By Norman V. Kelly

We watched a lot of free movies at the rear of Siek’s Grocery in El Vista when we were kids, but what we really wanted to do was go downtown to a real ‘picture show.’ Our dreams came true during the summer of 1941 when my friend’s dad dropped us off in front of the Apollo Theater across the street from the courthouse in downtown Peoria, Illinois. It was the beginning of a love affair that to this day has never waned. In those days patrons like us just walked in while the movie was being shown. Once we recognized a scene someone in our group always said, “Here’s where we came in.”

Early on all our heroes rode a horse. However during WW11 we watched an awful lot of war movies, which made us all grow up just a little too fast. By the time we were sixteen we were crazy about detectives, adventures stories and movies with lots of girls in them.

We had six downtown theaters to pick from, but for us the only ones we could afford when we were kids were the Columbia, Princess and the Apollo. Those three theaters were located within a couple of blocks of each other. I’ll tell you a little about the Apollo because you can still see a Film Noir picture there just like we did when we were kids.

The Apollo Theater was really the first movie house in Peoria that was built exclusively for motion pictures. All the others were really aimed at live acts that came into Peoria. Of course they showed moving pictures, but their main source of income was different from the Apollo. The Apollo rose from the ashes of the old Crescent Theater that burned to the ground three years earlier. Remember, these were not talkies, since they did not arrive in Peoria until 1928, of course I mean synchronized talkies. The price was a bit lower than the fancy Rialto, Madison or Palace, and on Saturday we tried to see three different movies in those three theaters. When we got a little older we finally made it up to the Madison where we snuck in the side doors as the older folks were exiting.

Believe me the Apollo was a beautiful lady, including a large pipe organ and birdcages hanging from the ornate ceiling during its first few years of existence. The beautiful little theater with 800 seats opened on May 11, 1914 with the showing of “Anthony and Cleopatra, a silent film. I would guess that there are many Peoria folks that can still remember standing in line to see a film called “A Matter Of Eve.” This movie was sensational because it showed the actual birth of a child. Now can you imagine that way back in October of 1950 here in Peoria? Male and female customers had to see the film at different times. I can still remember those long lines of anxious men gawking at the women as they exited the theater.

The Apollo showed some great movies over its long life which included “The Bridges At Toko Ri,” one of my favorites and on May 31, 1958, the naughty “Peyton Place” closed the theater for good. It broke our collective hearts to see those old movie houses shut down. It was during the time that TV kept folks at home, and one by one the stores just faded away. In March of 1954 the Sheridan Village Shopping Center opened, impacting the businesses in Downtown Peoria. Soon, the very reason we all flocked downtown began to vanish one by one.

I remember when we came back from the Korean War in 1955 we noticed that several of the old hotels, many of them with bawdy reputations were being demolished. We wondered what would go into those vacant spots, but we soon realized that the answer was nothing. It was with a heavy heart that we watched our town just ‘slip away.’

We owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Leiter and his associates for saving what was left of the Apollo Theater. All we have today are the 160 seats of the balcony, but for old softies like me that is enough. Now folks like Steve Tarter keep the memory of the Apollo alive with the Film Noir Festival. Just visiting the Apollo brings back great memories of old Peoria…you might want to try it yourself.

Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: