Circle Theatre (1939-1977)

Circle Theatre

The Circle Theatre at St. Bernard Avenue and North Galvez Street opened its doors in September of 1939. Since the neighborhood around the Circle was predominately composed of people of color, the balcony, which was reserved for them, was roughly double the size of the main floor which was reserved for whites only. It was one of the largest movie theatres in New Orleans and provided 580 seats for whites and 900 seats for its colored patrons.

The building took nine months to construct at a total cost of $120,000 . The  modern designed exterior consisted of a white stucco front which was built by Jadel Theatres Corporation. The interior stadium style seats had stairs that led all the way up to the ceiling. Beautiful smoking lounges, roomy blond maple chairs and a gigantic Frigidaire cooling system added to the ambiance of the building. It was air conditioned, fireproof and also equipped with a sprinkler system. Its manager was Jacques Dicharry Jr., the son of the president of the construction company.

Opening night was held on Wednesday, September 27, 1939. When the curtains went up at 5 o’clock in the evening, the audience was thrilled when the movie They Made Me A Criminal, starring John Garfield, Claude Rains and Ann Sheridan, appeared on the screen. Three short side shows were shown along with the featured film. They were Three Stooges Comedy, Ferdinand the Bull  (colored cartoon) and  Deviled Hand, a short musical with Erskine Hawkins and his Big Band

On December 22, 1971, thirty years later, the Circle was sold to Rene Brunet Jr.  He often told a story of an event that took place at the theater during the showing of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”.  It goes like this…

When the Circle was showing the film, I was fortunate to arrange for the man who played the Creature to come in person with his gigantic green, rubber costume covered with fins and gills. The head alone was about 26 inches high and the man was about 6’6″ tall, so in his full regalia, he was a very imposing Creature. I arranged for the Creature, bound in chains around his ankles and wrists, to walk onto the stage at the ending of the picture and I flooded the darkened theater with green lights. This was so effective that when he neared the front of the stage, the 1,200 people in the audience were stricken with fear, and they all ran out of the theater screaming! Outside observers stated that they saw every exit door fly open and people running in every direction, apparently in fear for their lives. After everyone had left, at least 800 pairs of shoes were found under the seats, left by the terrified owners.”

Six years after purchasing the theater, Rene Brunet Jr. sold it to Domio’s Restaurant and Caterers in 1977. It was used primarily as a bingo hall  and was sold on November 19, 1990 to Rally’s who demolished the Circle to build a hamburger restaurant.

What are your memories of the Circle Theatre?

SourcesThere’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theatres of New Orleans, Rene Brunet Jr. and Jack Stewart (2012) published by: Arthur Hardy Enterprises, Inc.,  The Times Picayune  26 September 1939 p.11

Lolita Villavasso Cherrie

16 thoughts on “Circle Theatre (1939-1977)

  1. I almost never went to the movies. My grandmother didn’t allow it, but I did go to the Circle a couple times. The first time was the first time they had commercials featuring Black actors and actresses. It was quite a revelation. Black Americans were so unaccustomed to seeing Blacks on the screen and had so internalized the Black stereotype that the audience cracked up with laughter when the commercials were shown. I don’t remember the product, but I do remember it was a kitchen scene with a Black housewife complete with a very cute apron and a Black husband in very traditional male/female roles. They were doing something quite normal in the kitchen, but the audience roared with laughter and didn’t stop until a few minutes after the commercial ended.

  2. Does anyone remember the guy who by just passing throug the aisles brought fear to the kids? We called him King Kong.

  3. I remember going to the Circle with my cousins, with whom I spent many summer. This was in the 60s so we had to use the “Colored” entrance.

  4. Circle Theatre was our outing on a Sunday.After Mass a group of neighborhood kids would walk up London Ave.cross over N Miro St.to the theatre.We would go to the first show and walk back about 11 blocks home.The only thing we didn’t like was walking up a long flight of stairs to get to the colored side.

