July 15, 2008

Reel History: Circle Cinema in Tulsa Turns 80

By Heather Caliendo

For some it's the memory of paying 10-cent admission, for others it is now a Mecca for independent movies.

Sitting on 12th and Lewis, Circle Cinema celebrates its 80th birthday today and the staff looks forward to renovating the theater for the future while also appreciating its history.

"We are the only remaining historic movie theater left in Tulsa - everything has become a parking lot," said Stephanie LaFevers, executive director of Circle Cinema Foundation.

Circle Cinema opened its doors on July 15, 1928, and is in Tulsa's first suburban shopping center, according to information compiled by Leigh Ann Zielger, executive director for the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture. The theater went through an evolution of showing serial films in the 1950s to even venturing into adult films in the late 1970s. But from the 1990s to early 2000s the theater sat nearly empty and vacant.

LaFevers said that was due to the migration of people that moved to south Tulsa and the construction of multiplexes.

"There wasn't enough population in this area to support the movie theater," she said. "This area of town kind of went through a time of decline, but now it's on the upswing that made it right for us to be here and be part of that upswing."

Circle Cinema Foundation, a nonprofit organization, purchased the theater and the building south of it to re-establish the Circle as a viable movie theater. The mission of the theater became to create a community environment while showing independent films, documentaries and foreign-language films.

Phase one to renovate the building adjacent to the original theater started in 2002 and cost more than $1 million. A 105-seat theater and a 50-seat theater, plus an art gallery, were put in. The theater reopened in 2004, and while slow to start, LaFevers said patrons started to flock in because of word of mouth.

"It really has grown a lot, some of the marketing efforts we have done and the relationships we have made, that kind of helps with attendance," she said.

Besides showing films that can't be found elsewhere in the city, the theater presents art shows and education programs.

Circle Cinema is currently in phase two of renovations - the original Circle building is being restored. Originally the staff hoped it could be complete in time for the 2004 opening, but damage to the building delayed construction.

Last fall the original neon marquee sign was restored and the theater acquired the two-manual, four-rank pipe organ that played during its movies in the 1920s.

As of now the target date for reopening that section is sometime in 2009. Since the theater is nonprofit, it relies on donations and its memberships. LaFevers is hoping there will be enough support for the theater to generate the remaining $1.5 million needed to finish the renovations.

She said adding the two theaters will allow them to accommodate multiple community events and even expand to show a few blockbuster flicks - without losing their indie cred.

"We certainty don't want to be known as one of the big theaters here in town, we prefer to be our own little independent theater and providing something they aren't providing," she said.

Tonight Circle Cinema celebrates its 80 years with a showing of "Tulsa Movie Theatres Of Yesteryear" at 7 p.m.

LaFevers said while they appreciate the history of the theater, their eyes are on the future.

"On the first day of our 80th birthday we will start working on our next 80 years," she said. "Those that are here working now won't be around in those 80 years so this is bigger than all of us. This is something to be proud of and continue to support in years to come."

Originally published by Heather Caliendo.

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