Comments from Cinematreasures.org:
A September, 1983 Racine Journal Times article reported that in about 1912 Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] was brought to Racine to form and play in the pit orchestra of the Rex (then Racine Theatre) by Philip Dahlberg along with Cora Salisbury up from Waukegan to play with him. Together the trio supplied the musical accompaniment to the shows of the ring season. Benny played the violin. He was just 18 years of age.
The building stood past 1970 as J&W Lanes. I just added a 1973 photo credit Scott Cisco, which has a `73 Pontiac parked across the street from the former theatre.
Racine Journal Times, July 9, 1937) – Experienced Showman Cornel to Racine to Operate Rex Theater … The Rex theater, which will open within the next 10 days with vaudeville presentations and talking pictures will be guided by an experienced hand. A. J. Cooper, president and managing director of the Cooper’s Theaters Inc., will be in charge of the new Rex theater. Building his first theater in a small Ohio town in 1915, he later established a circuit of theaters in Wisconsin. Subsequently he organized a chain of theatres in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and then went to New York city, where he opened and operated the New York Hippodrome theater. On his chain of theaters the Riverside theater in Milwaukee is still running under his original policy. Mr. Cooper places a great deal of faith in Racine.
Racine and Rex grand opening ads in the photo section.
The New Belle Opera House launched on February 11, 1890 with “The Pirates of Penzance.” It replaced the previous Belle Opera House which had ceased existing in 1883. On August 16, 1906, it became the Racine Theatre with legit live plays. It became the Rex Theatre on May 14, 1914 launching with live vaudeville prior to moving to films full-time.
In 1930, the theatre went dark on the delinquent tax list. It appears to reopen late in the 1930s with listings for the Rex are discontinued in 1939 with the property still on the tax list. In March of 1942, Dave Luby bought the property to convert it to the ten-lane Luby’s Bowling Lanes which – possibly due to war shortages – appears to have not opened until April of 1946. J&W Lanes took over from there in 1971 before moving to the Castle Lanes facility elsewhere in January of 1978. The former New Belle/Rex property was demolished in December of 1978.
(Racine Sunday Bulletin, June 12, 1960 with 3 photos)
Some of the most famous names of the American theater in the late years of the 19th century gathered after their performances at a small tavern at 217 Main St. Their performances, for audiences in Downtown Racine, had been given on the stage of the Belle City Opera House at 211-215 Main St. The 70-year-old house still stands, in use now as a bowling alley.
The structure is one of several in the Downtown area to play major roles in Racine’s entertainment history. Its name was changed twice, however, as the stage show glories of the old Belle City Opera House began to fade. In later years it was called the Racine Theater and then the Rex, as it became the first large movie house in the city.
H. W. Knopke, whose father owned the tavern just north of the Belle City Opera House, recalls: “Most of the big stars of the time were here — Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Mantell.” Racine audiences saw the top shows because leading performers and their troupes stopped in the city for a one-night stand between their Chicago and Milwaukee appearances.
Among the shows presented from the Belle City House’s stage during May of 1890 were the Postage Stamp Company’s performance of “A Social Season” on the 3d, Arden Benedick in “Story of the Dead” on the 10th, J. S. Murphy in “Kerry Gow” on the 16th, Charles H. Hall in “Knute Knutson” on the 19th and Ezra Kendall in “A Pair of Kids” on the 23d. Hohenstim and Fisher and Master T. K. Jones presented a six-day series which included “Disowned,” “Woman Against Women,” “Sea Waif,” and “Carl the Outcast.”
A book Knopke’s father maintained showed that other famous performers on the Belle City stage were John L. Sullivan for “Honest Hearts”. This was typical of the splendor of the opera houses which served Racine late in the 19th century, such as the Blake Opera House on 6th St. or the Belle City Opera House on Main St. and Willing Hands” and John Philip Sousa’s “Marine Band.” Many names, such as Pat Rooney and John Dillon, reappeared several times in the book and a frequently-performed show was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Local productions also appeared on the stage, the Racine Opera Co. presenting “The Mikado” and other shows, and Racine Elks Lodge 252 the “Elks’ Minstrels.” The theater was built by the New Hall Club, an organization which for some unknown reason, Knopke recalled, had acquired the nickname “Forty Thieves.” Although the Rex, or Belle City, was Racine’s first big movie house, the first crude “talkies,” as well as the city’s first vaudeville show, were brought to Racine by the late W. C. Tiede.
Tiede became known as a showman in Racine soon after the Blake Opera House burned down in 1884. Tiede took over the old Turner Hall at 518-522 College Ave. for road shows. Later, after working on the road as an advance man for minstrels and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tiede started the Bijou Theater where the Hotel Nelson is located, and gave Racine its first vaudeville shows. Tiede later returned to the Turner Hall — calling it first the People’s Theater and then the College Avenue Orpheum — for his “cameraphone productions.”
“Cameraphone,” ancestor of the talking pictures, was billed as offering “beautiful and no longer dumb” attractions. The productions, back in about 1909, synchronized a phonograph, located behind the stage, with a projector, located in the back of the auditorium. Dots or dashes on the screen warned the man changing records to get ready. More dashes, flashing on screen, signaled him to start the record going. But sometimes the synchronization went awry and audiences would continue to hear the sound after the auditorium and screen had gone dark.
(Racine County Argus, January 6, 1876)
The Opening of Belle City Opera House
Monday night the Belle City Opera House was opened by the McKee Rankin Combination. As was supposed, the house was crowded. The play was fine. Racine people will always patronize a first-class entertainment, now that they have a good house to go to. The Belle City Hall, as remodeled, makes a fine little Opera House, only a few improvements being necessary to make it as good as any, and the people appreciate it. The order that was kept in the large audience during the evening was extraordinary, past experiences taken into consideration.
