Delaware Cinema, Muncie’s first suburban theater

Cinema’s magic lies in its ability to transport viewers to another world. Although this age of modern streaming services lets us watch whatever we want wherever we are, there’s something unique about being in the dark with a crowd of strangers all focused on the same story. That collective experience draws me to old movie theaters, whether they’re grand palaces from Hollywood’s golden age or early multiplexes from the 60s and 70s. The Delaware Cinema is part of the latter group: it was Muncie’s first suburban movie theater! Today, people still flock there for entertainment, albeit for different reasons. Here’s its story.

Muncie’s former Delaware Cinema, as it appeared on March 25, 2023.

Muncie’s been home to a great slate of theaters over the years. Downtown alone featured tons that dated from as early as the vaudeville days, including the Columbia, Liberty, Lyric, Orpheum, Rivoli, Royal, Star, Strand, and Wysor Grand1! My parents remember seeing movies at the Strand and Rivoli, as well as the Muncie Drive-In and Ski-Hi. Millennials of my cohort might only recognize the Columbia and Star, which still exist as the Mark III Tap Room2 and the Muncie Civic Theatre, respectively.

The former Star Theater, now Muncie Civic Theatre. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Y&W Management Corporation of Indianapolis operated most of those old theaters. Although the company made plans for a $225,000 movie house a mile and a half south of downtown in 19493, it built a Kiddieland amusement park on the Madison Street site instead and it took almost two decades for a suburban movie theater to open in Muncie.

Enter the Delaware Cinema, which anchored the north side of the two-year-old Country Village Shopping Center on Wheeling Avenue. The theater opened in “a gala event” on Friday, December 6, 19684, along with three other businesses in Country Village- Country Village Pharmacy, BobbiJo Coiffure Fashions, and Joanna’s School of Charm and Finishing5

An ad for opening night at the Delaware Cinema, featured on page 37 of the November 24, 1968 edition of the Muncie Star.

Despite its omnipresence, Y&W wasn’t responsible for the 868-seat Delaware Cinema; Mallers Theater Group was. A small organization that operated Portland’s Sky-Vue Drive-In and two other theaters in Noblesville and Warsaw, the company was founded by George Mallers, who first got a foothold in the business when he served as a theater usher in 19136. George’s son Anthony -known as Skip to his friends- managed the $500,000 Delaware Cinema, which featured “outstandingly beautiful appointments7.”

The theater was designed by Indianapolis architects Wright, Porteous, and Lowe, who went on to draw plans in Indianapolis for Regions Tower, the original iteration of the Fashion Mall at Keystone, and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum8. Opening night featured showings of Coogan’s Bluff, a crime thriller starring Clint Eastwood and Susan Clark. I’ve never seen it, but Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer assigns the film an 83% score from top critics. I’ll put it on my list to stream! 

The old Delaware Cinema. Photo taken March 25, 2023.

In addition to its Colonial revival exterior, the Delaware Cinema included Florentine mirrors, recessed lighting, cherrywood paneling, and exclusive carpet and draperies provided by L.S. Ayres9.

“Putting a luxury theater in Muncie has not been easy to do because of the apparent decline of interest in motion pictures, due partly to television,” Skip Mallers explained to a news reporter. “I have wanted to see a luxury theater in Muncie for five years, and it is our intention to provide the best theater management and staff possible10.”

The marquee of the Muncie Drive-In on State Road 32 between Muncie and Yorktown, as it appeared in 2023.

For a time, Mallers accomplished that since Delaware Cinema opened to a much different movie scene than Muncie exhibits today. Back then, the old Strand and Rivoli theaters still held court downtown, while Y&W’s two drive-ins owned the nearby countryside. As Muncie’s first enclosed theater outside of downtown, and a luxurious one at that, the Delaware Cinema was a big success! It ushered in the dawn of the suburban theater.

The Muncie Mall Cinema, as it appeared on June 5, 2020. The theater entrance is behind the dumpster.

With the Delaware Cinema as Muncie’s guinea pig, big players soon came to town for their own piece of the pie. In 1969, General Cinemas opened the single-screen Northwest Plaza Cinema with showings of The Christmas Tree11. The 950-seat theater stood a mile and a half southwest of the Delaware Cinema and expanded to two screens in 1971. In 1974, United Artists’ three-screen Muncie Mall Cinema opened two and a half miles southeast of the Delaware.