  5. I have a lot of fond memories of the Circle from the sixties and seventies. I remember the rotating neon sign that advertised the place, and I also recall the sign near the marquee’ that let the patrons that the theatre was air-conditioned. A few other things stick with me: Every Easter my family would go to the Circle to watch The Ten Commandments. I remember being confused about the choice of movie. What did The Ten Commandments have to do with Easter? I figured that it was a movie about the Bible, and Easter is a religious holiday, so I let it go at that. Besides, we went to the movies (we used to call it “going to the show) maybe once a month, a rare treat that should just be enjoyed, not over-analyzed. It wasn’t until years later that I made the connection — The Ten Commandments was about Passover, not Easter!
    Anyway, thank you Circle Theatre for Goldfinger, Blackula, and countless Godzilla kung fu movies.

  6. I remember receiving passes to go to Circle from my elementary school McDonough 42. My older brother and I would go just about every Saturday or Sunday after church. We would always watch kung fu movies.. my brother’s favorite at that time… my least favorite. But I would still tag along just to hang out with my big brother… nothing but great memories..

  7. I went to the Circle Theatre the day it opened and it cost was 5 cents. I remember John Carlson’s (my future father in law) Sister. a beautiful young lady was running the popcorn machine we would sit near the rail on the balcony.( it was all Creoles in those days ) and we would throw popcorn on the heads of the people below. There was no animosity intended, it was just for fun because we had white friends down there. There was no hatred in those days, everyone got along with each other.

  8. We lived on Derbigny St. Almost every Sunday afternoon my sisters and I walked past the Autocrat Club, Belfied’s Drug Store, Nora Navra LIbrary, Corpus christi Church to the Circle Theater for the 2PM showing. We had enough money for a movie. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn always made my child’s mouth water. The air conditioned theater was impressive looking with its carpeted sitting area just off the balcony. I can distinctly remember the red carpeted stairs with the floral designs leading to the balcony seats. The lanterns on the walls reminded me of people with with a turban, yellow faces and gotee beards. Kids would throw cellophane paper balls into the projector beam to give the impression of shooting stars or something. Our family Dentist, Dr. Felton’soffice was located on the first floor of an adjacent space in that building. The entrance is just behind the outside concessions stand in the picture. Fod memories abound!!
    Philip Orticke (patronage 1950-58)

    • My sister and I often went to the Circle Theatre because we lived on Miro just a block from St. Bernard Ave. Back then it cost 25 cents to get in. Does anyone remember two sisters, Lulu and Lala? They were two spinsters who regularly went to the Circle every weekend. They were two Creole ladies that lived near the theatre and walked passed our home each week.

  9. As a young child we went to the circle theatre
    Every Sunday. As a teenager Friday night was
    Girls night. On Tuesday the movie would change
    I would go with mom & dad. Later in years my
    Children went to the circle theatre. Love those
    Hot dogs.

  10. Almost every Sunday, after 12:00 mass at Corpus Christi Church, my siblings and I walked across the street to the Circle Theatre. (Mom and Dad time) I also remember being admitted with Pepsi coke tops or Bunny Bread wrappers. One Sunday the Great McNutt was there in person. It was that day I vividly remember because I had the winning ticket that was called to win a prize which was a transistor radio. Many years later we broughtvmom there to play bingo.

  11. From mid ’77 thru ’82 Domio’s restaurant operated on the property. The restaurant also served a number of Senior citizens homes throughout the city.

  12. I remember going to the Circle Theater as a little boy in the early 1960s on Sundays which featured gladiator movies, Walt Disney movies, Beach Blanket movies, cartoons, etc. It was always incredibly noisey from all the neighborhood kids and entirely black on the main floor & balcony. It was fabulous! Other all- black theaters were the Claiborne, the Carver and the Gallo. My sisters and I went to all of them. Those places were and are a wonderful memory for me. I really miss seeing the Circle whenever I drive down St. Bernard Ave.

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