Apollo Comes to Town

by Geoffrey Blodgett

Despite stiff competition from college film series and the lure of Midway Mall and Avon Lake, for most Oberlinians, going to the movies means the Apollo. It has been that way since 1928, when Jerry Steel came to town, bought the Apollo, and turned it into a downtown entertainment capital—Oberlin’s small-town answer to the exotic movies palaces of big-city America.

Thomas Edison’s moving picture show was first exhibited in Oberlin in February 1900, featuring blurry clips of yacht races, military parades, and an imaginary trip to the moon. Several commercial movie shows, supplemented by vaudeville acts and hypnotists, opened here and there, beginning in the space over Gibson’s bakery in 1907.

In 1914 William Hobbs completed a new tan brick block on East College Street to house his restaurant next to the modern 300-seat movie house—the Apollo, George Broadwell proprietor. Thor, Lord of the Jungle, a three-reel thriller, was its first community offering. For years the Apollo competed with the Rex on South Main for the money of a movie-hungry town. But the morality of the craze seemed dubious to custodians of village virtue. In the early 1920s, the local Parent-Teachers Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution cosponsored a drive for nicer movies. Meanwhile the college began its own film nights in Finney Chapel.

Jerry Steel’s arrival in Oberlin, and the advent of the “talkies,” made commercial movies respectable again. Steel, born into a Cleveland family of entertainers, had fought with the American army in France during World War I, and managed the Alhambra Theatre, then Cleveland’s largest, for a time before joining Warner Brothers as a distributor. Under his management, the Apollo steadily enlarged and modernized across the depression decade (boom years for American movies), and Zig-Zag Moderne became its primary decorative motif inside and out. The most recent major remodeling occurred in 1950, with the arrival of the triangular porcelain marquee with traveling neon lights, a new façade of shiny black glass, and interior walls of padded vinyl and glossy crimson velveteen.

When Jerry Steel died in 1959, his son Bill continued the family business. In the teeth of fast changes in film and television marketing, the Steel enterprise hung on, catering to the rival cinematic tasks of town and gown.

Geoffrey Blodgett (1931-2001) was a member of Oberlin’s history faculty for 40 years. He retired in 2000 as Robert S. Danforth Professor of History. The information presented here is excerpted from his 1985 book, Oberlin Architecture, College and Town: A Guide to Its Social History.