The marquee of the Rex Theater stands as a reminder of its heyday. The building, with restoration plans ongoing, has attained designation on the National Register of Historic Places (Enterprise/FILE)
VALE – When Thomas and Hanna McElroy opened their new theater in downtown Vale in 1928, they had a success on their hands.
Their Rex Theater opened in what was the Golden Age of films – and they had little competition. The nearest theaters were in Weiser and Baker City.
Then, the theater “was the sole source of entertainment for both the community of Vale and surrounding towns,” according to a historian’s account of the theater.
The last film played in 2006, but the Rex has continued as a venue for community events and now has another distinction.
The building at 240 W. A Street is now on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that will help preserve the building and open the way for funding. The listing was approved by the National Park Service, which runs the register.
The property is owned by Mike McLaughlin and Sandijean Fuson of Vale. He’s the former mayor of Vale and she is an attorney and leader of the separate Drexel Foundation. They didn’t respond to email message seeking comment.
The theater joins other Vale buildings with the historic designation – the Stone House, now a museum; the First Bank of Vale, awaiting restoration, and the original Vale Drug Store, at the northeast corner of Main and A Streets, and the Vale Hotel and Grand Opera House, also facing restoration.
The history of Vale’s theater is traced in an application prepared by an Albany historian to win the national designation.
This, in fact, is Rex II.
Thomas and Hanna McElroy are shown in front of the Rex. They built the structure, which replaced the original theater after it was destroyed by fire in 1922. (Library of Congress)
The original Rex opened on the same site in 1914, described as “one of the finest theaters in the county.”
“The high school play staged for the opening night brought out an audience that filled all the chairs and extended to the gallery and rostrum,” the Enterprise reported at the time.
According to the application, the original Rex “had a 400-seat auditorium with orchestra pit, and a stage area for plays, film, and vaudeville. Movie going at this time was a popular pastime in Vale with local newspapers routinely running advertisements for film showings.”
From the start, the Rex “was utilized for theater entertainment, fundraisers, and community events from the date it was constructed,” according to the application.
Then just after midnight on Friday, Dec. 2, 1922, disaster struck.
Fire tore through the business block, destroying the theater and the Warm Springs Dry Goods Store and damaging the Vale Meat Market and a dance hall.
Otto J. Petrich was the fourth owner of the Rex, buying it just two years before the fire for $7,500, according to the application.
The Malheur Enterprise of Dec. 9, 1922, recounted the fire in a front-page account.
“Mr. Petrich did not lose time in opening his theater. Sunday night he had a portable machine placed in the Diven building and gave a show,” the Enterprise reported.
That same edition of the Enterprise included a report on the town’s firefighting resources by state officials, done before the fire.
Among the recommendations, the city was urged to get an electronic siren.
“The present gong cannot be considered adequate for extreme conditions such as competing with storm, windy weather at night when everyone is sleeping. The failure to arouse firemen promptly should a fire get a start some windy night could easily result in great unnecessary loss,” according the report published in the Enterprise.
The McElroys bought the empty lot in 1924 and launched construction of the new theater in 1926. It opened two years later, a two-story Art Deco building with about 150 seats on the ground floor and another 50 in the balcony. They added the marquee in 1931 and it recently was restored to lighted condition.
The Rex “showed silent movies until the early 1930s when speakies became popular,” according to the application. “Cinema production was especially prolific during the 1930s when thousands of movies were released from Hollywood studios, including classics such as “King Kong,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Gone with the Wind.” During World War II, the Rex provided newsreels and relief in the form of motion picture entertainment.
Competition arrived in 1937, when the Pix Theater opened in downtown Ontario.
The McElroys ran the theater until 1955, selling it for $10 but then having to take back ownership, according to the application. The theater went through more ownership changes until McLaughlin and his wife bought it on Feb. 15, 1990, for $24,000.
They continued showing movies until 2006. The modern digital era had caught up with the historic theater, which was still using 1940s projection equipment.
The theater building has undergone renovations over the years, according to the application, including the replacement of theater seats and the addition of a studio apartment where past owners would stay.
McLaughlin and Fuson are undertaking $110,000 in renovations, including replacing a coal furnace and painting the exterior. The work is being funded in part by a $90,000 grant from the state Parks and Recreation Department.
“Despite these alterations, the building retains its integrity of its 1928-1937 significance but more importantly, the function and use for entertainment and recreation has gone unchanged since 1928,” the application said. “It was constructed as a theater in 1928 and has operated as such to the public for the past 93 years.”
The marquee in 1937 announces “Top of the Town,” a musical comedy that surely was a crowd-pleaser. (Library of Congress)
EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.