Bell Theater

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The Bell Theater in 1922

Photo Credit: "Theater Outgrows Its Building," New Orleans Times Picayune, August 6, 1922

Contributors

The Bell Theater was originally located at Bell and Dorgenois Streets, where it operated between 1914 and 1921. In the early years, the theater served not only as an entertainment venue, but was frequently the location of community organizing meetings and large-scale fundraisers for non-profit organizations. In 1922, the second location of the Bell Theater opened at 2800 Grand Route St. John in the Mid-City neighborhood, near Bayou St John and the City Park Fairgrounds. Lauded for its solid construction and unique interior, the new Bell was the largest theater “north of Canal Street,” and brought the grandeur of the downtown theater to the expanding suburbs. [1]

The Original Bell

The Bell Theater was originally located at Bell and Dorgenois Streets, where it operated between 1914-1921. In addition to weekly vaudeville shows and films, the Bell hosted fundraisers and was regularly the location of community organizing meetings. Owner and manager William Junqua was active in the Seventh Ward Improvement Association, a non-profit corporation incorporated in 1905 with the mission of improving the conditions of the ward including streets, lighting, water, and health. The association was part of a collection of “clean-up clubs” formed for most wards the early part of the 20th century. [2] . Between 1915-1920, the Bell was frequently the location for the Seventh Ward Improvement Association “mass meeting,” where residents and the general public were invited to attend and share their views. [3] Mr. Junqua frequently offered the use of the Bell free of charge for the staging of entertainment fundraisers. On January 21, 1914, the Seventh Ward Improvement Association put on a “monster vaudeville showcase and motion picture,” to raise money for the construction of a building for their headquarters. [4]

Early Films shown at the Bell included Universal Pictures’ “The Master Key” [5] , and “Trey O’ Hearts” Series in 1914-15. [6]

The Second Bell

After closing the original location, proprietor William Junqua reopened the Bell in August of 1922 at 2800 Grand Route St. John at Gentilly Boulevard, near Bayou St. John and only four blocks from the City Park Fairgrounds. With 1,100 seats, the new location was the largest suburban theater in the city, and quickly became one of the most successful. At the opening performance, over 2,000 people “applied for admittance,” and capacity houses were reported every night for the first two weeks. The popularity of the theater prompted Junqua to begin the process of adding an 800-seat balcony to accommodate growing crowds and presumably to increase the theater’s earning potential. [7]

Constructing the Bell

Early into its new life, the Bell was lauded as “the most pleasing and artistic auditorium to be found in any suburban theater of the city.” Despite its size, it was described as “simple and dignified, achieving an atmosphere of intimacy and hominess.” A Times-Picayune article from August 6, 1922, spends a great deal of time describing the architectural and engineering prowess of the new theater, including its solid construction and unique Dutch-style interior. [8]

The theater was designed and built by general contractor J.W. Fleetman of New Orleans and cost an estimated $18,000 [9] , the equivalent of about $247,000 today, accounting for inflation. The exterior was a large, wood frame structure that reportedly used the “largest footings in any structure of the size in New Orleans.” The “effective” exterior was painted bright white and the windows covered with alternating blue and green glaze. A red tiled promenade led to the the low steps of the entrance. [10]

Inside, the theater was unique, and ornamented in the Dutch style, including Cyprus wood paneling and handmade chairs. [11] The early success of the theater can be credited in part to the “comfort and coolness” of the its interior provided by a complete ventilation system. Record-breaking crowds flocked to the theater to escape the August heat. [12]

Legal Trouble and Burglaries

In November of 1923, Skidmore Music Publishing of New York sued William Junqua, proprietor and general manager of the Bell, for $250 and presented him with an injunction to keep the Bell’s musicians from playing “Yes We Have No Bananas,” charging a violation of copyright [13]

In November of 1933, The Bell made the front page of the TImes Picayune when it was robbed by a “masked bandit,” who forced the female theater manager, Miss Elodie M. Junqua, and her mother to lie face down in the cashier’s cage. The robber escaped in a stolen car with two accomplices and $10 cash. [14] The theater was robbed again in 1956. This time, two armed robbers entered the theater with a loaded shotgun and demanded cash from the ticket agents. They escaped with $137 but were apprehended only four minutes later by New Orleans Police. [15]

End of The Bell Theater

On April 9, 1966 the Bell Theater was destroyed in a fire that began in the roof and quickly spread through the entire building. According to newspaper reports, the blaze began around 9:55 a.m. and the roof collapsed at 10:20, injuring one firefighter. The fire caused the evacuation of 30 homes in the neighborhood, and an estimated $100,000 in damages to the theater and surrounding homes. [16] The Bell was never reopened and the former location is currently and office building.

Works Cited

  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” New Orleans Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Clean Up Clubs Still Forming,” Times Picayune, July 28, 1905, 11.
  • “Better Gas And More Cars Are Demanded Seventh Ward Citizens Appoint Committees to Work for Improvements,” TImes Picayune, February 19, 1918, 14.
  • “Tenth Precinct Improvement Club of the Seventh Ward,”TImes Picayune, January 11, 1914
  • “Coming Entertainments,” Times Picayune, Dec 6, 1914, 56.
  • “Coming Entertainments,” TImes Picayune, December 21, 1914, 19.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Bell Playhouse Setting Records,” Times Picayune, August 6, 1922, 2.
  • “Musicians Twist Banana Song; 30 Suits Result,” TImes Picayune, November 22, 1923,3.
  • “Gunman Takes $10 and Escapes with Two Companions,” TImes Picayune November 22, 1933, 1.
  • “Theater Robbery Suspect is Captured in Four Minutes,” TImes Picayune, September 14, 1956, 1.
  • “Fire Destroys Theater,” TImes Picayune, April 10, 1966, 6.

This page was last modified on 25 February 2013, at 01:56

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Bell Theater

2800 Grand Route St. John, New Orleans, LA