The Morris Theatre Cooperative is committed to offering area residents an exceptional moviegoing experience. Our intent is to rehabilitate the current historic Morris Theatre, consistent with its original architecture and decor as designed and built by B.J. Benfield in 1940, and continue the long tradition of bringing first-run movies to our area.
The first theater in Morris was the Orpheum, located where the Radio Shack is today. The Orpheum was built in 1912 as an all-purpose space for lectures, graduations, church choral programs, vaudeville, and the new medium of movies. A 1915 advertisement in the Morris Tribune tempted readers with a production “Direct from the New York Hippodrome. . . Seven realistic reels presenting America.” The ad continued to preview the kinds of sights the audience would enjoy: “farm machinery at work in the fields, cars tumbling down mountainsides, Indian ceremonies, New York street life.” The final exhortation aimed at parents who might suspect the value of such fare: “Bring the children–It will educate and amuse them.”
By the end of the decade, the Orpheum had competition from The Strand theatre, which once stood where Ardelle’s Eatery is now. The Strand was larger, with about 500 seats, but like the Orpheum it was a multi-purpose facility where one day you could hear a lecture on the Temperance Movement and the next day watch Dorothy Dalton star in Guilty of Love: “A Romance of Youth’s Dreams and Womanhood’s Realities” (1921). The Orpheum also was the scene of local graduations and public events.
Competing against each other in the 1920’s, both the Orpheum and the Strand struggled. According to one Morris resident of the ’30’s,
Neither one of them were very prosperous in those days, too much. So Mr. Benfield came to town in the mid 20’s and he I guess had done this before, he bought both theatres, locked up the Orthium, and the only time he had it open was like for class plays. . . . There used to be traveling show go through and they would rent it, of course Benfield was in on this, and they’d have road shows they called them, and then once in awhile on Saturday night, they always had a lot of cowboy shows every Saturday night cowboy show, everybody went to a cowboy shows, ten cents a person.
In 1937 B.J. Benfield announced plans to build an 811 seat theatre building that would include three large apartments, two retail spaces, a luxurious lobby, and all the latest movie house features of the day. The Morris Theatre we know today opened in October of 1940 and the Strand was closed. The stage was large enough for vaudeville productions and dressing rooms were located in the basement. In the balcony there was a special “crying room” according to the Tribune, where “parents of fretful children might take the youngsters and still be able to see and hear the show though other patrons will be undisturbed.” Well into the age of television the Morris Theatre was consistently filled for evening shows and ushers would guide late arrivals to empty seats.
– D. Ericksen