An ad, from page 35 of the July 11, 1981 edition of the Muncie Evening Press, showed movies playing at the Muncie Drive-In, the Rivoli, the Ski-Hi Drive-In, and Delaware Cinema.

Mallers responded by splitting the Delaware Cinema’s luxurious auditorium into two rooms with seating capacities of 540 and 290 seats in 197612. Unlike other “twinnings,” Mallers held each new room to the same standards of its initial design. Seats pointed forward towards the smaller screens instead of maintaining their original angles, and sound-absorbing material was installed on the new wall. The company even installed new xenon bulb projection systems13! I’m sad to say it, but Muncie’s venerable Rivoli wasn’t so lucky- it was twinned the same year in a process that crudely carved a new, metal auditorium out of much of its grand old hall14. You can see pictures of the sad hatchet job here

An ad for the brand-new Carmike Cinema 7, which appeared on page 28 of the December 10, 1989 edition of the Muncie Star.

The ensuing decades were times of change for theaters. Downtown, Muncie’s Strand met the wrecking ball in 1979, and the Muncie Drive-In near Yorktown on State Road 32 closed on September 1, 1986. In 1987, Minnetrista Corporation purchased the sixty-year-old Rivoli to make way for a new office building built to house the Ball Brothers Foundation, the George and Frances Ball Foundation, and the family’s other philanthropic entities15. The destruction of the Rivoli spelled the end of an era of downtown movies in Muncie.

The Carmike Cinema 7, as it appeared on April 13, 2023.

Delaware Cinema soldiered on for several more years, even as the gigantic Carmike Cinemas announced plans to erect a new theater with seven screens on Bethel Avenue in 198916. In response, Mallers expanded Delaware Cinema that year by renovating an empty fireplace fixtures store next door into a third auditorium with seating for 240 patrons17.

General Cinemas sold Delaware’s competitor, the Northwest Plaza Cinema, to Kerasotes around that time, and the company enlarged the theater to eight auditoriums in 1989. By 1991, those Carmike and Kerasotes additions proved to be too much for the small Delaware Cinema, which held its last screenings on Sunday, August 28, 1991.

An ad for Delaware Cinema, as it appeared on page 11 of the July 2, 1991 edition of the Muncie Evening Press.

For its final weekend, the theater advertised $2.00 seats for showings of Dances With WolvesDon’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and Only the Lonely. Closing the Delaware Cinema was inevitable, according to Skip Mallers, who remarked that “there [were] too many movie screens in Muncie,” citing how difficult it was for an independent operator to compete with larger theater chains. “I fought like hell,” Mallers implored, “but it was a losing battle18.” 

An ad for Delaware Bingo, as it appeared on page 12 of the December 7, 1991 edition of the Muncie Star. 

Muncie was home to two enclosed screens downtown and two drive-ins when the Delaware Cinema opened in 1968. Twenty-three years later, the theater competed with a total of nineteen! Although Mallers grew to operate theaters as far north as Fort Wayne like the old Georgetown Square 1 & 2 I saw Good Burger in, the competition was too much here in town.

Although the tide had turned, Country Village Shopping Center was fortunate to find a Richmond resident, Luther Ogletree, who announced plans to open Delaware Bingo in the cinema’s old space two months after the theater closed. The bingo hall operated under a permit issued to the Richmond Evening Optimist Club, but officials with Muncie’s Noon Optimist Club advised that the local branch intended to take a more traditional stance and declined to become involved in the enterprise19.

Ads for Knights of Columbus Bingo at the former Delaware Cinema next to showtimes for Muncie’s remaining movie theaters, as they appeared on page 9 of the August 29, 1995 edition of the Muncie Evening Press. 

Muncie’s Knights of Columbus Council 560 assumed operation sometime before 1995. I think it’s interesting that the organization promoted bingo in the newspaper’s advertising space adjacent to Muncie’s remaining theaters- the Northwest 8, the Muncie Mall 3, and the Dollar Cinema in the old Carmike 7. It makes sense, though: bingo’s an easy-to-learn, social game with fantastic entertainment potential. It’s a game of luck, which makes it difficult to predict what will happen next. Aside from the lights staying on, an evening at Muncie’s K of C Bingo Hall isn’t so different from a night at the old Delaware Cinema after all!

