THE COOPER THEATRES: A RETROSPECTIVE
The Cooper Theatres, Inc. chain was assembled across the Great Plains in the era of Art Deco theatres. In spite of the theatres’ opulence, the Great Depression took a toll on attendance, as did a new form of entertainment: radio. Newly designed, smaller auditoriums featuring multiple screens began to displace the grand old theatres.
The staff of Cooper Theatres played key roles in the growth of the business over five decades. Many of them worked for Joe Cooper in the 1930s and 1940s to create the chain, and then for the foundation after his death, when the business passed to the Cooper Foundation.
Cinerama was an impressive but complicated large-screen process, which was key to Cooper Theatres’ growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Three cameras filmed the action simultaneously while the sound was recorded on eight tracks to provide for directional stereophonic sound. Cooper Theatres broke ground in Denver for its first Cinerama Theatre on May 17, 1960. Soon thereafter construction began on other round theatres in Minneapolis and Omaha. The estimated cost of each theatre, $750,000, grew by completion to $1,000,000 apiece.
When the Cooper Cinerama opened in Denver, only ten theatres nationwide were showing Cinerama features and they were constantly sold out.
Yet the final true Cinerama production—How the West was Won—was released by MGM only two years later, after Cinerama ran into financial and management problems.
THE COOPER 70
In 1963, the foundation broke ground in Colorado Springs for the new Cooper 70 Theatre. Mel Glatz designed the theatre with a large front window marquee, a huge screen, a new style of plastic chair mounted on risers, and a projection system for both 70mm and 35mm film with full stereophonic sound.
The premiere of the Cooper 70 in Colorado Springs turned out to be one of the most memorable in the circuit’s history. The film was Take Her, She’s Mine, starring Jimmy Stewart and Sandra Dee. Stewart was invited to attend the gala events of November 22, 1963. The morning of the premiere, Stewart, Kroll and Vice President for Operations George Gaughan met at the Broadmoor Hotel to review the evening’s events. Stewart also wanted to see the theatre and the stage layout for his appearance.
Shortly after noon, the trio heard the news that shocked the country: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Although the premiere was cancelled, the theatre honored the tickets at future performances and contributed $1.50 per ticket to the March of Dimes. The Cooper 70 Theatre was not alone in honoring President Kennedy by closing. For the first time in memory, theatres throughout the nation remained dark that evening.
A NEW ERA
The future of the movie business was mixed in the 1960s. The “theatre-going” habit was weakening, suburban and small theatres were not doing well, new multi-format equipment was required and theaters needed to sell more tickets. Although Cinerama had been heralded as the wave of the future, by April of 1963 the Cooper board had tabled grantmaking due to lack of funds, and discontinued both the Agriculture Development Program that had been so important to Joe Cooper and memorial scholarships honoring past trustees and dairy staff. The board sold theatres and securities to pay debts. To boost profitability, Cooper began selling “high cost, high quality candy” in the Cinerama Theatres, marketed sheet music from How the West Was Won, and installed cigarette vending machines that were projected to provide profits of four to six cents a pack.
The Cooper board elected E.N. “Jack” Thompson president of both the foundation and the theatre business in 1964. He had served as a trustee since 1953 and had been president of the First Trust Company for over ten years. Through his relationship with the Chase Manhattan Bank, Jack secured a $1.5 million loan in 1966 to purchase the Denver and Minneapolis Cinerama mortgages. That loan financed new theatres, refurbished others, and set the stage for the growth and success of the business in the next decade.
When the business was sold in 1979 to Commonwealth Theatres for over $5 million, the foundation turned its attention to its original objective of grantmaking.