Indianapolis Then and Now: Zaring’s Egyptian Theatre, 2741 Central Avenue

Written by on May 9, 2013 in Then & Now - 14 Comments
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After witnessing people jamming into packed movie theaters and sensing a good business opportunity, Indiana native Anzi Zaring sold his laundry company, bought a neighborhood theater in 1910, and never looked back. He steadily grew his business in the ‘teens and early 1920s until finally constructing his dream building:  Zaring’s Egyptian Theatre.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company Collection #94388

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Company Collection #94388, 1925. This view looks east toward Central Avenue from 28th Street.

Located just north of Fall Creek Boulevard at 2741 Central Avenue, the theater opened on November 2, 1925. Wanting an out-of-the-ordinary structure, Zaring hired Indianapolis architect Frank B. Hunter. Hunter had recently seen Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and suggested an Egyptian-themed design. The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 sparked a worldwide interest in ancient Egypt and dozens of movie theaters across the United Stated were built in the Egyptian Revival style. Designed as an Egyptian temple, the recently constructed Zaring Theatre (photographed in 1925 during its first year of operation) appears to have been faux-aged with a smoky finish. The symmetrical stone block facade had columns flanking the box office, spears supporting a canopy, and bas-relief panels with Egyptian motifs.  (Check out this alternate 1925 view from the Indiana Historical Society.)

1951 photograph by Harold Allen / Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago

1951 photograph by Harold Allen / Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago

Quite elaborate for a neighborhood theater, the 1100-seat auditorium featured columns and walls painted with Egyptian designs and images of pharaohs. Zaring’s daughter recalled that custom-made lounge chairs were adapted from furniture found in King Tut’s tomb. A genealogy of the Zaring family describes the atmospheric interior: “The ceiling of the auditorium represented the night sky with stars set in a dark blue heaven. Gray clouds rolled over the sky continuously. The design was to create the effect of looking up at the sky from an Arabian tent. The balcony was above the corridor at the rear of the auditorium and was so designed that it did not block the view of the sky of anyone seated on the main floor. As late as 1940 Amzi was enriching the decor with special carpets and hand carved wall lights with copies of authentic Egyptian plaques.” Music was provided by a two-manual Marr and Colton organ, a duplicate of the Piccadilly Theatre organ in New York.

Zaring ran the theater for over thirty years, working with his wife Mayme and long-time employee and sister-in-law Bertha “Bertie” Zaring. The Zaring (sometimes called The Egyptian) soon shifted from silent movies to talkies and was one of the earliest neighborhood theaters to show matinees. Unsatisfied that only downtown theaters were allowed to show first-run movies (other movie houses had to wait twenty-eight days), Zaring filed suit against Loews and Paramount Pictures in 1949. Accusing them of “unreasonable and illegal dominance of Indianapolis motion picture distribution channels,” he eventually struck a deal and settled out of court. The theater was also used for community events such as high school concerts, early performances by Footlite Musicals, and a yearly Christmas party for Indianapolis orphans. Shortly before Zaring died in 1956, he sold the theater to David and Kelly Levitt. By 1966 the theater was used for burlesque performances.

Photo courtesy of Tammi Burns.

Photo courtesy of Tammi Burns.

The theater struggled for a few years and was demolished in 1969. Since then, the land has been vacant but the memoirs of many local baby boomers recall the days of westerns and matinees at this unique Indianapolis movie theater.

 

So what do *you* remember about Zaring’s Egyptian Theatre?

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About the Author

Joan Hostetler and John Harris own Heritage Photo & Research Services. The company specializes in house and building research and historic photograph preservation, interpretation, archiving, and digitization. Since they see so many cool photographs tucked away in attics and basements, they recently created "The Indiana Album" to borrow, scan, and share hidden Indiana images with the public. Like them on facebook or send them an email to share your photographs.

