for years until it was completely remodeled and reopened as the Grand.

And there was the Southside and Marlow on 3rd, and of course the Ro-Na just down the street.

Back in the mid 1950s, I would spend a few weeks of the summer at my grandmother’s house down on 2nd Street By then television was here and that spelled the end for all the theaters except for one. The others had either been torn down or just simply abandoned, but I still had the Ro-Na.

Even though grandma had a TV, there was something special about going to the movies. I didn’t care if it was the latest cowboy movie or one of those terrible sci-fi films made back then.

I can remember the smell of the fresh popcorn, the murals on the walls and seeing the stars on the ceiling appear as the lights dimmed.

The Ro-Na and the Marlow are the only ones remaining. But the Ro-Na has the original marquee and entrance way and murals that could be restored.

But back to my tale. Dad told me that back in the early 1930s, he remembered that movie stars would travel from town to town promoting their films. Even the great Lon Chaney Sr. appeared at the Star. I wonder if they were showing the original Phantom of the Opera? They would go on stage and put on a short performance before the movie began. Many cowboy stars came to Ironton: big names, like Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele and Bob Custer.

Sometimes they would even ride their horse out onto the stage. What a thrill for the kids! Dad remembered during one show at the Grand (and this was bound to happen), the horse had an “accident.”

It drove half of the crowd outside, particularly the ones closest to the stage.

But my favorite story was about the day the outlaw came to Ironton.

They were showing a cowboy movie at the Grand and supposedly the body of the outlaw Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, was on display. The kids were lined up all the way down Center Street to get a peek at the desperado on display in front of the theater.

For 5 cents you could view the “body” in the coffin. And 10 cents more got you into the movie. Now that’s entertainment!

Oh, I forgot to mention that the original Star Theater had a imprint of a star in the sidewalk in front of the building.

Don’t bother to look, it’s long gone too.