310 Center Avenue,
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The Empress Theatre appears to be largely active from 1917 to 1957 in downtown Wolbach. The town, which never reached a population of 600, was on the vaudeville circuit beginning in 1907 and continued into the early-1910’s. That theatre then began to favor movies over vaudeville. And it could have been this same Empress Theatre venue or location. However, a note states that Peter Stepnosky decided to build a new theatre designed for motion pictures in 1917 in Wolbach. It was partially based on the design by George Rogers of Omaha. That is likely the building that was still standing in the 2020’s in downtown just two doors from the town’s post office.
The Empress Theatre showed silent films until 1930 and was taken over by John H. Berney in 1927. In February of 1930, Berney installed Vitaphone disc-based sound to show talkies. The Empress Theatre remained with Vitaphone until 1935 - believed to be the last such installation in regular use in the state of Nebraska. The theatre survived a projection booth fire that might have destroyed more poorly-constructed venues even in larger cities thanks to the fireproof booth. The Empress Theatre’s transformation to sound on film was followed by an interior makeover and partial exterior refresh that was more streamlined.
The Empress Theatre was in the Berney family for a lengthy period and, in 1953, it was an early adopter of widescreen projection when it installed new equipment to present CinemaScope titles. Operator Alfred Berney gave the venue its final refresh with a new marquee and new leather-covered seating. But the combination of television and shrinking population - the town would sink to under 400 residents during the decade of the 1950’s - led to the closure of the Empress Theatre in January of 1956. The theatre reopened in February of 1957 but may have closed within the year. The seats were moved from the theatre to the Greeley County Courthouse in 1964. As noted, the former theatre was still standing in the 2020’s.
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