14 Comments on "Indianapolis Then and Now: Zaring’s Egyptian Theatre, 2741 Central Avenue"

  1. basil berchekas jr May 9, 2013 at 6:44 am · Reply

    Knew a number of boomers who grew up in this area that attended this theater as kids for the matinees when this area was considered “upscale”…i know this dates me!

  2. Scott Smith May 9, 2013 at 8:38 am · Reply

    Aww, man! I understand buildings are going to get demolished. However, I propose a requirement that all structures over a certain age must be thoroughly digitally documented before the wrecking ball swings. My imagination soars with images of what it was like to experience this place. Great article!

    • Joan Hostetler May 9, 2013 at 11:32 am · Reply

      I agree about the documentation (but only as a last resort; I’d rather save the actual building when possible). Since the Egyptian survived until 1969, surely there are some color photographs floating around someplace. I checked the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) photos and the Gene Gladson Theater Collection (http://www.in.gov/dnr/historic/3804.htm) but found no later photos of the theater.

  3. Norm Morford May 9, 2013 at 10:26 am · Reply

    Thanks, Joan. One of the first movies I ever saw was at this theater in about 1943 — Disney’s “Zip-e-de-do-dah!”

  4. Sharon Butsch Freeland May 9, 2013 at 10:38 am · Reply

    When the Zaring Theatre was built, films were still silent. Like all other theatres of the day, the Zaring had a piano on which live music was played to accompany the films. The piano music provided an important part of the movie-going experience, by setting the mood for the images appearing on the screen.
    .
    The Zaring theatre’s piano was a baby grand that was painted with an Egyptian motif. The entire piano was painted green, and the figures on the green background were in orange, blue, gold, and black.
    .
    After the success of the first full-length movie with synchronized sound, which was “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, “talkies” gradually became the norm. By the late ’30s, all movies had soundtracks, and silent films were passé.
    .
    My maternal grandparents, Stuart and Catharine Tomlinson, were friends of Anzi and Mayme Zaring. After the Zarings no longer needed a piano in the Zaring Theatre, the couple gave it to my mother as a birthday present. When my parents married a few years later, the piano proceeded to occupy a prominent position in every home they owned.
    .
    My siblings and I grew up playing the Zaring Theatre piano. My brother, who became a pianist and music director, earned a full scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, thanks in part to the Zaring Theatre piano.

    • Joan Hostetler May 9, 2013 at 11:25 am · Reply

      What a great story about the piano! Thanks for sharing. Whatever happened to it….is it still in the family?

      • Sharon Butsch Freeland May 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm · Reply

        I am sorry to report that the Zaring Theatre piano is NOT still in the family. I wish it were.
        .
        My brother lived in a dormitory during his freshman year at CCM. For the remainder of his years in Cincinnati, John had an apartment near campus with a lot more space than a dorm room. Our mother allowed him to move the Zaring Theatre piano from our family’s home in Indianapolis to his apartment in Cincinnati, thinking it would make it easier for him to practice if he had a piano right there in his living space. We had a second piano in our family’s house by that time, so the rest of us still had an instrument to play.
        .
        Sometime towards the end of his years in Cincinnati (1969-1973), John sold the piano (for $600!). Although he was obviously the primary member of the family who played the piano at that point, it wasn’t really his place to sell it. It was technically our mother’s piano. I’m sure John was a struggling student and was desperate for money, so he rationalized his actions. He claimed that he had an agreement with the buyer of the piano that he could buy it back at any time, at whatever the fair market value of the piano might be then, but eventually John lost contact with that individual.
        .
        As my brother is no longer living — a fact that was decided not by John but by the deranged person who took John’s life from him — I can’t discuss ideas with him for ways of tracking down the piano. Because the Zaring Theatre piano was an important factor in his early development as a musician, it will forever be a part of our memories of John. It would mean a lot to our family to locate the Zaring Theatre piano and buy it back, but I don’t have a clue as to how to go about finding it, forty years later.

