Anchorage Movie Theaters

What was your favorite Anchorage movie theater? What movies do you remember seeing? Do you remember the Empress movie theater on 4th Avenue? Let's go to the movies.

During the long, cold dark of winter (not shown above), Anchorage movie theaters offered us a relief from the grip of Cabin Fever.

For two hours or more, you could enjoy a movie or two, if it was a double feature.

In the 1940s, 1950s, and into the early 1960s, you might also see a cartoon, a serial and/or a newsreel just before your movie.

Movies (and television) were our window on the world outside of Alaska.

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The Empress Theater

Austine Eugene “Cap” Lathrop (October 1865 - July 26, 1950) is considered to be “Alaska’s first home-grown millionaire”.

The Lathrop movie theater group first began back in 1916 when Cap Lathrop built the Empress Theater (seen above) located on 4th Avenue near G Street. It was the very first movie theater in Anchorage.

At the time, movies were still silent.

In 1917, a 2/11 Kimball Organ was installed. Jim Orcutt was the organist.

Happily, I recall going to see movies at the Empress back in the early 1950s. The last movie I remember seeing (I think) at the Empress, was the 1953, “Invaders from Mars”.

The Empress closed in the 1950s.

Bonus

Some years later, KTVA Chief Engineer Franklin Butte used parts of the Empress theater’s Kimball organ in Uncle’s Pizza restaurant, managed by Chuck Martin. It is my understanding that the restaurant closed in the 1970s.

The 4th Avenue Theater

While the Empress was a grand theater, the dream of Anchorage’s first movie palace started with construction of the 4th Avenue Theater in 1941.

But the world had other ideas and World War II caused completion of the theater to be delayed until 1947.

Cap Lathrop really went all out for the 4th Avenue theater.

It’s an Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Art Moderne style building. The theater has a combined seating capacity of 1,100 (including the balcony). And you might not know this, but Cap Lathrop did not think that a concession stand was appropriate. Years later, we are all happy that one was added.

The 4th Avenue theater was a wonderful experience for Alaskans and it means something special to each of us.

Check out this fun story about the 4th Avenue Theater experience right now.

Bonus

What are your favorite memories of the 4th Avenue Theater?

This author had one of the most embarrassing experiences of his entire life while on a date with the very special lady who would become my wife.

You’ll love reading 4th Avenue Theater; Hold the Butter right now.

The Denali Theater

Photo by Starr Judkins Lane

For those who came to Anchorage sometime after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, some folks don’t realize that the Denali Theater wasn’t always located in Spenard.

It’s original location was next to a bar on 4th Avenue. But as you can see by the picture above, the Denali sank down to it’s theater marque during the 1964 earthquake. After that it was relocated to Spenard.

The very first movie I remember seeing at the Denali on 4th Avenue, ended up being a big mistake.

I was 15 years old at the time.

Me, my sister Anna and my brother Tom were walking downtown with our mom, Louise Dougherty. As we came closer to the Denali Theater, mom said, “hey, do you kids want to see a movie?” of course we all got very excited and shouted “yes”. Then mom said, OK Mike, you’re the oldest, you get to choose the movie.”

When we found ourselves in front of the Denali, they had a sandwich board on the sidewalk with a display about the current movie they were showing.

I looked it over and said “this one, Let’s see this one.”

In her wisdom, mom knew it was a mistake and she said “you sure?”

Well, we ended up in the Denali where we saw the 1962 low budget, black and white movie “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die”.

The movie was tame by today’s standards, but back then it scared me half to death. I think my brother Tom spent most of the time with his hands over his eyes.

The Fireweed Movie Theater

When it first opened in 1965, the Fireweed Theater was the largest movie theater in Alaska.

Among the many movies we remember seeing at the fireweed were “2001 a Space Odyssey”, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Herbie the Love Bug”, complete with a Volkswagon in the lobby, looking like it was the star of the movie.

Seems to me that KBYR radio hosted a screening of the movie “Woodstock” in the Fireweed.

The Sundowner Drive-In

As I recall, the first drive-in movie theater in Anchorage was the Billiken out in Muldoon.

But pictured above is the Sundowner, which was located behind the Fireweed Theater.

Going to an evening movie at a drive-in theater in Anchorage had it’s challenges. In the summer time, it was hard to see the movie on the screen because of the amount of sun light.

In the winter, you could see the screen, but you either had to use the little “heater” that was hanging from the speaker post, or you had to start your car and turn on your car heater for a while.

But Alaskan’s are a hearty breed.

Read more about the Anchorage Drive-In Experience right now.

Bonus

The Sundowner Drive-In also hosted rock acts in the 1970s including Kiss, Rare Earth and Savoy Brown.

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Did You Know?

The city of Anchorage covers almost 2,000 square miles… which makes it larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Theda Comstock Kitchen Set

“The Woman’s Touch”

Photo by RB Laurie

Theda is the woman on your right in the dark clothes. At that time, the studios of KENI-TV channel 2 were located beneath the 4th Avenue Theater building.

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A Final Thought

Wow, it’s been a while since we were all together.

We hope that you are doing well, and that you enjoyed this edition of Anchorage Memories VIP Newsletter.

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Until next time

Mike & Mary