Construction of the State Theater in downtown Hammond launched in 1925 with much ballyhoo. The $1.8 million building, complete with air conditioning, would be the biggest movie palace in Indiana, and would rival its cousins in Chicago.

“It will prove an inspiration to the entire community and an everlasting monument to the commercial and social progress made by the city during the period in which it was built,” an Aug. 25, 1926, story in The Times said.

In just 16 months, however, the demise of the theater would be planted under one of the 3,500 leather upholstered opera seats.

Richard Lytle, who retired this year as local history librarian at the Hammond Public Library, told the story in an appropriate setting. The library sits where the theater once stood.

In the beginning

When the State Theater opened on Aug. 26, 1926, it was a grand occasion for the city’s downtown.

“The State Street Theater basically went from State Street to Sibley Street and everywhere in between,” Lytle said.

The massive theater was “so huge and so luxuriously appointed,” according to an Aug. 25, 1926, story in The Times, that it was the largest in Indiana when it opened. Brothers William and Andrew Karzas, major players in the Chicago theater market, spent an estimated $1.8 million — nearly $24.6 million today — to construct the posh theater.

The Karzas also built the Aragon ballroom in Chicago as well as movie palaces there.

The story spoke at length of the theater’s exterior and interior, including “the elaborate provision in the nature of boudoirs, smoking rooms, lavatories and retiring rooms for the ladies and gentlemen.”

The Kimball organ alone cost $50,000 — nearly $683,000 today, after adjusting for inflation.

The building, as tall as four stories, featured the Granada Ballroom on the top floor, with room for 300 dancers.

The opulent new movie palace showed how far Hammond had come from its earliest days.

“Pioneer merchants tell of their coming to Hammond, locating in swampy lots covered with willows — unimproved streets, no sewers, poor lighting and the numerous handicaps suffered in the early history of the street as a business thoroughfare,” an Aug. 24, 1926, story in The Times said.

The “huge festival” over three days that celebrated the theater’s opening included a 12-piece Hammond band, the Indianans, performing on a platform at Oakley Avenue and State Street. Five vaudeville acts followed, topped off by a fireworks display called “the largest and finest ever put on in Hammond.”

J. Bodewalte Lampe, orchestra conductor at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, conducted the State Theatre Orchestra during the dedication overture. The orchestra played “Bits from World Hits,” which Lampe composed for the State Theater’s opening.

The inaugural film at the theater was Buster Keaton’s “Battling Butler,” a 77-minute silent film.

Two sticks of dynamite

The theater operated until Nov. 8, 1927, with silent films and later talkies, plus live performances on the stage.

On Nov. 7, 1927, the featured film was “One Round Hogan,” starring Monte Blue, who was raised in the Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home in Knightstown, Indiana.

The vaudeville acts scheduled for that day were Roy Dietrich’s Band, Georgie Hunter, Prince of Jesters, Klark and Base, Crooning Southerners, the Tex Red Heads and Western Whirlwinds.

That’s not why the night was memorable, however.

The big action that night was after everyone left except the janitor, Jesse Talley.

“The person had evidently watched the late show that night and left a satchel with two sticks of dynamite and a mercury switch, which he activated as he was leaving,” Lytle said. “So consequently the theater was cleared of everybody but the janitor when this mercury switch timer went off,” Lytle said.

“Now the only person in the theater at the time was the janitor, and it blew him straight across the street,” Lytle said. “It blew out windows all around, including the All Saints rectory, which was across the street to the south.”

The blast also blew out a large section of the south wall, 20 feet high by 50 feet wide, and wrecked the interior of the theater.

Contemporary accounts

The explosion happened about 1:50 a.m. on Nov. 8, 1927, according to a story in The Times later that day.

The blast “shook houses, shattered windows, upset furniture and jarred sleepers from their beds within a radius of one square block,” the story said.

“Children, knocked to the floor from their beds by the force of the explosion, screamed with fright; one woman fainted, and a man, rushing into the front room from his back bedroom, stumbled over a chair that had been knocked down and received a deep cut in his forehead,” the story said.

Funeral services for Fred Greenya, 50, had to be moved to St. Joseph Catholic Church because of the extensive damage to All Saints Catholic Church.

“The Sibley Street doors were blown all the way across the street and were lying in front of the All Saints Church,” a story in The Times that day said.

The investigation

Immediately after the blast, police began their investigation. The theater had no traces of gas, the boilers were intact, and the theater had been unionized. Blowing up theaters amid labor disputes was not unheard of in that era.

“The janitor that was blown across the street, he was the first person arrested,” Lytle said. “It was kind of like, well, yeah, we’ve got to arrest him because he was the first person on the scene, so we did.”

The janitor was soon exonerated and others arrested and sent to jail.

“There are different speculations out there about it being a mob hit, which it probably was at the time,” Lytle said.

This was the 1920s, remember, the era of Al Capone and other gangsters who ruled the streets in Chicago. Lytle said the mafia had infiltrated the film industry, so perhaps a rival blew up the State Theater.

In his book “The Perils of Moviegoing in America: 1896-1950,” author Gary D. Rhodes advanced the story. In March 1928, two men, Harry Ames and Marwood Williams, were arrested. Ames and Williams pleaded guilty and served time behind bars. One made a full confession to a conspiracy, saying operator and theater magnate William Kleihege plotted the bombing to file an insurance claim.

“To carry out his plan, (Kleihege) paid projectionist Joseph Million $2,500 to plant the bombs,” Rhodes wrote. Million and Kleihege were both convicted.

“The mystery had finally been solved,” Rhodes wrote.

But the mystery doesn’t end there. Kleihege’s case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which set aside his conviction. Kleihege was set to be tried again, but was cleared of all charges on March 1, 1934.

What came next

The property was an eyesore for years, with no money to raze it even though it had been condemned.

An A&P grocery eventually went into the first floor space. The Granada Ballroom upstairs was refurbished and continued to host dancing until it went out of fashion. The dance hall later became a roller skating rink.

“A lot of people will tell you today they went upstairs roller skating while their parents were down there shopping,” Lytle said.

Then the grocery closed, the roller rink closed, and the property fell into disrepair again.

By the 1960s, the former movie palace was razed to make way for the Hammond Public Library, which now stands on that site.

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Porter/LaPorte County Editor

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.