A Journey Through Wheeling’s Theater History

It was Shakespeare who said ” all the world’s a stage,” and the city of Wheeling is no exception. While Wheeling maintains a strong theatrical following at the Capitol Theatre, Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre, and the Victoria Theater, these are just a few of the theaters that entertained countless Wheelingites through the years. These stages have seen international, national, and local greats, and they have offered many meaningful moments and memories to the citizens of Wheeling.  Today, we’re looking back at a few theaters from Wheeling’s past and present!

The Gem Theater

As a lifelong resident of Warwood, I’d be remiss not to begin with The Gem Theater. Warwood’s first moving picture theater was built in the mid-1910s by Leon Hoffman, whose primary occupations included working as a tobacconist and stogie roller. Located at 1813 Warwood Avenue, Gem Theater’s narrow sidewalk rounded to the rear of the building where guests could enjoy a motion picture, play in the pool hall, or eat ice cream at the neighboring parlor. For a period of time, young students from Corpus Christi School offered performances on Friday nights at the theater with all proceeds benefiting the school itself.1

The Gem also served as a community gathering place, according to a newspaper clipping published in the Wheeling Intelligencer on May 18, 1914. The announcement stated, “The graduates of the High school and eighth grade will be given a theater party this evening at the Gem Theater, on Warwood avenue.”  The party was generously hosted by Leon Hoffman, and the announcement noted that refreshments would be provided at a “seasonable hour.”2 The theater reportedly closed in 1926 and has since been demolished.3

“Theatre Party” (Wheeling Intelligencer, May 18, 1914).

Virginia Theater

While the site of the former Virginia Theater has been a parking lot for over fifty years, it was once home to WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree, offering live country music shows in the mid-1930s and again from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s. The Virginia regularly had guests wrapped around 12th Street awaiting entry. Its final performance in 1962 prefaced its demolition and Jamboree’s relocation to Rex Theater.4,5

Virginia Theater, 82 12th St., Wheeling WV (Photo courtesy of the Ohio County Public Library Archives).

Grand Opera House

The Laconia Building on the corner of Market and 12th Street was once the location of The Grand Theater or The Grand Opera House. After a fire destroyed the original structure in 1875, a new theater was built in 1877 utilizing a “high Victorian” style. A short time later, The German Bank of Wheeling purchased the building and planned an additional renovation that was overseen by Wheeling architect Frederick Faris altering the building “into one of the most accomplished and individualistic classic essays.”6 The structure went on to house the Wheeling Masons, the Ancient Order of United Workermen, and was even once owned by the infamous William “Big Bill” Lias.7

  • The Grand Theater, c. 1897 (From the W. C. Brown Collection of the Ohio County Public Library Archives)

Unlike the other two theaters we’ve covered, the Laconia Building still stands today. The building was purchased in 1993 by brothers Jack and Pat Felton, owners of FeltonCPA. The brothers made it a point to preserve the building’s original character as they restored the building, while still allowing for modern use as an office building.8

Victoria Theater

  • The Victoria Theater at night (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

Seating up to 720 people while boasting stunning Beaux-Arts design features, the Victoria Theater in Market Street remains a Wheeling staple with a fascinating history. The theater originally opened in 1904 and holds the title of the “oldest operating theater” in West Virginia.9 Over the course of its history, The Victoria has welcomed performers including George Burns and Katharine Hepburn to its stage. The Victoria has functioned in a variety of ways, even converting to a movie theater in 1950 before closing to the competition of The Ohio Valley Mall in the mid-1980s. Purchased, renovated, and reopened in the mid-90s, the Victoria Theater is known to provide unique, often local “Victoria Jamboree” vaudeville variety shows each month10

READ MORE: Wheeling’s Last Remaining Vaudeville Theater

Towngate Theatre 

If you’re in the local theater scene, then you’re probably already aware of the Towngate Theatre’s entertainment lineup, but the history in and of itself is equally as fascinating. The building was originally home to the First German Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church of Wheeling, purchased for $5,000 in 1852 and dedicated by Rev. Friedrich Zimmerman. The church faced tragedy when a tornado struck on May 21, 1862, collapsing the second-story auditorium, resulting in three children’s deaths and 10 injuries, attributed to inadequate architectural bracing. Over the years, the church underwent enhancements, including a gothic-style steeple in 1887, and on its 50th anniversary, it received new windows, interior and exterior painting, a crystal chandelier, crucifix, altar, and carpeting, showcasing the congregation’s collective efforts11

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  • Zion Lutheran Church, Wheeling. (from "Geschichte der... Zions Gemeinde in Wheeling, W. Va.," 1900, Ohio County Public Library)

