One of the most prominent Plain City citizens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Isaac Leonard. He was a druggist and became Vice President of the Exchange Bank, and was always active in civic affairs and local organizations. He married Miss Ada Lane, daughter of Luther Lane. They had one daughter, Iona, who married Harry Roby.
Isaac Leonard erected two buildings on West Main Street, the Leonard Block (home of the Post Office and the Hollendale Restaurant and later part of the Super Duper grocery) and the Leonard-Haner Block next to it on the east. He also built a large home at 238 S. Chillicothe St., which his daughter inherited. (It is currently owned by Dr. A. F. Allen.)
In 1909 Mr. Leonard began construction on another building further west on West Main Street; not as imposing as the other two which bore his name, but impressive in its own right. This was the Princess Theater. Its stage was 24 by 20 feet and the floor space for seating was about 2,400 square feet. The cement floor was slightly inclined, which would give, according to an Advocate article from June 1909, “A good view from every seat in the house, with ample pitch for washing the floor of the dirt that might collect, assuring a clean and healthful auditorium.” There would be seating for at least 400 people.
As early photos show, it was not an ornately decorated theater, but it featured a piano and orchestra pit, and the stage was large enough to accommodate many kinds of presentations. The Advocate article mentions that the opening performances would be from either Sun Brothers’ or Keith’s Circuit, both prominent vaudeville companies at the turn of the century. The new theater opened on July 3, 1909, and soon became a popular venue for traveling companies, school functions and other community activities.
At this time, the Opera House on Gay Street was still available as well, with an auditorium nearly twice the size of the Princess. It had been open for nearly 25 years and may have been showing some wear and tear. For smaller groups the new theater would have been much more inviting.
As silent films became more popular, the Princess began to show these as well, but local functions, such as the fashion show, were still a mainstay of its operation.
In the 1920s Isaac Leonard’s son-in-law, Harry Roby, became the theater manager.
In 1927 a group of local businessmen formed the Plain City Theater Company with the purpose of building a more modern theater to compete with the Princess. The location they chose was directly across the street from the Princess, on the south side of West Main. They held a community competition to choose a name, and Gretchen Rihl won with “Rialto.” The Rialto Theater opened in November of 1927.
For a time, Plain City was a two-theater town, but the Princess, with its older building and equipment, gradually lost ground and closed in the early 1930s.
The building later was the site of the Andrews & Graber Garage for many years. Part of the building was torn down in the 1970s. Still, it would be nice to hope that if one were to stand behind the building late on a quiet summer’s night and listen carefully, one might still hear the tinkle of the piano and the laughter of the audience.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.