Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Missouriland at Yesterland.com Uptown Theatre in Marceline

Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie theater?

In this article, I take a look at the historic Uptown Theatre in Walt Disney’s boyhood hometown, Marceline, Missouri. I slept at the Uptown in 2010 and 2012. After reading this article, you might want to sleep there too.

Things have changed since I published an earlier version of this article September 16, 2011.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, March 31, 2014


Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre building on Main Street U.S.A. in Marceline

Walt Disney saw his first movie as a child in Marceline, Missouri. Here’s how biographer Bob Thomas described it in his book Walt Disney, An American Original (Simon & Schuster, 1976):

One of his [Walt’s] new discoveries was the movie house that had just opened in Marceline. One day after school, he persuaded [his younger sister] Ruth to accompany him to the theater, and on a bedsheet screen they saw a reenactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It was dark when they emerged, and they hurried home fearful of what would happen to them for staying out so late. Nothing did, because their parents were so relieved that the two children were safe.

This story would be even better if the theater that Walt and Ruth visited had been the 286-seat Uptown Theatre, which is still in Marceline today.

Sorry. It wasn’t the Uptown.

Young Walt and his little sister went to a different theater, which is now gone. The Uptown Theatre didn’t open until 1930, almost 20 years after the Disney family and their 9-year-old son Walt left Marceline in 1911. Even so, the Uptown Theater has legitimate claims to being a historic Disney site.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Poster for The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)

The year was 1956.

Walt Disney, who had built his reputation with animation, was now also making live-action features. These films were often grand adventures, including Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood (1952), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). The newest movie in this tradition would be The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker, fresh from his success as Davy Crockett.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Historical photo from the collection of the Uptown Theatre, 1956

Walt Disney at the Uptown Theatre for the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)

Walt Disney chose the Uptown Theatre in Marceline for the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase. Walt Disney, his wife Lillian, his brother Roy, and Roy’s wife Edna made the trip to Marceline to participate in the premiere.

The children of Marceline packed the Uptown Theatre. Before the movie began, Walt Disney addressed the young audience: “My best memories are the years I spent in Marceline. You children are lucky to live here.”

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Historical photo from the collection of the Uptown Theatre, 1998

Premiere of The Spirit of Mickey (1998 photo)

It would be 42 years until the next big premiere at the Uptown Theatre. The Walt Disney Company chose to launch The Spirit of Mickey, a 1998 direct-to-VHS anthology of Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, with a theatrical premiere in Marceline.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Placque on the box office of the Marceline Theater

A Disney press release promised a “once-in-a-lifetime event”:

The momentous occasion will feature an action-packed celebration including the exciting arrival of Mickey and Minnie in the elaborately decorated antique airplane christened “The Spirit of Mickey,” a dazzling motorcade through the town, a magical stage performance featuring a host of adored Disney characters, a grand-scale block party for Marceline, and a world premiere showing of the movie at the Uptown Theater, the location where Walt Disney saw his very first film.

The premiere showing will kick off a week of free screenings for all of the residents of Walt Disney’s boyhood home and surrounding areas.

To kick off this once-in-a-lifetime event, “The Spirit of Mickey” will fly more than 1,700 miles from the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank to Marceline. Mickey and Minnie’s airplane will be welcomed at the charming hometown airport just outside of Marceline with a magnificent, rousing tune played by the local high school pep band.

The press release erroneously claimed that Walt Disney “saw his very first film” at the Uptown, when, as already noted in this article, Walt saw his first movie long before the Uptown was built—but he did see it in Marceline.

Although Marceline had only around 2,000 residents, the event was expected to draw 10,000 guests. Estimates after the event put the number closer to 19,000. The Uptown kept showing the The Spirit of Mickey for six additional days, so that everyone who wanted to see it could.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre box office in 2010

In the first decade of the 21st century, a time by which most single-screen movie theaters in large and small cities throughout America had already shut down, the Uptown Theater was still regularly showing movies to small but appreciative audiences.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Debbie Foster on the stage of the historic theater when she owned it

Debbie Foster, the youthful grandmother who owned the Uptown Theatre until September 2012, served as the theater’s ticket seller, projectionist, snack bar attendant, bookkeeper, maintenance chief, and janitor. Debbie scheduled movies every Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Admission was $5.00.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre website in April 2010

After an impressive 80-year run, the final regular movie at the Uptown Theater was the movie Valentines Day (2010) on March 30, 2010.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre auditorium in 2010

Although you can no longer head to the Uptown Theater any weekend for a movie date, the theater is still used as the auditorium for civic events in Marceline. Shows in 2011 included Marceline’s version of Dancing with the Stars, Marceline’s Got Talent, and the town’s Dance Revue.

