Seymour’s Owen Theatre, built in 1941, will soon reopen.
SEYMOUR – When the Owen Theatre opened on Seymour’s square in 1941, the native-stone building was a hub for friends, family and fun — just as locals hope it will become again once it reopens in May.
“I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard,” says Dan Wehmer, president of the Seymour Area Arts Council, which owns the theater. “‘My first kiss was here.’ ‘My first date was here.’ ‘I met my husband here.'”
Over the last year, arts council members raised around $100,000 for restoration of the theater, which closed in 2011 and had fallen into disrepair. While there is still cosmetic work to be done on the facility, Wehmer and others have decided that the time is right to get the current community excited about the theater’s future.
“We believe it’s time to let the public know we’re open for business,” he says.
On May 5, The Creek Rocks, a local musical duo comprised of husband-and-wife Cindy Woolf and Mark Bilyeu, will take the stage for the renovated theater’s first show.
“When you come in here, you’re just kind of blown away,” says Wehmer of the transformation. “We did this! I can’t believe we did this!”
George Owen at a movie showing in Iowa circa 1914. (Courtesy of the Seymour Area Arts Council)
The Owen legacy has been part of the Ozarks since before most today have been alive.
It all started in 1908, when George Owen began traveling through local communities to show silent films. He spent around 10 years on the road, taking movies to other states, before coming home to the Ozarks.
As his family grew to a wife and two children — Hazel and Harold — the business became a family affair.
“We showed movies in a tent and went from town to town,” his son told a newspaper reporter in 1991. “We had our own electric generator, which was unusual for those days. No little towns had electricity.”
That innovative spirit led Owen to eventually add “talkies,” or films with sound in the late 1920s.
“I will never forget, two or three places, the first time we ran a sound picture,” the younger Owen said to a reporter in 2002. “People would stand there, you know. We’d start the show, and they’d all jump up and look back at the projector and look at the screen and look back at us. They couldn’t figure that out. They thought we were doing the talking. They didn’t know it; nobody had seen it.”
Eventually, the film family decided to build a theater on the Seymour square.
Before its opening on June 6, 1941, excitement was high. The theater was billed as the “finest theater in the Ozarks” by The Seymour Citizen newspaper in weeks leading up to its opening, and even featured a cool-air system to keep patrons comfortable during summer months.
“The building is constructed of native stone and is completely fireproof, even to the projection room which is lined with fire-proof material and is equipped with a fire door,” previewed the Citizen the day before the theater’s opening. “All projection equipment has been completely rebuilt, the new screen has been installed, walls and ceiling are of celotex, the building is attractively lighted, and everything considered, Seymour will have a theater which compares favorably with any in the country, even in larger towns.”
According to journal entries made by George Owen in the months leading up to the theater’s opening, those facts became reality due to a great deal of work by the Owen family.
There were dozens of loads of rock, and trips to Springfield for beams, bricks, light fixtures, sand and cement. There was the slip on April 1, 1941, when he accidentally stuck a nail into his wrist. And there were even two trips to Chicago to buy the theater seats, which were secured from Used Chair Mart for $1.85 a piece. (Seats, which according to a preview in The Marshfield Mail newspaper, were “upholstered and will be restful to the patrons.”)
Soon, it was the day before the day: On June 5, 1941, he wrote briefly but still journaled what he felt important:
“Finished seats. Ran first film. Good sound. Harold and Hazel sure a lot of help.”
The Owen Theatre, second from left, is shown in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Seymour Area Arts Council)
That particular day wasn’t the only time Harold Owen was a great help. It was he, in fact, who is responsible for making the theater an enduring part of Seymour’s history.
When the theater opened, then-21-year-old Harold had already spent his entire lifetime in show business, as he put it. In addition to helping his father as they traveled to show films, Harold even ran a movie theater in Hartville when he was only 17.
“I lived in Rogersville, was going to college in Springfield and running the theater in Hartville at night,” he told a Mail reporter in 1991.
His experience only continued to grow. Around a decade after his family opened the Owen Theatre in Seymour, he convinced his father to help him open a Seymour-based drive-in theater. Perhaps it wasn’t a hard sell: The family owned one in nearby Good Hope, and although the dates are unclear, they also owned a drive-in theater in Mansfield at one time.
The pair opened the Owen Drive-In Theatre on the outskirts of Seymour in June 1951, which even featured an airstrip to support Harold’s other love: flying, both what he did and taught.
“There are thousands of pilots that he taught to fly,” says Wehmer, who knew Owen. “Outside of here, Harold’s claim to fame was that he was the elite flying instructor of the Ozarks for 40 years.”
The father-and-son duo continued working together until 1961, when George Owen suffered a heart attack and died.
From that point, the theaters were personally overseen by Harold and his family. One of the mainstay faces would be that of Betty Graf, Harold’s daughter, who worked in the theater operations throughout her life.
Over time, things changed with the business. Eventually, the Owens only operated the theaters in Seymour, which drew crowds through the ’70s.
