History of the Midwest Theater

On March 5, 1945, the Egyptian Theater (site of Midwest Theater) was destroyed by a fire. The fire gave the owner, William H. Ostenberg, Jr. the opportunity to build a grand theater for Scottsbluff. The fire-gutted theater was replaced in just over a year with the New Midwest Theater. Charles D. Strong, a prominent Denver, Colorado architect, was hired to draw the design plans for the new theater.

The Midwest Theater was opened on May 3, 1946 with much fanfare. The Scottsbluff Star-Herald published an eight page Midwest Theater Edition on Wednesday, May 1, 1946.

The theater is designed in the Modernistic style of architecture and exhibits an exceptionally high degree of architectural and artistic integrity, both on its interior and exterior. The theater’s most striking feature, as described in a 1946 newspaper article, “is the marquee with a stainless steel and aluminum tower extending 60’ above the entrance”. The 15’ wide tower is flanked by glazed masonry panels. The vertical center of the tower contains 132 aluminum stars and was backed by 68 spotlights operated by an electric flasher system. Extending from the top of the tower’s two aluminum poles are two stylized wings outlined with neon lights and two starburst spheres with flashing mercury bulbs. The lighted tower was designed to be seen at night for a radius of twenty miles. What a magnificent sight. Friends of the Midwest Theater did a complete renovation of the marquee and all of the inside neon in Nov 2002.

We are very lucky that the interior of the auditorium is still in good condition. The three dimensional plaster floral scrolls still ascend 25 feet from the floor on either side of the screen. The theme of the scrolls floral pattern continues to the colorful painted murals on the walls and ceiling. Very futuristic-sounding materials were used in the decorating of this building—Leverex, Plexiglass, Flexwood, Herculite, Satin aluminum just to name a few. There is neon throughout the interior of the theater. The “modern” interior décor and the dominant marquee and tower added to the architectural excitement of the streetscape of Scottsbluff’s downtown business district.

The theater remains today, in near original condition, with only cosmetic changes to the interior lobby and foyer during the 1970’s. In 1961 the Midwest was sold to Commonwealth Theaters, Inc. The theater eventually became a First International Theater in 1992. This company built the Cinema 6 at the Monument Mall which opened September 13, 1996 ushering in the new era of small multi-theater complexes. The final film was shown at the Midwest on September 12, 1996. First International Theaters, donated the building to Oregon Trail Community Foundation and November, 1998 Friends of the Midwest Theater opened the theater showing classic and second run movies. FMT opened Thanksgiving weekend with three holiday classics for three weeks: “Home Alone” followed by “Prancer” and “Miracle on 34th Street”.

The Historic Midwest Theater was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1997.

The Owner and his Theater Business

William H. Ostenberg, Jr.

William H. Ostenberg, Jr.’s father was a prominent banker in Omaha, and his uncle was H. H. Ostenberg who started Scottsbluff National Bank in Scottsbluff. Prior to his arrival in Scottsbluff, William H. Ostenberg, Jr. gained experience in theater operation in the Nebraska towns of Hoffman and Antioch.

In January of 1919, he purchased the Orpheum Theater (later to become the Bluffs Theater). In December of 1919, Ostenberg bought the property on Broadway where the Midwest Theater is now located. He paid $10,000 for the two lots. The following year, in 1920 the Midwest Amusement and Realty Company was formed with Mr. Ostenberg as president. Beginning in the 1920s, the Company constructed and operated various dance halls and theaters in Scottsbluff and in the surrounding towns of Morrill and Bridgeport. In 1923 he purchased the Star Theater that had opened in 1913 in the first building in Scottsbluff “especially designed for the moving picture business.” This building was at 1505 Broadway, but was moved to 21 E. 16th Street and was operated as the Sun Theater until 1928 when it passed from existence. In 1926, the Midwest Amusement and Realty Company constructed Danceland at 1620 First Avenue. It was converted to the Oto Theater (now the Scottsbluff Elks Club). In 1933, the Midwest Amusement Company joined other theater syndicates in four states to form Gibraltar Enterprises, Inc. Mr. Ostenberg continued to serve as president of the company and as a director and officer of Gibraltar Enterprises, Inc. The Egyptian Theater was opened in 1927, destroyed by fire in 1945, and the Midwest was opened in 1946.

In December of 1961, the Midwest Amusement and Realty Company leased its remaining holdings to the Commonwealth Theaters, Inc.

The Architect

Charles D. Strong (1895-1974)

Charles D. Strong was a prominent businessman and architect in Denver, Colorado. As a successful architect (apartment buildings his specialty), he watched the Depression destroy his business. In 1932, he helped organize the Unemployed Citizen’s League. It’s goal was to form a cooperative production to relieve distress. After the Depression years he resumes his career in architecture. It is worth noting that he has a least two other projects on the National Register in Denver. The first is what is commonly referred to as the Petroleum Building. It is a high rise that was completed in 1957 and sits on a prominent corner of downtown. The second is the Mark Twain, which is an apartment building located in what is called “poet’s row”, a wonderful stretch of post war apartments done in an art deco/art moderne style. He presumably did several of the other buildings along this stretch although the documentation is sketchy.