The Opening Act
The McSwain Theatre has a long history full of imagination and entertainment.
Prominent Ada business man Foster McSwain built the theatre in 1920 as a home for silent films and Vaudeville acts.
Mr. McSwain decided to make the theatre business a career after he saw his first motion picture in 1910 in Enid, Oklahoma.
Shortly after coming to Ada in 1917, Mr. McSwain bought Liberty Theatre, located on Ada’s Main Street. One year later, he purchased another Ada theatre, the Majestic, and changed the name to the American. He built the McSwain approximately one year after purchasing property at Main and Townsend. It would accommodate 1,250 patrons when it was first constructed.
The silent film Suds, starring Mary Pickford, was the first movie screened at theatre when it opened July 19, 1920. The fireproof structure, as it was described, was also the setting for Vaudeville shows like Down on the Farm and The Girl From Outside.
In its early heyday, tickets would cost patrons 15 to 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
The theatre literally grew up with the city of Ada. According to the May 29, 1929, issue of the Ada Evening News, the McSwain was the site for the showing of the first "talkie" picture in Ada, which was Canary Murder Case, a Paramount-released murder mystery.
"Talkies" were the all the rage in the mid 1930s. In fact, the theatre had an extensive renovation in 1935 to accommodate "modern" motion pictures. Just the exterior walls of the building were left intact during the depression-era renovation, according to a newspaper article from Oct. 20, 1935.
"One of the most modern features is the new heating and cooling system which adjusts the temperature of the building by means of two giant 'blowers', one located in each side of the stage," the article states.
Renovation of the theatre included new seats, a balcony, a new mezzanine floor and a new air conditioning system. The bill, which also included new decoration throughout, came to $25,000.
The renovated McSwain Theatre was the scene for several high profile events over the years.
Rolling Out the Red Carpet
Following the extensive renovation, the McSwain would feature first run pictures such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. The price of admission was 25 cents. The playbill also advertised a free ride to the theatre in a 1938 Ford V-8, courtesy of a local car dealer.
A Bathing Beauty revue was underway in the late 1930s at the McSwain, featuring beautiful models and music by Oakley Gale and his orchestra.
The theatre also hosted several famous movie stars during the 1940s.
The world premiere of Home in Oklahoma, starring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, happened at the McSwain Theatre, Oct. 30, 1946. The movie was set at the Flying L Ranch near Davis, Oklahoma.
Rogers, Evans and co-star Gabby Hayes made a personal appearance at the premiere to promote the show.
The event made bold headlines, with several stories about the big event. Residents of Ada waited anxiously for the Wednesday premiere. In fact, a second stage performance was held at the Ritz Theatre to accommodate 1,000 additional spectators.
In some reported cases, the 40 cent tickets were sold on the "Black Market" for as much as $5.
Another locally-filmed movie, "Tulsa," had its premiere at the famed theatre April 14, 1949.
The movie starred Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. The stars and the cast and crew lived at Ada’s Aldridge Hotel while filming was underway at several local locations, including the Turner Ranch, located south of Ada, and Turner Falls near Sulphur.
Hayward and Preston both appeared at the McSwain Theatre for the premiere.
It was said that theatre owner and operator Foster McSwain was quite the promoter and was known for his give-away promotions, such as coffee pots, waffle irons and even televisions.
The McSwain Theatre had become the "place to be" in Ada Friday and Saturday nights. With such successes, the theatre continued to host events and screen movies for years to come.
From the Big Screen to a Big Stage
By the 1960s, the McSwain Theatre has surpassed its 40th year of entertaining Ada, but it was anything but over the hill.
Admission had inflated from 15 to 25 cents to 75 cents for adults. One thing had not changed – the theatre was still producing lines that nearly circled the block.
Double features of movies like "Dr. No" and "Bullet" gave moviegoers two for the price of one. On weekends, "Dusk till Dawn" nights would entertain patrons from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. During Halloween, scary movie marathons would include masked "monsters" running down the aisles, startling unsuspecting guests.
Special events like the "Billy Graham Crusade" took place at the McSwain, complete with a live pastor to give the invitation.
During the 1960s and '70s, McSwain Theatre patrons lined up to see cinema standouts, such as Psycho, Lawrence of Arabia, Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars.
However, the 1980s brought hard times on the McSwain. By July 1988, the theatre was forced to close its doors and succumb to the emerging multiscreen theatre business.
Before too long, though, the McSwain Theatre was revived – country style.
In 1991, local real estate businessman Paul Alford purchased the theatre with visions of bringing a Branson-style variety show to the Ada community. He wasted no time in giving the building a new life.
Mr. Alford appointed his niece, Jae L. Stilwell, to be manager of the theatre and arrange the shows and talent. Ms. Stilwell, herself, was an entertainer and had spent many years singing and recording in the country music business.
Oct. 17, 1992, marked the first show onstage with a down-home Western band, dubbed the McSwingers, and Ms. Stilwell as lead vocalist.
Since that opening night, Jae L. Stilwell and the McSwingers have been a constant among variety entertainers to take the stage, and McSwain music fans have had the opportunity to enjoy country stars and up-and-coming name makers onstage as well.
The McSwain stage has hosted Nashville stars, Branson favorites and local talent from across the state.
Ada-native Blake Shelton was a regular performer at the theatre for two years before moving to Nashville and recording his first chart topper, "Austin."
Pake McEntire and Susie McIntire-Luchsinger, siblings of Reba McEntire, have also performed gospel hits on the McSwain stage, as well as actor and recording artist Hoyt Axton and singer Jean Sheppard, who is known as one of the "Legends of the Grand Ole Opry."
Mae Boren Axton, the "Queen Mother of Nashville" and co-author of Elvis’ "Heartbreak Hotel," made an appearance at the McSwain in 1993 at an awards ceremony in her honor. From that time, the Mae Boren Axton Award was established to honor individuals who have positively impacted the country music industry. The awards ceremony has become one of the special events anticipated by McSwain fans.
The families of Oklahoma country music legends Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks have accepted the Mae Boren Axton Award on their behalf at the theatre, and the McSwain’s own Jae L. Stilwell received the honor in 1996.
For 10 years, the McSwain Theatre once again became an entertainment icon on Ada’s Main Street. Then, after the passing of theatre owner Paul Alford, the Chickasaw Nation, a Native American tribe headquartered in Ada, purchased the theatre in 2002 and began supervising its operation.
One of the first orders of business was to retain theatre manager Jae L. Stilwell to continue overseeing the theatre and producing the live performances. An effort was also begun to upgrade and restore much of the original look of the 1920s theatre.
Once again, the McSwain Theatre was under renovation to become the McSwain Theatre of today. Expansion was made to the stage, seating, dressing rooms and storage. State-of-the-art sound and lighting was incorporated and modern amenities were added, including an elevator and accessibility for disabled patrons.
The second and third stories of the historic theatre were redesigned to house a gallery used for art shows, receptions and specials events and offices for the McSwain Theatre staff.
Through the years, the McSwain Theatre has endured hard times and celebrated golden years. From the depression era to the era of the multiplex, the McSwain Theatre has reinvented itself, found its way and left indelible impressions on thousands of visitors, performers and patrons.
There is a reason that after 95 years at Main and Townsend, the McSwain Theatre has remained a favorite venue for generations of guests – imagination and entertainment.