Remember my column about looking for particular clues to solve the mystery of a historic aerial view of Merced?
Despite my diligent detective work, I was only able to narrow the date to the approximate year the photo was taken. It is fair to say pinpointing an unidentified picture’s precise date is rare and, somewhat, lucky. Recently, this proved to be the case when I, with Grey Roberts’ help, discovered that this original Merced Theatre photo by well-known local photographer Frank D. Robinson was taken on March 7, 1922.
Roberts acquired this photo depicting the beautiful Merced Theatre on Main and N streets about five years ago. From the initial survey of the photo, we agreed that it was taken around 1922 because the post office built in 1922 is visible next to the vacant lot west of Hotel El Capitan and the Merced Theatre’s lit marquee (which is often seen in the photos from 1923) is not yet present.
The clue to this photo’s date can be found on the three movie posters in front of the theater. Although the photo is very clear, the posters are hardly legible, with the exception of the middle poster. Its writing indicates the showing is “Tonight” and the first name of the actress is “Elaine.” After a search of 1920s actresses, Elaine Hammerstein was discovered to have starred in several movies such as “Reckless Youth,” “Why Announce Your Marriage” and “Handcuffs or Kisses.” Elaine Hammerstein and “Handcuffs or Kisses” looked like a promising match for the writings on the poster. With that assumption, the painstaking search of the daily Merced Theatre ads in the local newspapers began.
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According to the ads, “Handcuffs or Kisses” was played as a double feature with “Beach of Dreams” for a one-night showing. The double-feature explains why there are at least two different movie posters shown outside of the theater in the photo. Here is the lucky part. The one-night showing helps to establish the photo’s precise date because the March 7, 1922, issue of Merced Evening Sun advertised the show that night. There is also a bonus point. Based on the shadows of the buildings and cars, the photo appears to have been taken in the afternoon.
Now that the photo date has been established to the best of my knowledge, it is time to explore the history of the original Merced Theatre. The theater on the northeast corner of Main and N streets was built in 1920 at a cost of $35,000 and was owned by Charles H. Douglass and his brother-in-law Francis Egan. In the style of Roman Corinthian architecture, it was designed by well-known theater architect A. W. Cornelius of San Francisco and built with bricks and a stucco finish. This elegant state-of-the-art theater opened March 4, 1920 with an operetta presentation. It became the best venue in town for both motion pictures and live entertainment as it was equipped with a 70-by-32-foot stage and 1,200 seats.
After running the theater for a little over two years, Douglass and Egan sold the theater to a San Francisco syndicate headed by E. R. Emmick, Michael Naify and R. H. McNeil for $84,000. This is the same company (later known as the Golden State Theatre and Realty Corp.) that built the new Merced Theatre at J Street (now MLK Jr. Way) on the other end of Main Street in 1931.
After the 1922 purchase of the original Merced Theatre, the company hired H. J. Landgraff, who had extensive experience in the theatrical world, as a theater manager. When Landgraff and his family moved to Merced from Seattle, he immediately took a liking to Merced. In an interview with a Merced Evening Sun reporter that was published on Aug. 22, 1922, he says, “I have seen a good many cities of this size, but I’ve never seen a prettier, cleaner, more up-to-date town than Merced. Its people are nice, its buildings are for the most part modern and attractive, and the spirit seems good.”
Landgraff’s description of the town is illustrated in the 1922 Merced Theatre photo. Main Street appears to be well-paved and relatively clean, cars are parked in an orderly fashion despite being in the middle of the street, and the buildings are well-kept and new. The post office was built in 1922, original Merced Theatre in 1920, and Hotel El Capitan in 1912. Most of the buildings between the theater and the hotel were constructed sometime between 1915 and 1922 as they do not appear in Frank D. Robinson’s photo of the tent carnival that was taken in 1915.
Indeed, the original Merced Theatre stood at this former tent site for a good 16 years until it burned to the ground in December 1936. By this time, this original Merced Theatre had already been renamed the Strand Theatre. The Golden State Theatre and Realty Corp. built the new Strand Theatre in 1937 to replace the one destroyed by fire and opened it on Feb. 11, 1938. The new Strand Theatre is now known as the Mainzer. The theater building also houses the well-known and liked Cinema Café.
Going back to this original Merced Theatre photo: You will have a chance to own a poster-size reprint of the photo, which has been reproduced in great clarity. This framed print will be auctioned off to benefit the Courthouse Museum during the Merced County Historical Society’s 25th Annual Bill Kirby Western Barbecue and Auction at Lake Yosemite on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Other great live auction items at the event include paintings by local artists, weekend getaways to Napa, San Francisco, Angels Camp and Aptos, and gourmet dinner parties. Please purchase your tickets to our annual event today at the Courthouse Museum.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.