Monday, June 6, 2016

History of Star Theater

The Star Theater in Covington is legendary in the minds of Covington area residents who have great memories of seeing the big movies, meeting with friends on Saturday night, and taking part in the many community events sponsored by the theater over the years.

Warren Salles of Covington owned the Star Theater, 332 North New Hampshire Street for many years. In 1997 he explained the history of Covington's community movie show in an interview that I videotaped. His love of the theater business was evident as he told of the efforts to renovate and put the theater back into operation after years of sitting silent. 

Click on the triangle above to play the video  telling about the Star Theater and its impact when it was first opened in 1942 and in the years following. To view the interview on YouTube, click on the following link:

The tornado that hit downtown Covington later that year put a kink in those plans, though the theater survived and was ready for its next run of community service. 

The Salles Family History in Motion Picture Theaters

Warren Salles' family has been involved in the neighborhood theater business in the New Orleans area for over 100 years. His grandfather built his first theater, The Market, in 1907, and it featured vaudeville acts. The second came in 1915. 

The Star theater in Covington first opened on April 25, 1942, in the midst of World War II. It was built by his father, Warren J. Salles Sr., who operated several theaters in New Orleans before coming to Covington. Salles father first thought of building a theater in Covington around 1940, having enjoyed a summer home here for many years prior to that. For the new show, he bought the property formerly occupied by Badon's Garage. but before he could start the project, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and war was declared.

World War II was both a help and a hindrance to building the Star. During the war, it was impossible to get steel. His father had to get special permission from the federal war department to get the steel necessary to complete the building. The trusses and the steel for the projection room were a critical need, since at that time projection rooms were built like bank vaults.

The 25 foot high star on the front of the building was lifted into place by a huge crane that blocked the entire street. The star featured two colors of neon lights and extended above the roof line of the building.

On the day the theater first opened in 1942, congratulatory telegrams arrived from around the nation, many of them coming from movie stars. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Lionel Barrymore, and several other MGM stars sent their best wishes. "It was a courtesy of the trade and a common trademark of the MGM studies," Salles said. At the time it was built and for many years thereafter, the theater was the largest motion picture theater in St. Tammany Parish. 

The Movietone news reels became very popular, as they provided the only real look at the progress of the war around the world. "Dad was instrumental in selling a large volume of war bonds here at the theater," Salles commented. "He came up with the idea of posting the name of a local serviceman in the lobby and selling the war bonds on a card table in his honor."

During the war, Salles' father would be regularly visited by the air raid warden to be sure his theater could be blacked out immediately in case of an air attack. In fact, there was a special switch that could be thrown to instantly darken the large neon star. 

Salles recalled the celebration that accompanied V-J Day at the end of World War II. He has a photograph of over a thousand people standing in North New Hampshire Street. His father had hung two huge American flags all the way across the street, and a sound truck that had been built in the days of Huey Long was pressed into service to go throughout the city announcing the block dance that was planned at the Star in celebration of victory in Japan.

"The dance took place all night long, with the sound truck providing the music," Salles explained.

Since the electric power tended to go out during storms, Salles' father installed gas lights over the exits, and these would come on automatically if the electricity went off. The Star was also the first public building in Covington to be air-conditioned in the late 1940's, he said.

Stage Shows

The theater hosted many stage shows during the 50's and 60's. The magic shows of Willard the Wizard were a favorite with the community, as were the presentations of a mind reader named Kirma the Great. "He was one of our more colorful characters," Salles said. The Masked Rider and his horse also appeared on stage.

Widely known performers brought their act to the Star as well. Among the big name entertainers to grace its stage were Eddie Arnold, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Dickens, and other Grand Ole Opry legends. Charlton Heston also visited the theater, as did local celebrity Louis Prima. Even the legendary Morgus appeared on stage at the Star. Miss Dell and her dance students review were frequent stage programs, and St. Paul's School used the theater for its graduation ceremonies once, when Nikki Barranger was valedictorian.

The Star was the first theater on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain to show a movie in wide screen format, that being the 1952 motion picture "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne. To accommodate the wider screen, Henry Verges was called in to build a new screen frame. The theater also installed the first stereo sound in the northlake area.

