The Jewel Box Theater located at 321 NW 36th St, Oklahoma City, OK 73118, has been operating under various names and incarnations since 1894. Its original incarnation was a vaudeville house. But this city’s history with live entertainment has only just begun with its most recent name change: It became an arcade in the late 1930s, a movie theater in the early 1950s, and a beloved community theater under its current moniker – The Jewel Box Theatre – by popular demand in 2011. The Jewel Box is located just north of downtown Oklahoma City near N. Rock Road and Broadway Avenue; it sits on the northeast corner of that intersection. It sits across from one of OKC’s most famous landmarks: the Biltmore Hotel. The Biltmore, which opened in 1901 as part of the first phase of renowned architect George F. Harding’s plan to transform that section of the city into his own personal showcase, inspired many writers over the years and has become even more so since undergoing major renovations less than two years ago.
The Jewel Box Theatre is the oldest operating theatre in America. Its history dates back to 1894, when the newly renovated Oklahoma City Auditorium hosted vaudeville acts for the first time. The building would later be known as the Oklahoma Theatre and the Arizona Theatre, before creating the name Oklahoma Theatre under which it still operates today. During the Oklahoma Theatre’s first year of operation, it saw something remarkably new: a film called “Dr. Devil and His Merry Devils” was screened. This was America’s first public screening of film. The Oklahoma Theatre was so captivated by the magic of film they became the first theatre in America to convert to movie operations. The Oklahoma Theatre was also the first place to convert to a fully-equipped movie theatre. In addition to screenings, the Oklahoma Theatre’s auditorium also welcomed vaudeville, opera and minstrel shows.
The first incarnation of the Oklahoma Theatre was a vaudeville house, which means it primarily featured live performances. Unlike movie theatres, vaudeville houses were not equipped to show films. And, unlike movie theatres, they were not licensed to sell alcohol. It is important to note that Oklahoma City was already home to two other vaudeville houses at the time the Oklahoma Theatre opened. This is significant because the state of Oklahoma was among the final few to embrace vaudeville as America’s premier form of live entertainment. Vaudeville was a popular entertainment style during the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily featuring song, dance and comedy performances. It was a sensation among American audiences – going so far as to be referred to by newspapers as “the national obsession” – but it was a far cry from mainstream success at the time.
The Oklahoma Theatre converted to a movie theatre under the new name the Arizona Theatre in 1926. A year later, it became the Jewel Box and began screening two films a day. Once again, it was the first theatre in Oklahoma City to begin screening movies. In 1931, the Jewel Box – now playing talkies – moved to a larger space at the corner of Western Avenue and N. Rock Road, where it was an arcade until the late 1960s. The place was even called the Jewel Box Theatre in the mid-to-late 1930s. During these years, the Jewel Box showed a variety of films, including newsreels, shorts, cartoons, biographical films and other genres. Through the years, it continued to screen talkies and also began to show foreign films.