The Chief of the Police and Chief Engineer of the fire department were present as policemen. At one time the gallery crowd commenced their tramping. Fred, immediately went up and calling order, addressed the crowd in a neat style, telling them to the effect that such disturbauces must be discontinued, or the officers should use their full authority to arrest all, any one and every one engaged, also stating they should call for assistance to enforce the statement. A grand applause followed, and perfect order reigned thereafter. So much for the police.
(Racine Sunday Bulletin, June 12, 1960)
Belle City Opera Became the Rex
The 70-year-old house still stands, in use now as a bowling alley. The structure is one of several in the Downtown area to play major roles in Racine’s entertainment history.
Its name was changed twice, however, as the stage show glories of the old Belle City Opera House began to fade. In later years it was called the Racine Theater and then the Rex, as it became the first large movie house in the city.
H. W. Knopke, whose father owned the tavern just north of the Belle City Opera House, recalls: “Most of the big stars of the time were here — Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Mantell.“ Racine audiences saw the top shows because leading performers and their troupes stopped in the city for a one-night stand between their Chicago and Milwaukee appearances.
Among the shows presented from the Belle City House’s stage during May of 1890 were the Postage Stamp Company’s performance of “A Social Season” on the 3d, Arden Benedick in “Story of the Dead” on the 10th, J. S. Murphy in “Kerry Gow” on the 16th, Charles H. Hall in “Knute Knutson” on the 19th and Ezra Kendall in “A Pair of Kids” on the 23d. Hohenstim and Fisher and Master T. K. Jones presented a six-day series.
The REX was closed by then-owner Stanford “Stan” Kohlberg, who was concurrently running the Racine GRANADA. Kohlberg once owned over 30 theatres in Chicago.
(Racine Journal Times, March 24, 1942)
D. Luby Buys Rex Theater-
Pays $3,000 at Tax Sale; To Spend Large Sum in Improvements
The Rex theater in the 200 block on Main street, once one of the best legitimate playhouses in this section, was sold on a tax deed
by Racine county Monday, to Dave Luby of Luby’s Appliance company, 4i2 Sixth street, for $3,000.
Mr. Luby said he plans to spend from $30,000 to $40,000 to remodel
the place, which has a 40-foot frontage on Main street, and convert
it into a cocktail bar and bowling alley.
To Start Work Soon.
Work of tearing out the balconies, leveling the floor and reducing
the outer walls will be started in a few days, and the remodeling will be under way within three weeks. Mr. Luby plans to install 10 bowling alleys and have them in service as soon as possible.
Mr. Luby said he will cater especially to women, and will install
separate lounge and rest rooms and locker rooms for them. The
alleys will have a 10 foot high saw-tooth ceiling and be fluorescent,
lighted. Lockers and rest rooms will be on the second floor. Exterior of the structure will be remodeled. The cocktail lounge
on the main floor will be modernistic in design and appointments.
Delinquent Since 1930.
Sale was negotiated by County Clerk Lennie Hardie, County Treasurer Horace F. Edmands and Supervisor Fred Travers of the First ward. The property has been tax delinquent since 1930, and was seized by the county in 1940.
The Belle City opera house was built in the early 1880’s by a stock company, the name later being changed to the Racine theater and still later to the Rex theater. In the 80’s and 90’s, before advent of nickelodeons, it was Racine’s only show house and many famous actors and stock companies played there.
Racine Journal, May 14, 1914: “When amusement loving people visit the old Racine theatre this evening, to be known in the future as the New Rex, they will hardly recognize the place. A transformation scene has taken place â€” a beautiful new front has been built; the lobby made modern; interior redecorated; stage improved; seats covered with white cloth. In fact it is practically a new theatre. May Robson in the James Forbes comedy, “The Clever Woman,” opens the house, and after that it becomes a picture house exclusively.
“The Clever Woman” is a three act comedy of contemporary life written for Miss Robson by Mr. Forbes. Miss Robson has made folk laugh throughout the length and breadth of the land, if reports speak true. She is running to form in the part which Mr. Forbes has given her. It is described as 150 minutes of laughter and if anyone can get that amount of laughter into an evening’s entertainment it is surely May Robson. Miss Robson will be supported by a competent company of players each of whom contributes to the pleasure of the entertainment. From a scenic standpoint every attention has been given to the details.”
The bowling establishment that operated within the former Rex Theatre until the end was the J & W Lanes.
The correct address of the Rex was 211 South Main Street.
Here is an article from the Racine Journal News in August 1914:
3,600 SEE GREAT PLAY
AT THE REX THEATRE
Rex Theater Crowded Afternoon and
Evening to See Trey O’ Hearts
How they did pack in the Rex Theater all day yesterday and last evening to see “The Trey O’ Hearts”. This popular photo-drama had its
second installment yesterday, and the number of admissions ran 3600. This attendance was certainly gratifying to Tom Norman, manager, as he is confident the people of Racine would appreciate the production in moving pictures of Louis Joseph Vance’s great story.
All afternoon the women and children kept coming, and it seemed as
it all roads led to the Rex theater. In the evening the same scenes were repeated. The “Trey O’ Hearts” has certainly made a big hit and the same large houses can be expected every Tuesday.
The “Million Dollar Mystery” made and is making a big hit, but
the crowd yesterday even surpassed that production’s biggest day.