        • Julie Smith May 9, 2013 at 4:23 pm · Reply

          Most likely that piano is still in or around Cincinnati assuming that he sold it to a Cincinnati resident. You could try calling up piano tuning services and/or piano stores in the Cincinnati area asking if they are familiar with anyone owning a piano that looks like it. I would go so far as to send all the stores a picture of the piano if possible if you have one.

  5. Kathleen Lynch May 15, 2013 at 7:18 am · Reply

    It’s fifty years and more since the Zaring Egyptian Theater held an Eisenstein film festival. Indianapolis about 1960 was probably not the most receptive audience for Alexander Nevsky, Battleship Potemkin, and the first two parts of Ivan the Terrible, but having the chance to see these films on a theater screen made priceless memories for me. I can still see the green sections in my mind’s eye, and those incredible theatrical gestures. Other movies there have blurred together, but they were illuminating at the time.The Zaring was an art theater for a short (but glorious) part of its history.
    It was followed by a stint as a live-theater — for women with 50 inch bustlines and other wiggly parts. Burlesque has a real part in the history of theater, but it was so sad to see the Zaring become a burlesque house.
    What about the Vogue Theater in Broad Ripple? My memories there include twenty-five cent matinees with cowboy serials and years and years later, the Chenille Sisters live!

    • basil berchekas jr May 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm · Reply

      Understand the Vogue is doing well as a music venue for alternative rock bands…busy virtually all nights and with a an internet site.

  6. Monica Cappuccini January 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm · Reply

    Hello!
    Does anyone know if there were statues of ‘Egyptian dancing girls’ up around the balcony of the Zaring?
    I think I might have one: she’s about 2 and a half feet tall, very art deco in style, a ‘Salome’ type outfit, signed A.PECK , plaster of paris, I think.
    She’s lovely.
    I bought her from someone a couple of years ago who said he had purchased her around 1974 in Indianapolis.According to him, there were about 100 of these figures placed around the balcony in the mezzanine.
    I’ve looked for pictures to see if there were such figures but cannot find any.
    Do you have any information about this, Joan?
    I’d appreciate any information. She’s one of my favorite finds!
    Thanks so much,
    Monica

  7. Larry Wagner June 28, 2014 at 6:05 pm · Reply

    I moved to Indianapolis in 1957 and lived on North Carrolton St from 1960 to 1963 (maybe). It was probably during this period that I saw a live show at the Zaring Theatre. It starred King Donovan and Imogene Coca (husband and wife). I don’t recall the name of the show. This may have been before or during the theatre offered burlesque.
    I think I also saw Imogene Coca at the Avondale Theatre in a show where she was a queen ant! The Avondale theatre was in the Meadows area in a tent. Does anyone else recall these shows?

  8. Barbara Wagner September 7, 2014 at 9:57 pm · Reply

    As a little girl back in the early 1950’s I remember going to the movies at the Zaring and paying 10 cents. I believe we (my sister & I) would mostly see western movies.We lived up the street several blocks in an apartment next door to a bar. We moved to Lexington, Kentucky and then on to Toledo, Ohio. Then In 1962 we moved to Orange ,Tx where I graduated from high school and married my husband in 1963 . As a young married couple my husband returned me to my hometown and went to work for then Indiana Bell telephone. Ironically, as one of his jobs at the phone company required him to remove all of the telephone wiring in the Zaring Theatre! He remembers going upstairs at the front of the theatre to what he called dressing rooms for women. There were some early costumes. He remembers some type of chandelier that was operated with a wooden pulley system. Also, there was a “phone booth” that he was most interested in and after work returned to get but someone else beat him to the punch. Ahhhhh, to know then what we know now.

  9. Jim McBride January 26, 2017 at 7:40 pm · Reply

    I lived near 30th and Winthrop from @1947 until 1956. I spent many a great Sat afternoon at the Zaring Egyptian, a quick 10 minute run from my home. When I visit Indy now and drive by I’m saddened that it wasn’t preserved. Thank you foe preserving Indy history. Jim

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