“As youngster growing up here in Seymour, there weren’t a lot of options for entertainment,” wrote local citizen Ron Young in a letter to the editor of the Webster County Citizen newspaper (who happens to be Wehmer) in 2016. “The movies were a way to escape from going to school and working hard all week. I looked forward to taking in a show on Saturday night and visiting with my friends.”
As times changed, so did the movie business. Starting in the early 1980s, the theater and drive-in closed — and reopened — several times.
Eventually, however, the film clicked to a stop: Seventy years after opening, the downtown theater showed its last movie in 2011.
Even in that period, locals saw the theater as an important part of the town’s history, and attempted to purchase the building from Owen.
Selling, however, wasn’t something he wanted to do.
“(Harold) said, ‘Nobody’s got the money to fix it up the way it should be,'” recalls Wehmer.
In 2013, Harold Owen died. At the time, he still owned the downtown building, and operated the drive-in. It finished the 2013 season — 105 years after George Owen originally got into show business — before closing for good.
Upon his death — and that of Graf less than a year later — the arts council approached Beverly Ellis-Brown, Harold Owen’s other daughter, to see if she’d be willing to sell.
She was, and the arts council took possession of the property in September 2014.
“She sold it to us under the agreement that it never loses its name — it’ll always be the Owen Theatre,” says Wehmer, also noting that a memorial will eventually be added that preserves the Owen legacy.
After the sale to the arts council, the first priority was to gut the building and conduct mold remediation.
New neon lighting was also installed out front in June 2016, illuminating the sign for the first time in nearly 50 years. Vandals destroyed the system on Halloween night in 1968, and Owen never had the resources to reconstruct it.
Besides those things, however, work slowed to a standstill due to a lack of funding.
In early 2017, things began to change. With the aid of Wehmer, who joined the council, a new emphasis was put on fundraising. Through the concentrated effort, donations and pledges quickly came in for the project.
“In the last year, we’ve raised right at $100,000,” says Wehmer.
And as resources came in, the work progressed.
“We knew we had to prove that we were putting their money to good use,” says Wehmer. “We didn’t bank it or sit on it.”
It’s apparent that work is still underway in the theater, but its appearance is drastically different from just a few months ago. That is thanks to around 100 local residents who have helped support the project. Without them, Wehmer says, things simply wouldn’t look as they do.
A new stage is ready for plays and musical acts and perhaps movie screenings. Soon, curtains will hang from the walls to aid in acoustics.
Next-to-new seats, procured after a remodel of the Oak Ridge Boys Theatre in Branson, await patrons. An ADA-compliant restroom has been added. A new set of doors will eventually be added that match the 1940s era, as will a new “coming attractions” box, built by a local resident.
“In a way, we want this to look as much like it did in 1941 (as we can),” says Wehmer.
There are, however, some things that remain the same. The ticket booth, complete with a Baby Ruth sticker; the uber-low balcony railing that keeps one from getting too close. The multi-tone lights, which one of the Owens likely originally hung. The vintage popcorn and hot dog machines. And the fireplace, which in the theater’s former life was its main source of heat (but isn’t going forward).
“One of the best parts of getting a bag of popcorn was getting to stand next to the fire while you waited,” reminisces Wehmer.
And on May 5, two concerts allow the community to see the vast amount of work that has taken place — and, Wehmer hopes, encourage more donations to come on to keep the work going.
There’s one person he especially wishes could see the transformation.
“(Harold would) say, ‘I just don’t think you all are serious about doing this,” says Wehmer, quoting a conversation with Owen about interest in restoring the theater. “I’d like him to see this now and say, ‘We were serious. Take a look.'”
Want to see?
The Owen Theatre’s grand reopening is scheduled for Saturday, May 5. Shows will be held at 7 and 9 p.m., and tickets are $10. For more information or for tickets, call 417-935-2257 or click here.
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“Appreciates Owen neon sign update,” Ron Young, Webster County Citizen, Aug. 3, 2016
“Betty Graf,” obituary, Legacy.com
“George W. Owen, theater owner, dies suddenly,” no publication identified, March 30, 1961
“Harold Owen,” obituary, Legacy.com
No headline, Nancy Holman, The Marshfield Mail, October 10, 1991
“New Owen Theatre at Seymour,” The Marshfield Mail, June 5, 1941
“New Owen Theater opens Friday night,” Seymour Citizen, June 5, 1941
“New Owen Theater to open June 6,” Seymour Citizen, May 29, 1941
“Opening weekend draws good reviews,” Nancy Holman, The Marshfield Mail, Oct. 10, 1991
“Owen project rolling,” Dan Wehmer, Webster County Citizen, Jan. 10, 2018
“Owen Theatre sells,” Dan Wehmer, Webster County Citizen, Sept. 3, 2014
“Their show must go on,” Natasha Dunagan, The South County Mail, April 23, 2002
“There’s no business like family business,” Karen Stockman, Rural Missouri, August 2007
“Seymour Area History,” 1992