Historic Theater Case Study - Damm Theater
Damm Theater - 2004
By Candy Hudziak
IUPUI Department of History
Located in the southeast corner of Indiana is a small community called Osgood. With a population of approximately 1,700, the town is quieter today than it was when trains regularly traveled through Osgood a century ago. The passengers stayed in the local hotels and sought evening entertainment at movie theaters. The Damm Theatre, owned by German immigrant Louis Damm, offered its customers everything big-city movie houses could. From first-run movies and short reels to vaudevillian skits and local amateur acts, the theater was a popular place in town. The Osgood community was so proud of its Damm Theatre that the city’s welcome sign included the motto: “Home of the Damm Theatre.”
The story of the Damm Theatre begins with its name sake, Louis Damm. Louis was only fifteen years old when he came to America in 1868. After settling in Cincinnati to live with relatives, he worked in a bakery earning $1 per week. Eventually Louis saved enough money to purchase his own bakery, and he soon after married Kathryn Vetter. For nine years Louis and his wife ran their bakery business in Cincinnati until they moved to Osgood in 1902 to open a new bakery.
Business in Osgood was good, yet Louis was enterprising. In 1914, he built a modern movie house next door to his bakery, which opened in October with the silent feature film Big Jim of the Sierras. Like many theaters in the early days of film, the Damm Theatre also hosted vaudeville and local amateur acts along with its major motion pictures. Remarkably, the Damm Theatre’s versatility allowed it to compete with other movie houses in larger cities.
In 1922 Osgood’s first movie theater, the Columbia Theatre , owned by local retired businessmen Richard Beer and Gottlieb Herman, was sold to Louis Damm. Soon after, Louis moved his theater into the new location across the street, and renamed the Columbia Theatre the Damm Theatre. As the sole movie house in Osgood, Louis decided to expand the number of days for showing films from one (Tuesdays) to five (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday). In addition to providing Ripley County with its largest auditorium, the new Damm Theatre location also included a large dance hall on the second floor. The approximately 400-seat theater could hold one-third of the town’s population. When popular movies played there, it regularly did.
The “new” Damm Theatre’s exterior architectural style is considered Nineteenth-Century Functional. As part of a city block, rather than a stand-alone structure, the theater’s exterior, though simple, reflects the original architectural look of the block and blends in harmoniously with the neighboring businesses. Its interior design is not one specific style, but is similar to other movie theaters of the past. The theater still maintains many original elements, such as its molded tin ceilings, cast-iron seats with original red velvet upholstery, wall sconces, and a maple hardwood dance floor upstairs. Moreover, individual pieces have also survived, including rare projection equipment, film memorabilia, and other historic items. At one time a piano-console Wurlitzer player organ was installed in the front of the theater to be used for silent films; however, the organ was repossessed during the Depression by the local Wurlitzer agent in Rising Sun, Indiana. The area has since been filled in with cement. The second floor dance hall also once housed a Wurlitzer orchestrion that provided dance music.
The Damm Theatre operated for thirty-nine years as a family operation, run by the five children of Louis Damm, until 1953, when Joe Damm purchased controlling interest in the business from his family. Business thrived into the 1960s, as the theater was open six days per week, and sometimes showed as many as three different films in a single week. When Joe Damm died in 1973, his wife Viola continued to operate the theater with the help of her son, Robert.
Damm Theater - Circa 1900
Image: Courtesy Bob Damm
However, times had changed by the 1960s. Decreased railway traffic meant fewer visitors to Osgood. Additionally, the advent of television caused declining theater attendances nationwide. Both factors severely limited business for the Damm Theatre, to the point of cutting back its hours of operation from six days to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday by the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, Viola devoted herself to running a family-friendly theater that was clean and affordable. With Viola’s death in 1989, however, the Damm Theatre was forced to cease continuous operation for the first time since it opened in 1922, thus shutting down the only cinema in town.
The Damm Theatre may be closed, but it is not forgotten. Taking up the cause is Robert Damm and his wife, Judy. They envision reopening the theater to meet the needs of the Osgood community. In their ideal scenario, the restored Damm Theatre, in addition to showing films, could also be used for plays, parties, and even dances upstairs. Currently they are working on listing the theater on the National Register of Historic Places, an important first step in documenting the theater’s historic significance, as well as securing financial backing from the local philanthropic Reynolds Foundation. The Damms have a lot of work ahead of them to restore their family theater to its original grandeur, but they are admittedly working on a labor of love. When considering that theirs is believed to be the oldest family-operated movie house in Indiana, it is not hard to understand why their task is so important, and the finished product so necessary.