The Robinson Grand Theater first opened its doors on February 7, 1913. The theater was built by the Clarksburg Amusement Company, a corporation formed in 1912 by Robert Lafferty, president, Claude Robinson, vice-president, Charles Alexander, secretary-treasurer and Reuben Robinson, manager.
Brothers Claude and Reuben “Rube” Robinson, originally from Louisville, Kentucky, had been involved in the theater business from a young age. Claude began his career selling programs in the Macauley Theater in Louisville for $1 a week. At age 16, he moved to New Orleans for employment as treasurer to two theaters and ten years later, moved to New York and managed in succession the Grand Opera House, Liberty and New Amsterdam theaters. Less is known about Rube’s life, but by 1907, he was boarding at the Waldo Hotel and working as the manager of the Grand Opera House in Clarksburg. A 1927 newspaper article noted that the Traders Grand Opera House had been destroyed by fire around 1910, leaving the city with no large venue for shows. It appears that Rube recognized the opportunity in a town that was “show hungry.” He convinced Claude, who at the time was living in New York and managing the New Amsterdam Theater, to invest in a new theater in Clarksburg. Claude moved with his wife Carolyn and young daughter Dorothy to West Virginia. Rube was also founder and president of the Wheeling Bill Posting Company (later the Ohio Valley Advertising Company); soon after the Robinson Grand was opened, Rube shifted his focus to his advertising business and left the theater’s management to Claude.
The original 1913 theater structure sat 72 feet from the street and had a covered walkway leading to its front door. Its architects were Robert Lafferty, also the president of the Clarksburg Amusement Company and Ernest C. Holmboe. One source states that it was an exact replica of the George M. Cohan Theater in New York City (no longer extant.) The Robinson brothers recommended construction of a large stage 60’ wide by 36’, reasoning that the house could be more easily enlarged in the future if more seats were needed, whereas enlarging the stage would be difficult. One of the few photographs of this theater depicts the substantial entryway opening onto the street from the covered walkway. The entryway was a segmental arch parapet with globe lights and a small upright marquee with the name “Grand” and three lines for listing current shows. The entryway was flanked by a structure containing a ticket booth and a wall containing poster display cases. Trees are visible behind the entryway, indicating open space on the lot in front of the theater building. The first show presented in the Robinson Grand was “The Case of Becky” starring Frances Starr on February 7, 1913. The Grand was part of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit and hosted famous acts such as ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with Charlie, Jack Benny and Amos and Andy.
Lafferty and Holmboe designed a number of landmark buildings throughout West Virginia, including Cottrill’s Opera House in Tucker County, the Morgan County courthouse, and many schools. Holmboe was an immigrant from Denmark and a graduate of the Chicago Art and Polytechnic Institute. Lafferty was born in Wheeling in 1880. The two established their architectural practice in Marietta, Ohio in 1900, then relocated to Clarksburg the following year. Around 1920, Lafferty departed for New York City, where he continued his work as an architect. Holmboe continued working in Clarksburg for a number of years, taking on his son Leo as draftsman and Guy M. Pogue as a partner.
The Robinson Grand was significantly enlarged and remodeled in 1927 with Holmboe as architect. That same year, it was the 13th movie theater in the United States to install sound equipment and start showing “talkies”; Claude’s friendship with Albert Warner of Warner Brothers gave him early access to the new technology. Local press coverage described the reconstructed theater in great detail, from the color schemes of the restrooms to the acoustics to the size of the seats. The building was extended to the street to fill the lot and a large canopy marquee was installed with a blade broadcasting the name “Keith Grand/ Vaudeville/Feature Pictures.” Seating capacity was increased from 1,000 to 1,500. The exterior façade was Neo-Gothic in style, with a prominent trio of Gothic arched windows above the marquee, and a modular vertical buttress effect achieved with terra cotta pilasters and finials. At the ground floor level, the main entrance was marked by a wide Tudor arch and decorative terra cotta details including trefoil arches and foliage panels and coffers. Narrow window panes with Moorish arch frames extended across the storefront transoms. The structure was built of concrete, brick and steel.
The 1927 interior of the Robinson Grand reflected the contemporary trend of elaborately themed “atmospheric” theaters (although it does not appear as though it had the characteristic starry sky ceiling.) The interior decoration was extravagantly done in a 9th century English garden-inspired theme, with murals painted in the house to look like stone walls, trees, flowers, hillsides and distant castles. J.H. Wickstead and William G. Schulte of Louisville, KY were the interior decorators; little biographical information was found regarding these men other than confirmation in the United States Census of their occupations and residency in Louisville. The lounge on the mezzanine level was described as “Old English” in style, “just like those quaint, cozy rooms on [sic] the English manor houses” with a large wood-burning fireplace, family crest and rose and green plasterwork on the walls. The newspaper article also described “decorative work made to resemble a huge log” that overlooked the lobby and contained flowers that “nod welcome as one gazes out through the archways and through the well hole and foyer below.” The theater was still associated with the Keith vaudeville circuit, although by the late 1920s, vaudeville acts had become interludes between the main attraction of motion pictures.
Tragedy struck the Robinson Grand on May 31, 1939 when a fire broke out on the roof of the building. It was surmised that the flame from an air-conditioning repairman’s torch ignited the structure and drought conditions exacerbated the spread of the fire. The fire destroyed most of the stage and house, yet left the front part of the building, including the façade, largely intact. Claude Robinson promised the residents of Clarksburg that he would rebuild the most modern theater in the state, and by December 24 of 1939, less than 7 months after the fire, the Robinson Grand reopened. The reopening, which the theater presented as its “Christmas gift to Clarksburg,” was much lauded by the press, and received page upon page of congratulatory ads from the contractors and suppliers involved in its reconstruction.
The 1939 version of the theater, which still stands today, retained the 1927 façade, but added an entirely new house and stage in the Streamline Moderne style. The architect of the 1939 reconstruction was Edward J. Wood of Clarksburg. The dominant aesthetic of the interior was curvilinear wall surfaces covered in a thin light-stained wood veneer. The proscenium consisted of large floor-to-ceiling curved pilasters connected to even larger pilasters at the front of the house via a shallow slanting recessed wall. Similar vertical elements were echoed in the lobby. The balcony railing, another important architectural element, was a solid horizontally-oriented wall with curved steps both at the top and soffit delineating the changing elevations in the balcony. The mezzanine level featured an open well into the lobby below with a large modern circular chandelier inspired by a 1930s-era microphone. Light fixtures in the main auditorium and other public areas consisted of uplights placed in large circular saucer-like ceiling recesses that reflected light back down into the spaces.
The Robinson Grand continued showing movies through the 1980s, and played host to local events including plays, concerts and dance recitals. A perusal of the Facebook social media page “You know you’re from Clarksburg, WV when…” yields hundreds of memories and anecdotes about the important role of the theater in the community. Local residents fondly recall seeing popular movies at the theater for prices ranging from 17 to 25 cents, and their first jobs as ticket takers, ushers, clean-up crew and painters. The Robinson Grand was where many first saw cinematic classics such as Star Wars, Jaws and the Sound of Music. Some recall lines stretching down the block. After decades as proprietor of the Robinson Grand, Claude was a beloved pillar of the community. He was greatly mourned when he died in 1948; the local newspaper editorial called him “probably the best-known, best-liked theatrical man who ever came to Clarksburg or operated in this state, and … one of the most popular.” The theater also employed Madge Douds, a local fixture who began working there in the 1920s and remained manager through the 1970s, and Stuart Felts, an usher remembered fondly by many.
By the 1980s, the Robinson Grand was feeling pressure from suburban multiplexes. The building was purchased in 1984 by James LaRosa, who remodeled the interior and renamed it the Rose Garden Theater. The interior today retains many aspects of this remodel, including wallpaper in the lobby, mezzanine and restrooms, enclosure of the mezzanine overlook, and mirrored panels in the lobby. Usage of the theater continued to steadily decline until it sat largely vacant. The building was acquired by the City of Clarksburg in 2014.
(By Courtney Fint Zimmerman, Aurora Research Associates LLC)