In March 1920, a bootlegger from Panama spent $75,000 to build the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Hillsboro.
One hundred years later, the theater is still an iconic building in the downtown area where movie lovers of all ages meet to see the latest flicks.
According to current theater owner Jeff Eisentraut of Hillsboro, Jack “JD” Williams of Panama began construction on the building in the fall of 1919. Williams owned a speakeasy in Panama during the coal mine boom of that era.
“Then Prohibition hit,” Eisentraut said. “Mr. Williams was a prominent bootlegger making his own alcohol and needed a place to spend some of his money. $75,000 went a long way back then.”
At that time, the theater building was two stories, but featured only one movie screen with a balcony.
Eisentraut said Williams owned the business for only six months before selling it to Ed Fellis, the owner of the Opera House, which was also downtown.
He operated it as a movie theater until 1945, when he sold it to Frisina Theaters. It was later sold to Norman Paul of Carlinville in 1975. Paul operated the theater, along with several others in the area, until the 1990s, when he sold it to Gene Dickey, who operated it for a short while.
The Eisentraut family moved to Hillsboro in 2003, when Jeff heard a theater was available in the downtown area. Growing up in the theater business, Eisentraut and his family had previously owned and operated theaters in the Iowa area.
“We had to find Hillsboro on the map,” Eisentraut said with a smile. “We came down in November of 2003 and 30 days later we moved in.”
For a time, Jeff and his wife, Julie, resided in the upstairs apartment of the theater with their four children, Cary, Maddie, Alex and Bailey. Now, not only has their family grown to include spouses and grandkids, they have also added several theaters to the mix throughout the Midwest.
Now, the family is marking a special milestone in the very theater that brought them to town.
To celebrate such a historic event, the Eisentraut family is going to take moviegoers back in time. They will have a special event on Sunday, March 22, which is the day the theater opened 100 years ago.
Tickets for this special event are $.25, and are limited to four per person. The evening will include hors d’ oeuvres, as well as a Vaudeville-type show from the Imagine Hillsboro Theatre Group. Cary Eisentraut will serve as master of ceremonies, with remarks from Jeff Eisentraut and Hillsboro Mayor Brian Sullivan. Eisentraut’s son-in-law, Chris Swed, will also perform card tricks.
Following the Vaudeville show, they will play Pollyanna, which is a silent film, and was one of the first to play at the Orpheum.
Eisentraut said for the first seven years of the theater’s existence, movies were silent.
In addition to the special showing, they have joined the special #ShopHillsboro event that day with The Journal-News, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and Imagine Hillsboro. Patrons who shop and eat downtown that day will have a chance to register for a special prize from the Orpheum, which is one-year season pass for the winner and a guest to the theater.
Businesses will also be encouraged to decorate their shop with a favorite movie theme. The Eisentrauts will pick a winner, and that business will be treated to a special, private screening of that movie.
And while the movies may have changed over the years, the Eisentrauts hope theatergoers still find the same thrill of going to the movies each and every time.
“The thing that has given this theater such longevity is that people tend to remember moments that have happened here,” Eisentraut said. “Maybe they went to their first movie here when they were 15 or had their first date here. People may not remember the exact date, but the theater tends to be a marker in people’s lives.”