As it became a hub of community life, Salles' father would conduct special showings for private groups that were unable to come to the theater at night, groups such as the Catholic sisters at St. Gertrudes in Ramsay. "They even quilted an American flag for my father to show their appreciation," Salles stated. 

Some of the movies were truly special occasions as they starred St. Tammany area residents who had gone to Hollywood and become big-name actors and actresses. One such person was Peggy Dow, and a special premiere of one of her pictures brought in hundreds of fans and friends. 

Peggy Dow

Part of the attraction were the giveaway stage shows, money nights where cash would be given away as part of the fun. The most popular game was called "Comet," which was similar to bingo. There was also a series of horse racing games in the 1940's where race films would be shipped to the theater and no one would know which horse in the film would win. Patrons would receive tickets which could have the winning horse's name imprinted on it. 

Over the years, the theater was used as a hurricane shelter several times. "I can recall people bringing their blankets and pillows and bedding down in the foyer and lobby. Many of them sat in the seats during the storms," Salles said.

In 1961 graduation ceremonies for St. Scholastica Academy was held in the Star Theatre

The Star Theater was completely remodeled and modernized in 1970 to create a “twin fa├žade” look and two indoor theaters. This allowed two different types of films to be shown simultaneously to separated audiences. Phil and Warren Salles, co-owners, said the twin theaters would be called Cinema I and Cinema II. The twin front emphasized its 3-story height by use of two Mansard canopies set on a background of marble-chip panels.

After a period of inactivity, the Star Theater's stage was active once again in 1987.


Here is the text of Pat Clanton's speech as she prepared to cut the ribbon for the opening of the Star Theater for live theater by the United Theater Artists group.
Ribbon Cutting for the Reopening of the Star Theater for Live Entertainment

"Good evening, I've been asked to welcome you tonight on behalf of the City of Covington. Tonight we are caught up in turning of another page in the history of Theatre in Covington. The history of Theatre in Covington is especially dear to my heart and I'd like to share with you the reason for that.

Many years ago in 1912 a very handsome and talented young man, by the name of Sidney Fuhrmann, my father, journeyed all the way from the settlement of Goodbee to the town of Covington to open the first theatre to show the wonderful and exciting and new silent movies.

Sid, as he liked to be called, named it the PARKVIEW THEATRE and it was located on the corner of New Hampshire and Boston Streets. It wasn't called a theater for the performing arts at that time but that is what he made it. Sid brought artistic talent drama, poetry readings and violinist, skits of comedy and drama.

All of this was done to the delight of the audiences. His own talents were many and varied, and he won the hearts of the community. He especially won the heart of a pretty young lady named Pauline Frederick, and it has always been my delight to say that in 1914 my parents were married on the stage of the Parkview Theatre.

In the mid 1920's the leaders of Covington felt that the city should have a newer and grander Theatre in this progressive little city and so a new Theatre was built across the street from the Parkview and Dad was to be the Manager.

In the 39's and 40's my sister Rosemerry (Hanian) and I grew up going to the movies every time that the movie changed and in addition to that we spent some of our time singing and dancing on the stage of the new and wonderful Majestic Theater.

In addition to the movies the Majestic frequently had love entertainment, Dance Reviews, Talent Nights, Magicians and other entertainers that were preforming in Theatres in New Orleans were brought to the Majestic for special added entertainment. So, my brother, Brandon, Rosemerry and I were the envy of the other kids because we got to see all of the movies free!

Of course our ideals were Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and all of the glamorous stars of the day. It certainly had a profound effect on the way we feel about Theatre and entertainment.

In the 1940's the Salles family moved to Covington and opened the Star Theatre and that Star shown very brightly in Covington for many years. A debt of gratitude goes to the Salles family for bringing the finest movies to Covington all of those years.


Now we move into the 1950's and that was a little bit like a remake of the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies. The script went like this. "We have found this old Dairy Barn and we're going to turn it into a Theatre. We'll build a stage and put on a play and we'll call ourselves Playmakers. Everybody come." 
Everybody did come and we put on many plays and they are still coming to the Playmaker's Barn in San Souci Forest just outside of Covington. Bouquets and accolades go to Playmaker's for these many years of entertainment.
Time for Theater Magic

Shuuu, did you hear that? No, you can feel it. It's called "magic time" in the theatre. The theatre is filled at this moment with make believe and let's pretend and the last minute excitement just before the curtain opens and magic seems to descend all around us.

