The Day of the Rube Has Passed - A.J Simmons



The above is a quote from Arnold J. Simmons, when asked why a hillbilly town like Lamar should have such a modern theater. His answer was short and to the point.

Simmons, a one time road show treasurer and automobile sales manager envisioned a grand theater, one the likes of this area has never seen. A theater that would entice people from all over the area to hop in their cars and make the drive to Barton County. A theater so grand and modern that it would compete successfully with other playhouses such as the Fox Theater in Joplin and the Gillois Theater in Springfield. But to tell his story we must go back over a century.  On April 3, 1908  E. E. Wagner opened the Bijou theater on the north side of the Square in Lamar. A fire in December of 1909 destroyed most of the north side of the Square including the Bijou. Wagner quickly relocated the theater to the south west corner of the Square in the Tucker-Banks building. He remained there until 1918 when he moved to the north east corner of the Square, which was known as the Air Dome. Ironically, the Tucker-Banks building was also destroyed by fire in 1921.

Wagner owned and operated the Bijou until 1928 when he sold it to A. J. Simmons. It was only 5 short years later that Simmons’ dream of a modern and “state of the art” playhouse in Lamar would be brought to life.

In July 1934 construction began. A vacant lot on the south side of the Square would be the home of the new theater. L.P. Larsen, who designed the Fox Theater in Joplin and the Gillois in Springfield, was hired as the architect. The theater will be 43’ wide, 130’ long and 38’ high. It will have 585 seats and such modern conveniences as warmed heat from steam and cooled air from water.

On October 25, 1934 the Plaza Theater opened, a full week ahead of schedule. Over 50 Western Union telegrams came from all over the country congratulating Simmons on his new theater, including such stars as Clark Gable, Barbra Stanwyck, Mae West, Al Jolsen and Joan Crawford. Representatives from every major movie studio were among the 500 people who were at the opening. The night started at 7:15 with an hour long concert by the Lamar band, followed by short speeches by Arthur Aull, Thomas Martin, Larry Larsen and Tom Edwards. The night’s entertainment continued with a vaudeville act from Carthage and wrapped up with the motion picture Student Tour. After the movie patrons were invited to a dedicatory dance at Memorial Hall next door.

In 1945 the Plaza had its first of many renovations. Headed by Designer Robert Boller of Kansas City, the Plaza underwent several cosmetic changes. The snack bar was moved to the lobby and the white, metal tin that covered the ceiling in the main screening room was replaced with beautiful tile and artwork.

Although still owned by the Simmons family up until 1978 the Plaza changed management several times. In 1979 it was sold to a local couple who removed the aging marquee and applied vinyl siding to the front. In December of 1985 a fire at the clothing store next to the Plaza resulted in major smoke damage to the theater. It eventually closed on April 3, 1986. The smoke smell was so bad that people stopped coming. The last movie played was Iron Eagle. On May 24, 1986 an auction was held and many items were sold confirming that the Plaza, as Lamar knew it, was no longer.

The building was sold to O’Sullivan Properties and was mainly used for storage. In 1993 when rumors surfaced that the Plaza would be torn down Lamar’s Betty Kuhn gathered a select group of individuals at City Hall and explained her intentions - to save the Plaza Theatre. She felt it was an asset to the community and should not be destroyed. The committee, named CPR (Community Plaza Rescue) consisted of Betty Kuhn, Lynn Calton, Kathy Jenkins, Jerri Finley and Richard Scroggs. Talks were underway and tours of the building soon started. In 1995 a new roof was added and in 1996 the NAP (Neighborhood Assistance Program) approved part of the funding for the restoration.

After 5 years of generous donations, fund raisers and countless hours of volunteer work  the newly remodeled Plaza Theater opened on November 5, 1998.

In 2013 the Plaza was converted to digital.


Plaza Photo Gallery












The last 3 movies to play before the
1986 closing





The original Bijou Theater in 1908





The Plaza then



The Plaza now





1911 mailer




1961 Wednesday matinee



Original projector

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