When the congregation decided to relocate, this presented an opportunity for Oglebay Institute to relocate its growing theater program to the church.  Oglebay Institute has occupied the theater since 1969. This move would prove to change the face of art in Wheeling for decades to come. Providing an outlet for local performers to utilize their talents, Towngate Theatre has spent the last five decades offering cinema, stage, and educational experiences. While maintaining a strong following of phenomenal actors, actresses, musicians, and directors, Towngate Theatre also spends much of its time educating the next generation of artists. Through workshops, camps, and continued art experiences, Towngate is a hub for creativity and growth in the city of Wheeling.12

READ MORE: The Friendly Ghost Who Loved The Theatre

Capitol Theatre

  • Longtime Wheeling residents might recall when the Capitol Theater was more commonly known as the Capitol Music Hall (photo from Postcard Collection of the Ohio County Public Library Archives).

No article about Wheeling’s historic theaters would be complete without mentioning the granddaddy of them all – The Capitol Theatre. Opening on Thanksgiving afternoon in 1928 with four shows costing .60 cents per seat, The Capitol Theatre (or as many locals still call it, the Capitol Music Hall) remains a Wheeling treasure.13

Built with palatial features including a copper marquee, bracket lights made of solid bronze, 44 feet of stage under a grand proscenium arch, and 3,000 plush seats all maintaining beautiful views of the stage, the theater operated until 2007 when its owners ceased operation and put the building on the market. In April of 2009, The Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased the theater and proceeded with a series of renovations sponsored by Wheeling Heritage receiving a “Save America’s Treasures” grant that was matched by the city of Wheeling. This led not only to a reopening but to a revival. The Capitol Theatre welcomes more than 50,000 visitors annually, offering a variety of live entertainment for the community to enjoy.14,15

These are just a few of the historic theaters that have entertained countless audiences and provided a creative outlet for performers of all kinds. You can learn more about all of Wheeling’s historic theaters by visiting the Ohio County Public Library’s website or by scheduling a visit to the library’s Wheeling Room, which houses records of Wheeling’s history, an assortment of artifacts, and other historical materials. 

Karin Butyn was born and raised in Wheeling, WV. A graduate of Wheeling Central, West Liberty University, and Wheeling Jesuit University, Karin spent nearly a decade teaching both English as Second Language and Reading Language Arts. She is currently in her third year as an Assistant Principal for Ohio County Schools. In her free time, she enjoys running and music. She and her husband, TJ, are raising their young sons, Finn and Watson, in Warwood.

References

1 Dr. Charles A. Julian, “The Gem Theater,” May 2, 2022, some source information obtained from Warwood: A History, 1669-1975.

2 Wheeling Intelligencer, “Theater Party” May 18, 1914, 2.

3 Cinema Treasures, “Cinema Treasures: Gem Theater,” https://cinematreasures.org/theaters/45488 (accessed September 2023).

4 Ohio County Public Library, “Wheeling Hall of Fame: Frederick Faris,” https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/5243 (accessed September 2023).

5 Ohio County Public Library, “Virginia Theatre,” https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/history/virginia-theatre/3397 (accessed September 2023).

6 Ohio County Public Library, “Wheeling History: Grand Opera House,” https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/5500 (accessed September 2023).

7 Linda Harris, “Owners Preserve Historic Charm of Wheeling’s Laconia Building,” WV News, Feb. 17, 2017, https://www.wvnews.com/statejournal/owners-preserve-historic-charm-of-wheelings-laconia-building/article_a5222667-4adc-5066-a43e-4098bf209d7a.html (accessed September 2023).

8 Ibid.

9 “Victoria Theatre,” West Virginia Historic Theaters, https://wvhistorictheaters.com/region-4-north/victoria-theatre/ (accessed September 2023).

10 Ohio County Library, “Victoria Theater in Wheeling,”  https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/history/victoria-theater/5498 (accessed September 2023).

11 Alex Panas, “Old Churches, New Life, Part 1: Framed for the Arts,” Weelunk, https://weelunk.com/old-churches-new-life-part-1-framed-for-the-arts/ (accessed September 2023).

12 “Towngate Theatre,” Oglebay Institute, https://oionline.com/towngate/(accessed September 2023).

13 “Wheeling History: The Capitol Theatre,” Ohio County Public Library, https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/5466 (accessed September 2023).

14 Ibid.

15 “Capitol Theatre,” Wheeling Heritage, https://wheelingheritage.org/project/capitol-theatre/ (accessed September 2023).