The cast arrived tonight from their ordinary jobs and as they prepared for tonight by putting on their makeup and slipping into their costumes they also slipped out of themselves and slipped into their characters. You have been changed too by this atmosphere of "let's pretend and make believe." 
You arrived as individuals and now you have been transformed into one, an audience. It is you, the audience that breathes life into the performance. The players will come on the stage and give you the gift of entertainment and when you fill the theatre with your applause, you return the gift to them completing the circle.

And now, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to the two people that have made all of this possible. Applause for Louri Taylor and Randy Perkins. (and then as we cut the ribbon I said, "What could be more exciting to read on this page of history of Theatre in Covington than this? On this night we turned the lights back on in the Star Theatre."

Patricia Fuhrmann Clanton    December 4, 1987

A scene from "Steel Magnolias" on stage in 1989

The 1997 Renovation
In 1997 the theater was extensively renovated with new sound, movie poster cases, concessions area and the marquee. The new cherry wood concession stand was custom-designed and custom-built by master craftsman Ernest Rodriguez III and his son.

Salles Family

Cutting the ribbon on the re-opening of the Star Theater in April of 1997.


It was big news when the renovated theater opened in 1997, even WDSU sent a news crew to cover the re-opening event. 

Tornado Dampens Movie Premiere

A gala movie premiere was scheduled for Friday night, November 21, 1997.  "Eve's Bayou," was to be shown for the first time, and part of the film was made in Covington. Early in the afternoon, however, a tornado passed through Covington and although numerous trees were destroyed, houses were damaged, and a two story dry cleaners building collapsed half a block away, the Star stood firm during the storm. The premiere was cancelled due to the stacks of debris strewn across the streets, not to mention the lack of power.

Salles had an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from the Star's 55 years of community service, and he was even featured on an episode of "American Pickers," the television show where two guys travel around the country looking for unusual collectibles.

Below is a collection of photographs of the Star Theater from years ago. 

The community sound truck which was used to announce coming attractions.

Salles also spoke to the St. Tammany Parish Historical Society in 1997 about the history of the theater and its relationship with the community of Covington.

Click on the "play triangle" above to hear the historical society presentation. 

The Star Theater Facebook Page:

The Star Theater has also co-starred in movies itself as a background for movies made in Covington. In 2014 it was dressed up and shown in a Joe Dirt movie. 

It was for sale and under contract for years as the prospective new owners tried to obtain historic preservation incentives to fix it back to its former glory. 

Interior Photos

In May of 2019 I took several photos of the interior of one of the two theater spaces inside the Star. The  photos were part of a tour given by the theater owner for the Covington Heritage Foundation. It showed the set and props used in the last live theater production.

Remembering the Star Theater Facebook Page:

Being Demolished - July 2023

In July of 2023, it was announced that the Star Theater will be demolished instead of refurbished. Mayor Mark Johnson reported in his July newsletter to the citizens of Covington: "Despite Herculean efforts on the part of the new owners of the Star Theater, it was not feasible to re-purpose the building. Demolition should begin next week.

The theater is now just a memory among many memories.

It was torn down on July 25, 2023, having been a downtown Covington landmark for eighty-one years.

CLICK HERE for information about other theaters in west St. Tammany.

See also:

Warren Salles at the podium at the summer meeting of the St. Tammany Parish Historical Society in 1997, telling the decades long story of how his family came to Covington, built the Star Theater, and managed other theaters in the area. 

Threading the Projector

Here is a video I made 26 years ago in 1997 on the process of receiving films to be shown at the Star, how they arrived in four separate sections, how they were spliced together and loaded onto a large circular platter. Then through a series of pulleys, the film was moved at the precise speed into the projector. Afterwards the film was cut back into four sections and loaded back onto the four empty reels.

Click on the "play triangle" to view the video.

Today most movie theaters use digital projection equipment, eliminating the need for films on reels, splicing, threading and hauling around big cannisters of film. 

The Salles Family was also involved in several other community endeavors.

Article and photo from the St. Tammany News Banner

Warren and Liz Salles, 1997