From its silent era success in the ‘20s, to being shuttered before being reopened in 2004, the Circle Cinema is back to promoting community consciousness with a modern art-house look and feel.
This Tulsa icon is about to celebrate its 90th anniversary, but it certainly doesn’t feel old.
The Circle Cinema opened at 10 S. Lewis St. (at the corner of E. Admiral Boulevard) in 1928, during the era of silent films, but it is as vibrant and healthy as it’s ever been, especially since it was refurbished and reopened as a modern art-house cinema in 2004.
The festivities surrounding the big 90th birthday will include special film screenings with guests such as Tulsa actresses Mary Kay Place, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Peggy Dow Helmerich during the week of July 8-15. The epic nature of those events underscores just how vital a piece of the Tulsa community the theater has become since it was purchased and renovated by the Circle Cinema Foundation.
The Circle has four different screens, with seating varying from about 50 to 225 and shows primarily independent films, foreign movies and thought-provoking documentaries, as well as revisited classics (for example, they recently had the 1980s Tulsa favorite The Outsiders, which includes a scene filmed at the Circle), often with relevant guest speakers and audience discussions. With a nice blend of modern amenities and a historical, old-school appeal reflecting its original design, the theater also has the original 1928 restored Robert Morton pipe organ, an art gallery space and an Oklahoma Walk of Fame. The building is even on the National Register of Historic Places.
The motto of Clark Wiens, president and co-founder of the Circle Cinema Foundation, is “community consciousness through film,” and that mission is behind every film they bring in, including occasional free showings.
“The idea was, I wanted to use movies to teach tolerance. We’re trying to educate our community, in a diverse and the most eclectic way we can, about everything,” Wiens said. “As long as it’s not anti-Semitic or obscene, we’re showing it. Sure, we’d like to have people pay for it, but some deals we don’t make a dime on and lose thousands. That’s really what’s driven the boat all along, educating our community. My goal’s always been that 20-25 percent of the titles would be free, so that anybody can come to it. But if you don’t make money on one side, you can’t give it on the other. So I always knew we’d have to have a commercial enterprise to be successful.”
The Circle Theater first opened July 15, 1928, with a showing of the silent film Across the Atlantic, and was located on the original Route 66 alignment. While it had a pretty prominent place in Tulsa society for much of its existence, the theater began to struggle in the 1970s. As the Whittier Square neighborhood around it declined, business suffered and in 1978, the Circle started showing adult movies. Then in the late 1980s, reflecting the makeup of the area around it, it became Cine Centro and displayed strictly Spanish-language films before closing completely in the mid-‘90s.
It remained shuttered, as Wiens says, “for nine years, the homeless lived in here and they forgot where the restrooms were.” But then he and Circle Cinema Foundation co-founder George Krabis, who recently died, bought the building in 2003 and started the arduous task of restoring it.
Considering the neighborhood still wasn’t in the best shape when the Circle re-opened in October 2004, Wiens had a lot of work to do to convince people to give it a try. He also went above and beyond the call of duty to keep the immediate surroundings acceptably clean.
“The whole area was rundown. At first, people were telling me they wouldn’t go that far north, and they wouldn’t be here at night, all the things that went with it, and I have to say to a certain extent that I could understand their feelings,” says Wiens, who attended the University of Tulsa but also lived in San Francisco before returning. “When we finally got it, I envisioned a parking lot in the back and the walkthrough, which was unique to theaters. Most of the time you got to come around to the front. I said, ‘That’s not going to work,’ so we did that and we put up an extreme amount of lights.
“And then I probably had a period of about five years, I would come down here at 6 a.m. Sunday and pick up all the beer bottles they’d thrown out of the windows. It was the building next door, and I would talk to them. I tried to find out who was responsible, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t have people coming here to watch movies and driving over glass in the alley, so I just did it.”
Eventually, the situation improved and the Circle Cinema continued to grow.
“You just keep doing things and it got better, and more people came and we brought unique films — different films, independent films,” says Wiens, who until recently also owned a lumber business. “It started prospering and people started to be willing to come down. I never doubted that I would succeed. I’ve been in business and if you just work harder and get up earlier and work later, put your mind to it and make it your goal, it can happen. I never doubted it.”
10 S. Lewis Ave. | Tulsa
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