On December 20, 1928, just a few days before Christmas, the sidewalks of the Newark, Ohio Town Square were filled with shoppers in search of last-minute gifts. Amidst all the hustle and bustle, on North Park Place there was a line of people – hundreds of them – people standing in place for hours, or, according to an account in the local paper, paying young boys to stand there for them. They braved the elements so that they could be the first to get a glimpse of Newark’s newest entertainment establishment.
Finally, at 6:30 PM, the doors opened, and the excited throng filed inside. A half hour later, the Mammoth Moller organ rose from the floor, and house organist Helen D. Longfellow joined the orchestra in a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The silver curtain opened, revealing a suspended American flag. Newark Mayor Robbins Hunter welcomed everyone, and then the show at long last was underway. The opening was a hit! The paper said that a "splendid program was arranged." It began with a "colored art film, showing the American Indian and many scenic spots in the West." Two vaudeville acts were followed by "The Shopworn Angel" starring up-and-coming actor Gary Cooper. One of the Vaudeville acts was the Columbia Quartet, which the review called…"four boys who sing a lot and chatter a bit. The voices are well-harmonized and they took several encores." The review of Cooper’s performance was less flattering: "Gary Cooper is not the dominate lad he usually is…."
(By the way, the movies on December 20 were silents, but only a week later, the theater played a talking picture called “Manhattan Cocktail” – the first time a sound movie played in Newark!)
But the action on stage and screen was only half the show. What the first-nighters really wanted to see was the magnificent Midland interior...and on this score, they are not disappointed. Passing through the lobby and foyer, the customers marveled at the marble pillars and atmospheric design of the ceiling. Once seated in plush upholstered chairs, they took in the unique Spanish architecture. Everywhere you looked, there was velvet – red velvet carpeting, walls draped with rose velvet and gold fringe, velvet rails on the stairways and orchestra pit. Even the balcony was trimmed with lace. And suspended from the ceiling, a beautiful art glass chandelier. This was the setting in which audiences on the evening of December 20, 1928 – and thousands of audiences on thousands of evenings thereafter – experienced The Midland’s many offerings.
The Golden Era
Over five decades, The Midland Theatre played all the great movies from the golden years of Hollywood. From “Gone With the Wind”, to “Ben Hur”, to “Dr. Zhivago”, audiences counted on The Midland to provide a steady and ever-changing supply of films, and The Midland never disappointed. You know how sometimes you want to see a movie that premiered only a couple weeks ago, and you check the local theater listings, only to find it’s not even showing anymore? Well, back in The Midland’s heyday, if it was showing a movie you wanted to see, it didn’t pay to drag your feet … the program changed every three days! Of course, back then, in those ancient days before television, people would go to the movies two or three times a week, so such rapid turnover was not only welcome, it was expected. But while speed was a necessity, patience was also a virtue. Unlike today, when the latest big-budget blockbuster opens in 3,000 multiplexes nationwide on the same day, movies slowly worked their way around the country, a few cities at a time. That meant that while “Gone With the Wind” premiered in New York and L.A. in December of 1939, Newark residents didn’t get to hear Rhett tell Scarlett that frankly, he didn’t give a darn until December of 1941, when The Midland finally held its gala premiere! (And you think it’s a long wait for a movie to come on video!)
The Midland wasn’t just about Technicolor epics and other movies for the grown-up crowd, however. On Saturday afternoons, the parking spaces outside The Midland were littered with bicycles, as inside, the theater was packed with youngsters eager to fill up on candy and soda, catch the latest Tarzan picture or Superman cartoon, and most importantly, to see just how Flash Gordon would escape the latest nefarious trap set by Ming the Merciless. Saturday afternoons at The Midland was a rite of passage for thousands of boys and girls growing up in Newark.
Besides movies, live acts were also an important part of The Midland’s standard program. Over the decades, the theatre welcomed some of the era’s top performers, such as Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and the Russian Ballet. Admittedly, the talent wasn’t always top-flight… for instance, some of the first performers at The Midland included such lesser lights as “Rube Fuzzington and His Rustic Revelers”, “Andre’s Flashes of 1928”, “’Noodles’ Fagan and Mary”, and “The Famous Siamese Twins, Louis and LaVar”. Still, the live acts, whether well-known or obscure, always provided a little something extra for the customer’s entertainment dollar.
Darkness Falls on The Theatre
In 1978, The Midland Theatre, showing increasing decay and decreasing attendance, closed. A power outage during the "Blizzard of '78" caused the boilers to freeze and crack, sealing the theatre's fate.
For 14 years, The Midland stood unused. The splendor of the architecture had faded, and deterioration continued unabated. Talk arose of demolishing the once-proud theatre, now an eyesore and a hazard. All that remained was the shell of The Midland’s former glory...and the memories.
Then, in 1992, Dave Longaberger and The Longaberger Company purchased The Midland. As a tribute to Dave's vision, The company undertook an 8-year, $8.5 million renovation and restoration of The Midland. Longaberger had no desire to operate the theatre, instead entrusting the property to The Newark Midland Theatre Association, a local volunteer, non-profit organization.
When the construction crew started the task of renovating The Midland, its roof was gone, and the orchestra pit and lower part of the auditorium was filled with rain water and debris. After getting the water out, they built a ramp down into the pit (an appropriate description at the time!), took a front loader down into the mess and started scooping out the pit and then the auditorium.
And here we are in the second golden age. The Midland has been restored, not to its original glory, but well beyond. The opulent detail of the original structure has been maintained, but all of the technical equipment of the theatre is state of the art. A Dolby Surround Sound projection system brings movies to a real big screen with real big sound. The sound system for music and stage presentations is also the latest technology.
The Midland offers programming for every age level, every musical taste, drama and comedy, film and live presentations. We want The Midland to be home to community events. Various community organizations have reserved The Midland, bringing new life to existing programs as well as new entertainment and cultural options for the area.
The community is also called on to restore the excitement to The Midland through their volunteer involvement. Volunteers for ushers, phone calls, ticket takers, office help and any number of tasks are needed. Anyone interested should call 345-LIVE (5483).
In January 1929, The Midland Theatre Company published a message to the people of Newark. The message began, “In the erection of The Midland Theatre building, it really means more than just a well-built playhouse – it is the expression of faith which we have in this community.”