Once upon a time, the road to Tinseltown wound through a humble little metropolis, still in its infancy, known as Oklahoma City. Studios built offices downtown where thousands of rolls of film were stashed safely in fireproof vaults that, only occasionally, would explode.
The rise and fall of the district is recounted in historian Bradley Wynn’s new book, “Oklahoma City: Film Row.” Beginning with the first film exchange to open in 1907 and up through the 1980s, Oklahoma was a regional hub for movies spreading out to America’s eager eyes.
Now known as the Oklahoma City Film Exchange District, Film Row’s boundaries are between Walker and Classen avenues, and from S.W. Second Street to Colcord Drive. They encapsulate many of the buildings that housed approximately 35 studio film exchanges. Also within the district was the last holdout from the era: the Oklahoma Theatre Supply Company. Opening its doors in 1930 and remaining in business until 2004, Wynn said, the company survived by changing its products with the evolution of cinema.
“They got involved with sound instead of distributing films,” he said. “As talkies began making their way into the area, theaters began installing sound systems. Over time, they began supplying other things, like projectors … because about every couple weeks, one would go up in smoke.”
Fires were a constant worry for early movie theaters, because the film was nitrate-based and, therefore, highly flammable. As flames consumed projection rooms, new guidelines were established, including storing film in fireproof vaults. Even with stricter guidelines, the fires continued.
“Luckily, there were no fires in downtown Oklahoma City,” Wynn said. “In the Allied Film Exchange building in 1933, there was a fire where 4,000 rolls of film smoldered and suddenly ignited and exploded. It blew out the front of the building and the back of the building.”
The district survived blazes, but not the changing industry; by the ’80s, the evolution of film left Film Row behind. Wynn said the entire, blighted district could have been lost to obscurity, had it not been for Oklahoma Theatre Supply Company’s owner, Maxine Peek.
“When I discovered the area … in 2004, I talked to her the same month she decided to close her doors,” Wynn said. “If I hadn’t gotten there when I did, the history might have been lost, because she had so much of it. Now, that area is booming. People really want to be down there, and I think that history has something to do with it.”