Recalling Galveston’s Theatorium and Colonial Theater

By Casey Edward Greene, Rosenberg Scholar

The 19th century saw the evolution of two popular forms of entertainment. The first form of entertainment was vaudeville, whose heyday ran from the 1850s to the 1930s. Vaudeville offered something for everyone. Comparable to the modern televised variety show, it offered a smorgasbord of entertainment. Performances included comedy, singing, dancing, juggling, ventriloquism, and other kinds of entertainment. At the outset, vaudeville was vulgar, although it later became clean in order to appeal to the middle classes. Some of the most prominent names in 20th-century entertainment, including Milton Berle, Jimmy Cagney, and Judy Garland, started in vaudeville.

The second form of entertainment was the effort to capture motion. The zoetrope, patented in 1834, was the first device to create the illusion of movement. A viewer looked at consecutive images depicting a range of motion on a rotating drum. In 1882, Étienne Jules-Marey (1830-1904), a French physiologist and inventor, developed a camera gun which enabled him to take 12 consecutive frames per second of a moving object in one photograph. Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and his assistant, William Dickson (1860-1935) invented the kinetoscope, patented in 1897. This was an early soundless motion picture projector. One looked through a peephole at a moving filmstrip containing consecutive images. A shutter allowed a momentary glimpse of each image. The filmstrip advanced at the rate of 46 images per second, simulating motion. All of these inventions were antecedents of the modern motion picture.

Business card of the Theatorium, 411-413 Tremont Street, Galveston, Texas. Recalling Galveston’s Theatorium and Colonial Theater
Business card of the Theatorium, 411-413 Tremont Street, Galveston, Texas, 1907. Ephemera Files Collection, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Vaudeville and moving pictures reached their nexus in the Theatorium, which opened in downtown Galveston on January 26, 1907 to little fanfare in local newspapers. The Theatorium was located at 411-13 Tremont (Block 503, south part of lots 6-7). George K. Jorgensen (1894-1959) was its owner. The Colonial Theater, which also featured vaudeville and moving pictures, operated temporarily on the second floor of the Theatorium. The Colonial’s owners, Hoffman & Brand, owned theaters in other Texas cities and other states. The Colonial Theater presented “refined (upscale) vaudeville” suitable for women and children. Performances ran the gamut from acrobatics, “illustrated song,” and ventriloquism to stage hypnotism, weight balancing, and female impersonation.

On opening night at the Colonial, October 27, 1907, packed audiences enjoyed three one-hour performances to the accompaniment of Prof. Voigt’s Orchestra. Charles C. Voigt, its conductor, was a music instructor. A moving picture show concluded each program. Presumably, this was presented through “Coloniascope,” which was mentioned in the theater’s newspaper advertisements.

The Galveston Daily News, October 28, 1907, commented on the clean content of the Colonial’s performances.

Not a syllable was uttered nor a move made which hinted at the vulgar side of life, and those who went there with the expectation of seeing or listening to anything of that kind were disappointed.

Attending the Colonial Theater was uncomfortable and unsafe, according to Julian Korski, a Galveston life insurance agent. The Galveston Daily News, November 9, 1907, printed his impressions.

The public is jammed in one small room provided with only one door, and think of a fire disaster or even a fire panic is simply horrifying. Without any fire escape or ventilation whatsoever, without the least comfort for the audience thronged in the narrow seats opposite a very small stage.

News staff determined the theater in fact had three exits.

The Colonial Theater was expected to move to permanent quarters by February 1, 1908. The theater was to be housed in a one-story brick building. Audience capacity would be over 1,100 persons. According to the 1908-09 Galveston city directory, the new address was 2122 Postoffice. Examination of the 1912 Sanborn fire insurance map with its corrections removed reveals two small stores along Postoffice at this location. An enclosed stage was located behind the buildings.

The Colonial advertised its events almost daily in the Galveston Tribune, with no more advertisements appearing after March 25, 1908, suggesting that the theater then closed. An examination of the Tribune and the News did not reveal the details of its closing, although the theater was not listed in the 1909-10 city directory.

What about the Theatorium? An advertisement in the Galveston Tribune, October 28, 1907, dubbed it “the Largest Family Pleasure Resort in the South” and touted it as offering “good, clean, wholesome entertainment.” The Galveston Daily News, August 20, 1939, claimed that the first showing of a moving picture in Galveston was The Hen That Laid the Golden Egg at the Theatorium. This appears to be erroneous. The Grand Opera House in Galveston showed Little Red Writing Hood in 1905, as well as other moving picture shows in 1906, all predating the Theatorium and the Colonial Theater.

The Theatorium was a short-lived entertainment venue. In December 1909, Jorgensen converted the Theatorium into the Crystal Vaudeville Theater. The renovations cost $10,000. Jorgensen later became a familiar name in Galveston tourism. He owned the Crystal Palace Bathhouse, built of steel and concrete along the Seawall in 1916. He was also president of the Galveston Beach Association from 1925 to 1927. Jorgensen died in 1959 in Houston, Texas, and was buried in Galveston Memorial Cemetery in Hitchcock.

Flyer for "The Siege and Fall of the Alamo" at Crystal Vaudeville Theater (formerly the Theatorium), March 30-31, 1915. Recalling Galveston’s Theatorium and Colonial Theater
Flyer for "The Siege and Fall of the Alamo" at Crystal Vaudeville Theater (formerly the Theatorium), March 30-31, 1915. Ephemera Files Collection, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.