Honored by Historic Landmarks in 2000, revisiting the historic and architectural treasure that is Attica’s Devon Theater may be a bit overdue, but its bright lights, large marquis and colorful façade have never gone unnoticed. Owner Robie Criswell said restoring the beautiful art deco style theater was a labor of love for he and his parents, Robert and Aldean Criswell. If the Criswells hadn’t bought The Devon, it may have been converted into a storage facility.
“I was over at the restaurant one day and looked over and the marquis said ‘closed’,” Criswell recalled. “I looked Harold (Hayes) up and he said there were three of us interested. One person was going to buy it to store their construction equipment.”
According to Criswell, Harold and Helena Hayes managed and took care of the theater for 58 years, for the original owners, referred to by Criswell as the “Alexanders”, a family which owned several theaters in Indiana.
Built in 1938, the Devon Theater had been a local social gathering place for nearly 60 years, when it briefly closed in the mid 90s. It originally opened on December 23 1938. After purchasing and beginning the process of restoring the theatre in the early months of 1996, Criswell had hoped to reopen once again on December 23, however repair delays put the grand reopening off until January of 1997.
“We had to keep postponing until January 7. The first three months were basically demolition; tearing out seats and cleaning the upstairs. The structure was in good shape, but we had to put on a new roof, new plumbing, new electrical and heating and cooling equipment,” said Criswell.
Other updates to the over 70 year-old theater have followed. The Devon now has a hi-tech digital sound system, which at the time of installation provided the best sound east of the Mississippi, Criswell said.
In its early days, the theater was the go-to place for high school sweethearts, local families and anyone with a love of the big screen. Criswell said the very first movie ever shown at the theater was ‘Mad Miss Manton’, which starred Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. The top attended movie, according to Criswell, was ‘Titanic’ which opened in December of 1997. Criswell showed the movie for seven weeks before he decided he was ready for a change, even if audiences weren’t. He opened a different movie for a couple weeks but ended up bringing Titanic back for two additional weeks after the phone rang “off the hook” with requests for Titanic.
“I wanted a new movie. I was bored! It was still doing well with over 200 people coming on weekends,” said Criswell. “The first weekend I brought it back we had the highest grossing theater in Indiana with over 300 people coming.”
Showing mostly family-friendly films, Criswell said he has only ever opened two ‘R’ rated movies at The Devon. The first was ‘Saving Private Ryan’, which did very well, and the second was ‘The Passion of the Christ’, which was also well received by the hometown crowd.
One interesting fact is that the projector being used today is the same one which has been in use since 1950. Criswell said it has been modified to be automated, so that a technician is only needed to press the start button. After that, it can basically be unattended during the viewing of a film.
Criswell also pointed out that the control booths of 1930s theaters were designed with the potential for fire in mind, because the film was highly flammable. He said the rooms were built with lead doors and concrete ceilings. If a fire started in the booth the resulting meltdown of the links in a specially designed pulley system would close the lead doors so that all that was lost in the fire would be the control booth, instead of the entire theater.
Criswell himself remembers coming to the theater as a child. The one movie he said sticks out most in his mind is ‘The Shaggy Dog’. He said running the theater is a fun job and he enjoys hearing stories from people who came decades ago when they were just high school kids.
“I enjoy it because everyone who comes in is in a good mood and they leave in a good mood,” he said. “I hear stories all the time from a man and wife who have been married 40 years and this is where they came on their first date.”
cutline: The marquee of the Devon Theater brings back many memories to residents of this community.