The foxy Fox theater
Photo by Bulletin graphics
One means of enjoyment for North Platte residents is going to the shows and plays, including those put on by the North Platte Community Playhouse in the former Fox Theater downtown on the corner of Bailey and Fifth. Not only does the building offer rich architecture and enjoyment, but also has a unique piece of history.
According to former former North Platte historian Cindy Boehlke, a simple rental house first occupied that corner of the block.
In the beginning, the renters were W.H. and Lilly Searls (1919-20), R.B. and Rose Eshom (1921-1926) and Theo and Helen Jamison were the last to occupy it in 1928 before the North Platte Reality Company bought the land.
The reality company entered a contract with Chitwood and Glass out of McCook to build the new theater. The North Platte Reality Company was owned by Alex Beck of Omaha as well as Keith Neville, who also owned the downtown theater on Dewey St.
The theater was initially called the Fox. The designer was F.A. Henninger of Omaha. The building contractors included The Beck Company, the Crawford Electric Company of North Platte, the North Platte Plumbing and Heating Company, the Simon Brothers tinners, and Arctic New Air Systems of Minneapolis.
A large crowd attended opening day on Nov. 22, 1929 and another crowd came to the official grand opening the next Sunday, which brought some joy to residents during the first few months of the nation’s Great Depression, according to the book City Bones, a general photographic history of downtown North Platte.
Keith Neville’s Hotel Yancey also opened across the street, just three weeks before the theater. (The name of the hotel later changed to the Pawnee.)
According to City Bones, the theater could initially seat 1,100. The interior was designed in Renaissance style, featuring a curved stairway on the east side of lobby, which still leads to balcony level seats. The inside also featured fabric panels and woven columns with gold ornamental moldings in intricate plaster patterns.
It wasn’t long before the McCook Company, which held the general contract on the building, sold their lease to the Fox Company of California. With the new company brought more elaborate equipment.
In 1956, the theater underwent a $50,000 renovation. The number of seats were reduced to 900, providing more leg room. The project made the theater “one of the most modern movie houses in the state, including Omaha and Lincoln,” according to manager Frank Larson, in a North Platte Telegraph article on April 24, 1956.
The majority of the renovations, according to the article, went to install new seats in the balcony, and newer, more modern seats on the floor to replaced “old, cramped” seats.
New carpeting was added, as well as new birch installation doors, refurnished lounges and facilities, light blocks inside aisle doors, retouched wall murals, all new draperies, new snack bar equipment and a renovated stage and curtain.
The news report also said new projection equipment was installed for better sound. However, Keith Neville only lived to see the renovations for three more years, as he passed away in 1959, according to biographers.
According to a personal account from Irene Bystrom, one of the Neville daughters, after Neville’s widow died in 1980 the daughters decided to donate the theater they inherited to the community of North Platte.
“As a movie house, the theater had become outdated, we had lost our tenant, the Mann Theater Corporation, and the building was no longer in use,” Irene said in her book Tagging Along.
It was suggested the daughters have the building torn down for a parking lot, but they had too many fond memories of the building.
“Besides, our family had a long history of involvement in the arts and the North Platte Community Playhouse needed a new home,” she said.
Their great-grandfather helped fund the early opera-house in North Platte, their grandmother acted in numerous traveling plays, and their father built the downtown Keith Theater on Dewey between Fourth and Fifth.
Neville’s daughter Virginia was the “driving force” to donate the theater, according to Irene’s account.
“She was still an active member of the Playhouse board of directors and knew how that organization could use the Fox,” the account said.
The daughters were pleased that the community accepted their donation and with the help of Jim Seacrest, Barbara Rounsborg and Pauline Dye, $250,000 was raised to remodel the theater again. Under Patty Birge’s leadership, all involved, including the daughters, helped remodel.
“I recall spending a day wearing a miner’s cap with a light on it, scraping gum off the bottom of the theater seats where it had accumulated over the previous half-century,” Irene said. The grand re-opening of the Fox Theater was Dec. 9, 1983.
The Nebraska Sinfonia, the professional core of the Omaha Symphony performed, which was the beginning of several great performances since. The renovations later earned the theater a Governor’s Art Award.
The daughters insisted the Fox be renamed The Neville Center for the Performing Arts in honor of their parents. It is a testimony to their father’s dream to spread the performing arts in western Nebraska.