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What is the most historic building in Oklahoma City?
Last Show at the Criterion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Saturday, 02 February 2008 00:00


FEBRUARY 2, 2008:

“Ghetto Freaks” is not likely to show up on any listing of great, good or even “okay” movies. But thanks to reviews at www.amazon.com, we have the following synopsis: Filmed in glamorous early 1970s Cleveland, Ohio, the movie is about a stoner-freak named Sonny who observes a wealthy mother trying to rescue her daughter from the corrupting hippie environment.

Acting quickly, Sonny slips the girl the address of his nearby House of Hippies (I'm not making this up) and, moments later, she's taking her first LSD trip and participating in an orgy. Sonny then shows her the joys of panhandling and the thrill of proesting in the park before drug dealers "remind everyone that reality really sucks...."

So why in the world is OKC History interested in “Ghetto Freaks”? It was the last movie to play at downtown Oklahoma City’s grandest movie palace – the Criterion Theater. Opened on April 16, 1921, the theater was hailed as a symphony in brick and stone, a showplace of the southwest. Built by Joe Cooper for $700,000, the theater opened with 1,900 seats, a built-in organ, $25,000 worth of art glass panels, crystal chandelier, walls of velvet, deep cushioned seats, French doors and tea room. 

The first movie shown was “Love Flower” by the legendary D.W. Griffith. In 1928 the theater switched from motion pictures to legitimate stage productions. Back then, a movie patron could pay 35 cents for a seat on the main floor or 25 cents for the balcony at a matinee. The price for evening shows was 50 cents for the main floor, 25 cents for the balcony.

Live performances over the years included shows by Amos and Andy, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. In 1932, “The Big Broadcast” opened its first screening at the theater, drawing the likes of Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Calloway. Spotlights lit up the entrance that night as women in evening gowns and men in formal attire stepped out of huge cars to attend. In 1939 Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney took the spotlight at the Criterion to attend opening of “Oklahoma,” a film depicting early oil days of state. 

The end of World War II would mark the beginning of the end for the Criterion. By the mid-1950s downtown was losing its luster. The Criterion and other downtown theaters faced stiff competition from modern new suburban cinemas. The theater was given a $90,000 facelift. At the same time, in 1954 the theater became the first to break with the old Jim Crow laws and admit black patrons.

The theater closed in 1963 and reopened in 1967 as the city’s only burlesque house. The theater closed again in 1967. Once again, the theater was refurbished and reopened by owners Farris Shanbour and Charles Shadid.

At the end of May, 1972, the theater was sold to the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. It was 25 years ago this month that a small crowd gathered on a rainy day to say goodbye to what is widely considered to be the most significant building torn down during the city’s urban renewal era.

1. “Old Showplace Falls,” by Janeice Zeaman, February 2, 1973, The Oklahoman

2. Movie listings, May 28, 1972, The Oklahoman

Last Updated on Saturday, 14 February 2009 03:40