The main entrance to the old Delaware Cinema. Photo taken March 25, 2023.

I haven’t been inside the K of C Bingo Hall, but I’d imagine that it retains a lot of Delaware Cinema’s characteristics- I’ll have to go inside for a future post. It’s difficult to imagine the building as an old multiplex from the outside, but the structure reveals its secrets through its signage: the “I” and “N” from “CINEMA” were reused in the current “BINGO” emblem.

All of Muncie’s theaters went kaput after Kerasotes opened the Showplace Muncie 12 on an outparcel of the Muncie Mall. The trend of suburban theaters the Delaware Cinema ushered in not only forced its demise, but also destroyed all of its competitors! Today, Muncie has only that one theater – now the AMC 12- and that’s that.

Muncie’s K of C Bingo Hall, the old Delaware Cinema. Photo taken March 25, 2023.

Cinema has the power to make us laugh, cry, and feel connected to characters on the screen. Movies let us live vicariously through emotions and experiences that would be impossible in our day-to-day lives- they take us on journeys and allow us to explore different worlds! Ultimately, “the movies” allow us to forget our troubles and just enjoy the show and, for a while, Muncie’s Delaware Cinema represented the first and best way to experience them from the comfort of the suburbs. Although the big screens no longer exist, flocks of people experience a similar level of entertainment and escapism within the building’s walls on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights.

Sources Cited
1 Cunningham, B. (1987, January 24). Remembering the Rivoli. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 
2 Album of Yesteryear (1980, June 1). The Muncie Star. p. 44.
3 Transfer Lease of Star Theater (1935, April 9). The Muncie Evening Press. p. 13.
4 Bigger, R. (1968, December 4). Delaware Cinema To Open Friday. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 32.
5 Bigger, R. (1968, December 4). Delaware Cinema To Open Friday. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 32.
5 Chin, R. (1968, December 15). Theaters Use Best Equipment. The Muncie Star. p. 44.
6 A Gala Event (1968, November 24). The Muncie Star. p. 37.
7 Miller, S. (1968, December 5). Delaware Cinema Ready for Pre-Opening Party. The Muncie Star. p. 15.
8 Zeigler, C. (1994). Wright Porteous And Lowe. Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Web. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
9 Modern Decor Enhances New Cinema (1969, September 25). The Muncie Star. p. 30.
10 (See footnote 9).
11 Modern Decor Enhances New Cinema (1969, September 25). The Muncie Star. p. 30.
12 Douglas, B. (1974, December 15). The Muncie Star. p. 43.
13 Douglas, B. (1976, November 21). Delaware Reopens… The Muncie Star. p. 21.
14 Douglas, B. (1976, August 8). Battas Placing Odds on Rivoli II. The Muncie Star. p. 19. 
15 LaGuardia, J. (1987, January 5). Ball foundations and family offices to replace Rivoli. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 1.
16 Roysdon, K. (1989, February 11). Delaware Cinema to add third screen. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 2.
17 Delaware Cinema Adding a Third Screen to Theater (1989, February 12). The Muncie Star. p. 35.
28 Richey, R. (1991, August 3). For Delaware Cinema, It’s Final Curtain. The Muncie Star. p. 1.
19 Hughes, P. (1991, September 14). Bingo Parlor to Open 

4 thoughts on “Delaware Cinema, Muncie’s first suburban theater

  1. Ted, thanks for the post and link to the Rivoli article interesting stuff. Our local theater opened in 1939 and almost closed 25 yrs ago, but a local business man bought it and it shows first run movies Friday, Saturday, and Sunday matinee for $5. I’m glad he was able to save it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting that an organization that supports Muncie history and culture would tear down the last historic downtown theater to build its offices. I will never understand Muncie.

    I am trying to remember if I ever saw a movie at this place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t make that connection as I wrote this, but you’re right. The Rivoli wound up closing because not enough people went there to support it, just like your post about Sears from a couple of years back. I like to think I would have gone there (the Rivoli, not Sears) for the atmosphere, since I ventured away from Muncie’s AMC to see movies at the simpler Anderson mall theater when it was still open.

      I would not have paid Sears the same heed. I had a girlfriend who worked near Muncie Mall and took my car in for an oil change there once. It was a nightmare and ever since, I’ve changed my own oil and brakes.

      Liked by 1 person

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