In the late 1940s, movies were a booming business in Thurston County. Without competition from television, videos or digital streaming, theaters provided a major source of entertainment. Besides feature films, theaters showed newsreels, cartoons and serialized films. Short episodes of longer stories, these serialized films typically ended each episode in a cliffhanger and were played once a week at the theater. One of these serials, Republic Pictures’ “Captain America,” was shown in 1946 at Olympia’s Liberty Theater. This historic serial about “The Sentinel of Liberty” shows the changing history of theaters in the area.
By the 1920s, Olympia had two movie houses, the Rex and Ray. In 1924, two large new theaters were constructed. The Capitol Theater (206 E Fifth Avenue) and Liberty Theater (512 Washington Street SE) were built to meet contemporary popular demand for big luxurious cinemas.
The Reed-Ingham Investment Company was behind the Liberty Theater project. Formed by state legislator Mark Reed and his brother-in-law Dr. George W. Ingham, the business partners chose the site of Mark’s father Thomas Milburne Reed’s house on Washington Street. Located across the street from the Hotel Olympian and near Sylvester Park, it was an excellent place for a theater and an adjoining automobile garage.
To build the movie house, Reed and Ingham picked Seattle architect Mark Purvis. Purvis had designed John Miller Murphy’s Olympia Theater, sometimes called the Olympia Opera House (1890), as well as theaters in Longview and Port Angeles. Seattle’s Jensen and Von Herberg Company handled construction and even initially operated the Liberty Theater.
The Liberty held a grand opening on August 30, 1924, with a screening of the silent film “The Last Hour,” vaudeville acts and a concert. The Liberty Theater was an impressive sight, with a blue and bronze interior, velvet carpet, upholstered seats and uniformed ushers. The theater would show movies, as well as host occasional events, such as Governor Hartley’s swearing-in ceremony in 1925.
One of the most popular events at both the Liberty and Capitol Theaters during the 1940s was the Saturday children’s matinee. The smaller Avalon Theater (built in 1928) did not hold these events. Beginning at 12:30, the Liberty would usually play three cartoons, two feature films and an episode of a serial. Admission was cheap, even by 1940s standards, with children under 12 years old paying 12 cents and adults 40 cents. They played many titles over the years, but in 1946, the Liberty showed Republic Pictures’ “Captain America.”
Premiered nationally on February 5, 1944, the serial took a very long time to work its way to Olympia. While the story bears little resemblance to the original comic books, it is Captain America’s first film appearance. Played by Dick Purcell, Captain America is a crime fighting vigilante by night and district attorney Grant Gardner by day. Captain America is neither Steve Rogers nor a super-soldier. Nazis, World War II or Steve’s sidekick Bucky Barnes make no appearance. Instead, Captain America must struggle to solve a mystery. Members of an expedition to Mayan ruins start dying mysteriously. It turns out that an evil scientist has created a devastating weapon of mass destruction. Captain America must find out the identity of the mad scientist and put a stop to his terrible schemes.
The fifteen Captain America episodes were shown every Saturday between April 12 and July 19, a new one each week. The episodes had dramatic titles: “The Purple Death,” “Mechanical Executioner,” “The Scarlet Shroud,” “Preview of Murder,” “Blade of Wrath,” “Vault of Vengeance,” “Wholesale Destruction,” “Cremation in the Clouds,” “Triple Tragedy,” “The Avenging Corpse,” “The Dead Man Returns,” “Horror on the Highway,” “Skyscraper Plunge,” “The Scarab Strikes” and “The Toll of Doom.” Accompanying films were mainly westerns such as “Saratoga Trunk,” “Pride of the Plains,” “Carson City Cyclone” and comedies like “Road to Utopia,” “Vacation from Marriage,” and “The Bride Wore Boots.” After the last episode of Captain America, “The Toll of Doom” played on July 19, the theater began showing the “King of the Forest Rangers” serial.
Ownership of the Liberty Theater changed hands many times over the years. The Liberty became known as the Olympic in 1949. Facing more competition, it closed in 1982. In 1985, the theater was almost completely rebuilt to be the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Still in operation, the Center hosts events, plays, concerts and other performances.
Captain America, in the meantime has made countless appearances in comic books and other media. Thawing out in 1964 to join the Avengers superhero team, he has since appeared in many films and TV shows. Now played by Chris Evans, Captain America’s continuing popularity shows the importance of both superheroes in American culture and theaters as centers of public entertainment.