Route 66 in the News

Restored Coleman Captures Drama

2010-03-03 21:31:24

MIAMI, Okla. - Barbara Smith is about to go into a frenzy, but she's trying her utmost best not to show it.

The former theater teacher, now executive director, of the Coleman Theatre in Miami, Okla., is at the beginning of a mystery.

"No one is to take anything from this theater unless they ask me," she said only two minutes earlier in a gentle, yet firm voice to the two kind volunteers who watched. Two teenage boys walked into the lobby of the historic theater on Route 66, told them they were "here to pick up something" for somebody and then later walked out with one of two power packs from the stage area.

On the stage, at the moment hiding a painted pastoral backdrop that is as old as the theater itself, is more chaos as men move items back and forth offstage, wondering what happened to the power pack -- specifically, the power pack that supplies power to the theater's lighting and sound systems. Obviously, they aren't cheap.

Smith flicks a switch on the back of an organ to the left of the stage. This isn't just any organ. It's the "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ, warming up and playing a sweet jewelry-box tune as Smith excuses herself to look for more answers.

Enter stage right, a cop. Cue music.

Through with its lullaby, the Mighty Wurlitzer blasts out the ominous theme to "Phantom of the Opera" as if to prove it still has wind enough to shake the chandelier that hung on opening night in 1929. That organ was there then, and it took a lot of work to get it back, to restore the chandelier and just about everything else in the theater that Mr. Coleman built.

And the crew of the Coleman Theatre today, no doubt, will do just as much to get back that power pack.

Talk about drama in the theater.

Built by George L. Coleman, the theater was completed for an opening on April 18, 1929. Miami, on Route 66, and mining and oil were the big industries once Coleman and others discovered zinc and lead in the surrounding areas, including Picher.

Coleman's success meant he would meet and become great friends with the likes of Bing Crosby. He soon decided that Miami should have a splendid theater of its own like those in Tulsa, which are no longer there.

At a cost of $600,000, he built the theater in a mad dash to finish it as soon as possible. Starting life as a vaudeville venue, its massive stage has been graced by celebrities of the day, such as Will Rogers.

When it became apparent that the "talking pictures" that arrived at about the same time were going to stay, the theater was used as a movie hall with the occasional live event taking place.

It stayed that way for most of its existence and was even purchased by a film house company that did everything to "update" the old house and stripped it of its old-time charm.

The gold leaf trim, plaster moldings, stained glass and other touches with 19th-century appeal were gone, and so was the luster.

Eventually, the movie company abandoned the worn-out theater. In 1989, the Coleman family donated the building to the city of Miami, but the city, Smith said, did not want to be responsible for the renovations that were going to be necessary to fix up the old place.

Instead, a nonprofit organization was formed to see to its restoration -- meaning that individuals from the community would have to come together and solve the problem.

They did, and volunteers raised money to make it possible. Most impressive, they volunteered their time to doing the work to restore it themselves, Smith said.

Today, the building at 103 N. Main St. is a heralded tourist attraction picking up most of its notice from those on Route 66 pilgrimages.

On the National Register of Historic Places, the Coleman Theatre is no longer used primarily as a movie house. It was built as a venue for live entertainment, so live theater and arts have returned.

The organ, which had been sold, was tracked down and repurchased.

The magnificent theater house chandelier had been removed long ago and was discovered years later in a barn minus all the glass and crystals.

And the very identifiable carpet -- the original carpet bore the Coleman family crest and was re-created from a surviving piece -- the stage is back to presenting works.

It's home to Miami Little Theatre shows, recitals, theater organ performances, touring musical productions, ballet, opera, mystery tours, jazz and dance band shows and, as always, remains a popular stop on Route 66.

And just as in the many plays that have danced under the stage lights at the Coleman Theatre, every drama has its conclusion -- yes, the power packs were found.

It was all a misunderstanding. But even to this bit of comedy comes a lesson: The community has the final say in what comes and goes, just as it always has.

~Karen Shade, Tulsa World


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