The LaPorte Theatre opened in 1923 with a live orchestra — and “The Mighty Wurlitzer”

The LaPorte Theatre on Lincolnway opened in 1923 and was razed in 1977. It stood in the block where Wells Fargo Bank is now, at the corner of Lincolnway and Jackson. (Photo courtesy of LaPorte LIVE)

The “Mighty Wurlitzer,” an original instrument at the LaPorte Theatre, was eventually relocated to an Indianapolis school, according to historic accounts. (Photo provided)

 By Fern Eddy Schultz, LaPorte County Historian

(Click on photos to enlarge)

How often we hear comments about the loss of the LaPorte Theatre!

The theatre’s grand opening (as a moving-picture and playhouse) was July 23, 1923.

LaPorte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

One of the LaPorte Theatre’s original features was the LaPorte Theatre Grand Concert Orchestra, a 10-piece live orchestra. It was under the direction of Howard Barbour, who had years of experience with vaudeville and picture house orchestras. The orchestra consisted of a pianist, two violinists, a cellist, a bass horn player, a flutist, and players of the clarinet, cornet, trombone and drums.

Historic information also indicates that the theatre’s opening included the introduction of Erma Gale Meredith as the “staff” theatre organist. However, at the grand opening, there was a special demonstration by Ambrose J. Larson of the Wurlitzer Company, who played the theatre’s Wurlitzer-Hope-Jones Unit organ. This was the same model of organ as used in the Chicago, Tivoli and McVicker theaters in Chicago.

An amazing amount of advertising was published in the local newspapers about the

LaPorte Theatre organist Erma Gale Meredith

LaPorte Theatre’s opening. All during the period from its opening to the time the organ was no longer used, theatre advertisements were published daily. Throughout the entire period, no mention is made of Erma Meredith as the “staff” organist other than the opening announcement. She did, however, continue to reside in LaPorte at various addresses and was always recorded as “theatre organist.”

As guest organists appeared, their performances were highly advertised. Larson returned in November 1923. In 1927, it was noted that the “musical setting” was arranged by a new musical director and new organist, but no names were published. In 1928, Lyman Wood was featured and continued throughout the month of July. Throughout the entire time the LaPorte Theatre was in existence, a column entitled “Theatres” appeared in the local newspaper. However, only one time was there any information regarding the organist and that was in November 1928, when Ralph Waldo Emerson (the country’s greatest organist-entertainer) was scheduled to play favorites and requests.

In 1927, it was reported that an “amazing event occurred” that would forever change the face of American theater and the future of the theater pipe organ. In a film called “The Jazz Singer,” Al Jolson spoke and sang. This movie was not shown in LaPorte until 1929, and was preceded by “LaPorte’s vitaphones all talking” picture called “Desert Song,” which debuted July 4, 1929.  

The Wurlitzer Organ, although still in the LaPorte Theatre when it celebrated its 20th year, was available but not used by then.

Demolition of the theatre began Monday, December 5, 1977.

In 2004, Carlton Smith, who owned a company in Indianapolis at that time that specialized in restoration of pipe organs, reported that the LaPorte Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer was sold in the mid 1960s to a music store in Anderson, IN, which installed it as a concert instrument. Many recitals were given on it as a way of promoting the sale of new Wurlitzer electronic organs. Mr. Smith was a member of the theatre organ society in Indianapolis. By the 1970s, the organ was not being used and Mr. Smith’s organization purchased it. He indicated that it had never been altered in any way and that his group would always retain ownership. His group installed these instruments in theatres, and often in new high school auditoriums. He noted that was what they were going to do with the LaPorte organ — restore it and install it in a new high school auditorium in Indianapolis.

As for Erma Gale Meredith, at the time her father died in 1940, she was residing in Egypt and later in Idaho with a sister. Her married name was Hopkins and she died in Los Angeles in 1981. From all of the research done, it has been difficult to connect Erma to the LaPorte Theatre. Although the theatre organist was a very important position, it, along with the projectionist, was not publicized. The only publicity came when a guest organist appeared.

The LaPorte Theatre’s projectionist was not recognized until 1956, after working at the theatre 31 years: Floyd Barnett started at the theatre two years after its opening in 1923. When interviewed, he reminisced about the “organ in the orchestra pit in front of the stage where they played mood music for the silent pictures.”

