In 1905, the Jefferson Theater opened. The residents of Goshen had hoped for years to see a theater come to town. Early that year, developers chose a site on the 200 block of South Main Street on a space of five lots that stood empty for 20 years. The city hired a nationally known theater architect from Chicago to design the facility, which would be constructed at a cost of $75,000 and would be called “The Jefferson” after Joseph Jefferson, a famous actor of the time who had recently died.
On November 5, 1905, the official dedication took place. The event was attended by Gov. Frank Hanly and the Indiana Attorney General. Prominent citizens from all over Southern Michigan and Northern Indiana reserved seats. Tickets were highly sought after and extremely hard to come by. The citizens of Goshen were so proud of their new theater that crowds of people who had been unable to get seats lined the streets just to watch people go in.
At 7:30 p.m., doors opened and 11 ushers escorted delighted ticket-holders into the lavish theater which featured green and ivory decor with gold leaf trim, red oak, and mahogany. Governor Hanly gave the welcoming address from his box seat on the auditorium’s south side. The Goshen News-Times reported that in his speech, the Governor noted that “Indiana has many splendid cities, many splendid communities and many splendid buildings, but no city the size of Goshen has so splendid a playhouse.”
On December 18, 1906, tragedy struck the magnificent Jefferson Theater. A fire began when a clerk carried a candle to the basement of the Stiver and Smith Furniture Store on the retail level of the building. The Goshen fire department was called and firemen from Elkhart responded as well, arriving by railroad car to help battle the blaze. Despite their best efforts, the flames eventually consumed the building. Seeing the smoke, people came from all over town to watch in horror as firemen worked to save the rest of the city block. The next day, shocked residents learned that the Jefferson had been completely destroyed. Out of the sadness and disbelief, however, grew a resolve to build a new Jefferson even better than the first.
On October 10, 1907, Goshen citizens celebrated the return of The Jefferson. The theater opened its doors to another packed crowd of dignitaries, featuring a performance by one of the top actresses and comediennes of the day, Marie Cahill. The Jefferson was off and running in what would be a rich era in its history. For the next several years, top-notch theatrical troupes made Goshen a stop on their way between New York and Chicago, treating locals to first-rate performances by some of the top actors and actresses of the time. During the off-season, the Jefferson remained open, showing silent movies and hosting political and community events.
In the early 1920s, plans were announced for a California company to come to Goshen to film a Hollywood movie. Local residents auditioned for roles in the movie, which was filmed in several outdoor locations around town, as well as on stage at The Jefferson in front of large crowds. The public first viewed the movie in September, 1925, but more than half of those who came hoping to see it were turned away.
In the late 1920s, The Jefferson showed the film, “Singing Fool,” starring Al Jolson, causing much excitement in town. The Jefferson was a popular venue for local movie fans who lined up to see Hollywood’s latest releases.
In 1948, the Jefferson was remodeled with new seats and a new, V-shaped marquee. When the theater name was about to be installed on the marquee, the manufacturer discovered that there was not enough room for all the letters. Therefore, the theater was re-named the, “Goshen Theater.” A popular draw to the theater during this time period was bank night, a weekly lottery which had originated during The Depression as a way to attract patrons. Crowds gathered around the theater where, inside the building, a name was drawn and an usher would reveal the name of the winner to those gathered outside. The winner had five minutes to get to the theater and collect their prize, a sum of cash ranging from $50 to $500.
In the 1950s, bank nights at The Goshen Theater were discontinued due to lack of interest. Television had emerged as a powerful competitor for local theaters, forcing some to close their doors as big-screen venues across the nation saw a dip in attendance. But the Goshen Theater was able to remain open for business, continuing to provide first-run movies for those who did decide to venture out of their living rooms for an evening on the town.