Covington History: The History of the Star Theater

Covington History: The History of the Star Theater

Covington History segment provided by local historical writer Ron Barthet. View his blog Tammany Family here.

The Star Theater in Covington is legendary in the minds of Covington area residents who have tons of great memories of seeing the big movies, meeting with friends on Saturday night, and taking part in the many community events sponsored by the theater over the years.

Warren Salles of Covington has owned the Star Theater, 332 North New Hampshire Street for many years. In 1997 he explained the history of Covington’s community movie show in an interview that I videotaped. His love of the theater business was evident as he told of the efforts to renovate and put the theater back into operation after years of sitting silent.

Click on the triangle above to play the video telling about the Star Theater and its impact when it was first opened in 1942 and in the years following.

The tornado that hit downtown Covington later that year put a kink in those plans, though the theater survived and is ready for its next run of community service.

The Salles Family History in Motion Picture Theaters

Salles family & friends

Warren Salles’ family has been involved in the neighborhood theater business in the New Orleans area for over 100 years. His grandfather built his first theater, The Market, in 1907, and it featured vaudeville acts. The second came in 1915.

The Star theater in Covington first opened on April 25, 1942, in the midst of World War II. It was built by his father, Warren J. Salles Sr., who operated several theaters in New Orleans before coming to Covington. Salles father first thought of building a theater in Covington around 1940, having enjoyed a summer home here for many years prior to that. For the new show, he bought the property formerly occupied by Badon’s Garage. but before he could start the project, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and war was declared.

World War II was both a help and a hindrance to building the Star. During the war, it was impossible to get steel. His father had to get special permission from the federal war department to get the steel necessary to complete the building. The trusses and the steel for the projection room were a critical need, since at that time projection rooms were built like bank vaults.

The 25 foot high star on the front of the building was lifted into place by a huge crane that blocked the entire street. The star featured two colors of neon lights and extended above the roof line of the building.

On the day the theater first opened in 1942, congratulatory telegrams arrived from around the nation, many of them coming from movie stars. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Lionel Barrymore, and several other MGM stars sent their best wishes. “It was a courtesy of the trade and a common trademark of the MGM studies,” Salles said. At the time it was built and for many years thereafter, the theater was the largest motion picture theater in St. Tammany Parish.

The Movietone news reels became very popular, as they provided the only real look at the progress of the war around the world. “Dad was instrumental in selling a large volume of war bonds here at the theater,” Salles commented. “He came up with the idea of posting the name of a local serviceman in the lobby and selling the war bonds on a card table in his honor.”

During the war, Salles’ father would be regularly visited by the air raid warden to be sure his theater could be blacked out immediately in case of an air attack. In fact, there was a special switch that could be thrown to instantly darken the large neon star.

Salles recalls the celebration that accompanied V-J Day at the end of World War II. He has a photograph of over a thousand people standing in North New Hampshire Street. His father had hung two huge American flags all the way across the street, and a sound truck that had been built in the days of Huey Long was pressed into service to go throughout the city announcing the block dance that was planned at the Star in celebration of victory in Japan.

“The dance took place all night long, with the sound truck providing the music,” Salles explained.

Since the electric power tended to go out during storms, Salles’ father installed gas lights over the exits, and these would come on automatically if the electricity went off. The Star was also the first public building in Covington to be air-conditioned in the late 1940’s, he said.

Stage Shows

The theater hosted many stage shows during the 50’s and 60’s. The magic shows of Willard the Wizard were a favorite with the community, as were the presentations of a mind reader named Kirma the Great. “He was one of our more colorful characters,” Salles said. The Masked Rider and his horse also appeared on stage.

Widely known performers brought their act to the Star as well. Among the big name entertainers to grace its stage were Eddie Arnold, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Dickens, and other Grand Ole Opry legends. Charlton Heston also visited the theater, as did local celebrity Louis Prima. Even the legendary Morgus appeared on stage at the Star. Miss Dell and her dance students review were frequent stage programs, and St. Paul’s School used the theater for its graduation ceremonies once, when Nikki Barranger was valedictorian.

The Star was the first theater on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain to show a movie in wide screen format, that being the 1952 motion picture “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne. To accommodate the wider screen, Henry Verges was called in to build a new screen frame. The theater also installed the first stereo sound in the northlake area.

As it became a hub of community life, Salles’ father would conduct special showings for private groups that were unable to come to the theater at night, groups such as the Catholic sisters at St. Gertrudes in Ramsay. “They even quilted an American flag for my father to show their appreciation,” Salles stated.

Peggy Dow

Some of the movies were truly special occasions as they starred St. Tammany area residents who had gone to Hollywood and become big-name actors and actresses. One such person was Peggy Dow, and a special premiere of one of her pictures brought in hundreds of fans and friends.

Part of the attraction were the giveaway stage shows, money nights where cash would be given away as part of the fun. The most popular game was called “Comet,” which was similar to bingo. There was also a series of horse racing games in the 1940’s where race films would be shipped to the theater and no one would know which horse in the film would win. Patrons would receive tickets which could have the winning horse’s name imprinted on it.

Over the years, the theater has also been used as a hurricane shelter several times. “I can recall people bringing their blankets and pillows and bedding down in the foyer and lobby. Many of them sat in the seats during the storms,” Salles said.

In 1997 the theater was extensively renovated with new sound, movie poster cases, concessions area and the marquee. The new cherry wood concession stand was custom-designed and custom-built by master craftsman Ernest Rodriguez III and his son.

Cutting the ribbon on the re-opening of the Star Theater in April of 1997

A tornado passed through Covington that same year, shortly after the theater was re-opened, and although numerous trees were destroyed, houses were damaged, and a two story dry cleaners building collapsed half a block away, the Star stood firm during the storm.

Salles on “American Pickers”

Salles has an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from the Star’s 55 years of community service, and he was even featured on an episode of “American Pickers,” the television show where two guys travel around the country looking for unusual collectibles.

Salles also spoke to the St. Tammany Parish Historical Society in 1997 about the history of the theater and its relationship with the community of Covington. CLICK HERE to hear an audio recording of that meeting presentation (MP3 file.)

Check out Ron Barthet’s blog Tammany Family for more great local history! More photos related to this post here.

CLICK HERE for information about other theaters in west St. Tammany.