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is LaPorte County’s official Historian. To learn more about our fascinating local history, visit the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum and its website, www.laportecountyhistory.org.

9 Responses to “The LaPorte Theatre opened in 1923 with a live orchestra — and “The Mighty Wurlitzer””

  1. bob

    Jul 29. 2017

    my first date with a girl was at LaPorte Theater , many years ago .

    Reply to this comment
  2. Keith Hyatte

    Jul 29. 2017

    I worked as an usher at the La Porte Theater in the late 60’s. I had the chance to roam the entire place. It had a gorgeous stage house with a hemp counterweight fly system, three floors of dressing rooms SL and SR, trap room and light board. La Porte lost a gem when they allowed it to be demolished. Someone should have stepped forward with some cash to save it. Imagine the road shows that could play there today? I am sad that there is not more information about the history of the theater, who designed it, who played it, and who allowed it to fall into disrepair to ultimately be destroyed. La Porte could have had a destination road house if only it had been saved. All that remains is a grass covered lot. What a shame!

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  3. ILUVLP

    Jul 29. 2017

    Another great LP history lesson. Thanks Fern.
    I remember going to that theater as a kid and watching the first Planet of the Apes movie, True Grit, Billy Jack, and some creepy movie called “Equinox” just to name a few.
    I will never forget the bats flying around inside the theater and rain pouring in from the failing roof. I remember the concession area and the drink machine that had the cup drop down, then the crushed ice, and then your drink selection. My dad would take us three boys and our friends there, so he could get some sleep. We would sit behind him and toss Milk Duds at him whenever he started snoring. LOL.
    Great times. Great era.
    Thanks for the memories.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Bob Seaman

    Jul 29. 2017

    What a nice place to see your favorite movie, and where in the late 50s could you go see a movie and a box of popcorn for .25 cents. Those were the good times and the sweet memories we all have.

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  5. BJWL

    Jul 29. 2017

    When were the Roxie Theater and the Fox Theater in existence? Was the Roxie where the Heritage Building parking lot is now and the other in the front of the now Heritage Building? I remember going to the show with my parents in all three theaters. Wonderful memories. Wasn’t the LaPorte Pharmacy in the east corner of the LaPorte Theater building at one time?

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  6. Susan Getz

    Jul 29. 2017

    My dad Ted Getz also worked at the LaPorte Theater with “Barney”. My sisters have happy memories of dad being projectionist there,as do I. He also worked at the Roxy,Fox, and the Deluxe Drive-in. He worked at every theater around including: Two-Twelve,Comet, Tivoli ,Lido,Dunes Plaza. He retired from The Marquette after 56 years of being a projectionist. Many people will remember that. Those were good times.

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  7. Maurice Levine

    Jul 30. 2017

    The La Porte Theatre was a huge project when it was built, in many ways a multi-use building, with 20 apartments, a 30 room hotel, 6 small and 1 large retail stores and the 1700 seat theatre for silent movies and stage shows. It was designed by a famous architect who designed some of Chicago’s movie palaces. To finance the project the founders sold $400,000 in stock to residents of La Porte. It was financially successful in the 1920’s, but lost money during the depression of the 30’s, then became successful in 40’s & 50’s, but suffered in the 60’s due to competition from outdoor theaters, television and eventually complexes with multi-screens and big parking lots. The property was sold to the La Porte Bank, now Wells Fargo, because there was no hope of ever restoring it to its former magnificence. I know, because my grandfather, Morris Levine, was one of the founders and I was responsible to the stockholders, in 1975, who would have lost all of their investment if we had not sold the property. It was a sad, but necessary decision. If you want to see more of how grand the La Porte Theatre was, go to the La Porte County Museum. They have a fine display of many of the artifacts that we were able to save.

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  8. gobnaitx

    Jul 31. 2017

    The Wurlitzer apparently lives on in a church in Switzerland, fully restored to its original condition! Here’s the website (in English), along with some photos. It’s wonderful that it has been restored but it’s a shame it’s so far away from its original home.

    https://www.wurlitzerorgel.ch/english/

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  9. TC

    Jul 31. 2017

    I have fond memories of going to the movies there as a kid. I know someone who grew up in one of the apartments in the 50’s. They report that the apartments slid into decline due to lack of needed upkeep. But it was certainly grand in its heyday.

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