McSwain Theatre offers treasured history of American entertainment

ADA, Okla. - Like a sentinel standing at the corner of Main and Townsend Streets for a century, the grand McSwain Theatre and the community it serves have experienced many changes. However, the original mission continues - to provide quality family friendly entertainment.

Longtime Ada resident Billie Floyd has witnessed many of those changes — from childhood memories of performing on the iconic stage, to 15-cent movie admission and Saturday date nights. She is considered an authority on Ada history.

Through all the changes, renovations and social issues, she said, one constant remains.

“The McSwain is the entertainment center of Ada,” Ms. Floyd, 90, said.

“The McSwain has been the thread that has remained during Oklahoma and Ada’s history.”

1920s
Opened by Foster McSwain shortly after the end of World War I, the McSwain Theatre was built to host vaudeville shows. Popular from the mid-1890s until the early 1930s, vaudeville shows featured magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers and dancers.

The March 30, 1920 issue of the Ada Evening News anticipated the opening of a “splendid theater.”

In advance of its opening, the local chamber of commerce planned “to sell the house at fancy prices on the opening date in appreciation of Mr. McSwain and his accomplishment,” according to the July 13,1920 Ada Evening News.

The initial grand plans were postponed because a “first class road show” could not be booked at that time of year.

Instead, the silent film “Suds” starring Mary Pickford was the first movie screened and the first event hosted at the McSwain when it opened July 19, 1920.

Through the years, many vaudeville shows were booked at the McSwain. Ticket prices ranged BILLIE FLOYD from 15 to 25 cents for adults.

1930s
In 1939 Ms. Floyd was in junior high school. She packed a lunch and rode her bicycle a few blocks from her home to the McSwain.

She parked her bike in racks in front of the theatre, under the blazing marquee which announced the screening of the soon-to-be movie classic “Gone With The Wind.”

As usual, she bought her ticket and waited for the movie to start.

“After you bought your ticket, you weren’t allowed to enter the theater until the previous showing had ended, and you had to be there before the movie started, or you could not be seated and you would miss the movie,” she said.

Movie patrons, dressed in their best attire, sat in the plush mezzanine and waited for the movie to begin.

McSwain ushers pierced the darkness of the theatre with flashlights and escorted movie goers to their red velvet seats.

Cartoons and weekly news reels were shown prior to every movie.

“There were no private telephones, and not that many newspapers,” Ms. Floyd said. “The news reels brought you up to date on what was going on.”

“Gone With The Wind” runs nearly four hours. An intermission was needed so the projectionist could change the massive reels of film.

For Ms. Floyd, intermission provided a chance to have a snack.

“I watched the first half of the movie and during intermission I went outside and ate my sandwich,” she said. “Then, I went back into the theatre and watched the second half of the movie.”

She went outside, she said, because food and drinks were not allowed in the theatre.

Movie serials like “Green Hornet” kept crowds returning to the McSwain each week. Mr. McSwain’s giveaway promotions, including coffee pots, frying pans, dinner plates and televisions, were also a draw. “On the night of the drawing, there was always a huge crowd,” Ms. Floyd said. “It was an event.”

Before a 1935 renovation, McSwain dressing rooms were located below the stage near the orchestra pit. Ms. Floyd remembers participating in a recital at the McSwain when she was in grade school.

“I remember running up and down the stairs to change during that recital,” she chuckled.

The McSwain’s climate was controlled by two large water coolers installed above each side of the stage. “It was touted as cool and comfortable, no one had air conditioning at the time.”

McSwain Theatre - Home to the Stars
Through the decades, the McSwain hosted big-name stars in a variety of movie premiers and special appearances.

Gene Autry, the famous “Singing Cowboy,” came to the McSwain in the 1930s, as did Will Rogers, in 1931.

In 1941 the Ada Kiwanis Club produced the movie “West of Ahloso” and had the premier at the McSwain. The event drew the entire town and featured a parade along Main Street.

“The whole town was there,” Ms. Floyd said.

The 1949 premier of “Tulsa” was also a McSwain exclusive and a gala event in Ada.

Starring Robert Preston and Susan Hayward, the movie was filmed at Turner Ranch, near Roff, Okla. Owned by former Oklahoma Gov. Roy J. Turner, the ranch was known worldwide as “Hereford Heaven.” Co-star Susan Hayward stayed at the Aldridge Hotel in Ada during filming, Ms. Floyd said, and several local college students worked as extras in the movie.

Another sold out event was the 1946 world premier for “Home In Oklahoma,” starring Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes and Dales Evans. All the movie’s stars attended the McSwain premier.

The McSwain Theatre and the nearby Ritz Theatre, which was opened for overflow crowds, were sold out, Ms. Floyd said.

In 1991, the McSwain was purchased by Paul Alford, who coverted the theatre into a live music venue, providing a place for rising stars to hone their crafts.

McSwain endured through tough times
Through the decades, the McSwain endured war, health crises and inclement weather.

Ms. Floyd remembers the polio epidemic of the early 1950s as a time when local swimming pools were closed and children were not allowed inside theaters, including the McSwain.

“Children did not go play with other children, as polio was transmitted from person to person,” she said. During the World War II years, American men marched off to war, women took jobs, and items were rationed. Stamps were issued to purchase essential items like shoes, gasoline, sugar and flour.

“People complained a little but they did it,” Ms. Floyd said. “Everyone felt it was their duty as an American.”

The Salk vaccine, made available in the U.S. in 1955, has since virtually eliminated the disease throughout the world.

Since its renovation and 2010 reopening, visiting the McSwain Theatre is like stepping back into old Hollywood opulence. Crystal chandeliers and the massive red velvet curtain harken back to a time when visiting the theatre was the highlight of the week. Since the theatre has been owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation, the McSwain has continued offering musical acts, family-friendly movies and children’s show.

Chickasaw Nation Executive Officer Lona Barrick said the McSwain’s legacy is forever intertwined in local history.

“When you look at the history of Ada and how its grown, the McSwain has grown right along with the city of Ada,” Ms. Barrick said. “In so many ways, it has shown how Ada has had good times and harder times, and has overcome it all.”

Although the McSwain is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, soon the marquee glow, the curtain will rise, and the show will go on.

For more information about the McSwain Theatre, visit McSwainTheatre.com.