The Circle Cinema opened on Sunday, July 15, 1928 with a showing of “Across the Atlantic” with Monte Blue who, according to the advertisements, “Flies to France… and… Finds Romance.” Cost of the theater and its fixtures was about $62,000.
The theater is located in the Chilton Building built by architect/builder William R. Chilton. The Chilton Apartments were located on the second floor of the building and were “the latest designs in modern efficiency apartments, elaborately decorated and equipped with electric refrigerators.” There were a total of nine apartments upstairs, located off a central hallway. Eight of the apartments were small efficiencies with one being larger and better appointed. The larger apartment was likely for building personnel, possible the owner. In the kitchens, several of the apartments retain their historical efficiency stove/refrigerator/cabinet/sink combinations. Each apartment has a small opening with a wood door from the hallway into the kitchen area, possibly used for milk delivery.
The building “has a steel foundation, built to carry four additional stories when needed.” The first occupants of the commercial space on either side of the Circle Theater were the Circle Barber Shop (8 South Lewis) and the Circle Candy Shop (10 S. Lewis) (W.A. Hahn, confectioner). Though the Circle Theater was built after the age of the silent movie, it was equipped with a two-manual, four-rank Robert-Morton pipe organ.
The building is located in the historic Whittier Square Shopping Center, Tulsa’s first suburban shopping center. Although compatible in style with the other buildings on the block, the theater is noteworthy for its unusual height, colorful brick and narrow setback. The theater is a two-story Commerical Style building. It was originally constructed with two small storefronts flanking the central theater entrance. In 1957 the south storefront was incorporated into the theater entrance creating a larger theater lobby. The sloped auditorium was created by digging below grade and the theater remains a large open space with a single screen. Centrally located above the second story windows is a stone name plate which reads “19 Chilton 28.” The nameplate has a decorative surround with stone corners.
The Circle Theater is remembered as a theater that was popular with the pre-teen and young teenage crowd. The ten-cent price of a movie ticket included a feature film and serials. Popular film serials like “The Green Hornet” drew the neighborhood children to the movie theater as often as the feature films. A nickel would buy a funnel-shaped cup of peanuts and a cup of orange juice from the vendor who was set up next to the theater. The most popular films ever shown at the Circle included the James Bond films “Goldfinger” and a rerun double-bill of “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love.”
General Theaters, Inc. operated the Circle and Tulsa Theaters in Tulsa, as well as several others in Oklahoma and Kansas. On December 17, 1963, the Circle Theater closed for extensive refurbishing ($5,000-$7,500). It reopened on Christmas Day, with a new “first-run, quality entertainment policy.” Jim McKenna, spokesman for General Theaters, Inc., described the work as, “installation of a new screen, new padding and covers for all seats, complete overhaul of the projectors, improvement on the sound system, installation of new carpeting, and the addition of curtains on each side of the screen to improve the sound quality in the theater.” The first offering under the Circle’s “new policy” was “King of the Suns,” starring Yul Brynner, George Chakiris, and Richard Basehart. It was also booked for “Dr. Strangelove,” starring Peter Sellers.
The old Circle Theater reopened in 1978 as the ‘New’ Circle, an “adult” film theater. The Tulsa World published a photograph of members of ACORN picketing against the “blue movies” shown at the New Circle Theater on August 20, 1978.
It is Tulsa’s only remaining historical movie theatre and the northern most indoor theater in the City of Tulsa.
The Circle Theater is listed with the Oklahoma Historical Preservation office and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although not the earliest or fanciest movie theater in Tulsa, the Circle Theater is the only pre-1960’s theater still in existence. Constructed in the Commercial Style, the Circle Theater is distinctive from the opulent and frequently exotic styles of big city movie palace architecture of the period. The restrained use of style is probably attributable to two factors: the lack of a professional architect in the design and the placement of the theater in an early suburban shopping center.
The Circle Theater was located in Whittier Square, Tulsa’s first suburban shopping center. The majority of the shopping center consisted of one- and two- story brick Commercial style buildings constructed primarily between 1927 and 1929. Matching the other buildings in terms of style and construction material, the Circle Theater was in keeping with the rest of the Whittier Square Shopping Center. However, the theater did not meld in entirely with the rest of the late 1920 business district. The theater featured a distinctive, multicolor brick, and although only two-stories like many of the buildings in the center, was unrivaled in height.
The setting of the Circle Theater is the most noticeable characteristic that set the theater apart from other buildings in the shopping center. As originally designed, the theater was located conspicuously closer to the street than any other building on the block. This relates directly to the historic function of the building as a movie theater. Selling an intangible, movie theaters relied on an intimate setting between the movie theater and patron to reduce distractions from the broader shopping district.
History compiled by Lee Anne Zeigler, Tulsa Foundation for Architecture; and Cynthia Savage.
“Circle Theater is Being Refurbished; ‘Quality,’ First-Run Policy Planned.” Tulsa Tribune 17 December 1963.
“Motion Picture Theaters.” R.L. Polk & Co. (1929).
“Movie-Going Boom Noted by City Theater Business.” Tulsa World 23 August 1965
“Old Circle Theater Closes Its Doors.” Tulsa World 24 March 1978: B2.
McConnel, John. “Cine Centro.” Vaison Entertainment Services, 1997-2001. Record #109.
R.L. Polk & Co. Directory. Tulsa, Oklahoma (1929).
R.L. Polk & Co. Directory. Tulsa, Oklahoma. (1928).
Taylor, Mark. “Delman fading to black.” Tulsa Tribune 22 December 1988: A1+.
Tulsa Classified Business Directory (1928).
Wilson, David. “Older Theaters Fade to Black.” Tulsa World 12 May 1985: H1+.