Debbie worked to improve the interior and exterior. “The staging looks better [than in the photos from 2010] since we lowered the whole stage and gave it a wood floor... much nicer,” boasted Debbie in 2011. “Also, the green and blue aluminum awnings over the windows have been removed and the windows reglazed with black chalking.”

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre lobby in 2010

In fact, 2011 saw another movie premiere at the Uptown!

The biggest event of the year in Marceline is ToonFest, held each year in September. Activities include a parade down Main Street, U.S.A (the downtown street originally named Kansas Street), fun at E.P. Ripley Park, and symposiums by prominent cartoonists at the Uptown Theatre. The 2011 date was Saturday, September 17 (with Student Day one day earlier).

artwork for the movie Marceline

Artwork © Andy and Sara Neitzert

Artwork for the movie Marceline

For 2011, ToonFest weekend included the premiere of the documentary Marceline by husband-and-wife filmmakers Andy and Sara Neitzert on Friday, September 16th, at 8 p.m., with another screening on Sunday, September 18th, at 2 p.m. Andy and Sara were on hand for a discussion following both screenings.

Marceline is an enjoyable documentary primarily featuring Marceline residents talking about their town, its Walt Disney history, and themselves. The “star” is Kaye Malins, Marceline’s number one booster and local historian. Yesterland gets a screen credit because the filmmakers used photos from Yesterland (with permission).

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Uptown Theatre Bed & Breakfast

What if you need a place to sleep in Marceline? You have two choices: The 13-room Lamplighter Motel or the 4-room Uptown Theatre Bed & Breakfast. It’s tough to get a room during ToonFest, but it’s much easier the rest of the year.

The Uptown Theatre was built with five apartments above the lobby. When Debbie Foster bought the theater, she turned four of them into nightly accommodations. Each is completely different. The Santa Fe Suite has a railroad theme—quite fitting in a town founded by the Santa Fe Railroad. The name of the Americana Mickey Suite sums up its theme. The ToonFest Suite is the most unusual, with artwork by visiting cartoonists drawn directly on the white plaster walls of the living room. The two-bedroom Walt Disney Suite is the largest.

Debbie’s renovations involved painting, cleaning, and furnishing the former apartments—not gutting and modernizing them. The spaces combine the charm of the original rooms from 1930 with a love for Disney. There are no big, Marriott-style bathrooms, just the small apartment bathrooms. There’s no elevator either.

Until she sold the building in September 2012, Uptown Theatre owner Debbie was the manager, decorator, reservationist, housekeeper, and breakfast chef for the Bed & Breakfast.

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Santa Fe Suite

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Americana Mickey Suite

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo courtesy of Debbie Foster, 2011

ToonFest Suite

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Living room of the Walt Disney Suite

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Master bedroom of the Walt Disney Suite

Uptown Theatre in Marceline, Missouri

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2010

Second bedroom of the Walt Disney Suite

Since September 2012, the owners of Marceline’s Finest Coffee have owned the Uptown Theatre building, including the movie theater, B & B, and retail space. In 2013, they opened Café Marceline, a coffee bar in one of the retail spaces. They even put a new roof on the building.

Although both the coffee bar and the B & B have were closed over the winter of 2013–2014, both should reopen in spring 2014.

Let’s hope the new owners make the Uptown Theatre better than ever. This historic landmark deserves a bright future.

The two biggest attractions of Marceline are the Walt Disney Hometown Museum and the friendly little town itself.

If you ever find yourself driving cross-country, consider taking U.S. Highway 36 through Missouri instead of an east-west Interstate highway. U.S. 36 is now a four-lane, divided highway with no traffic signals, so it’s just as fast as an Interstate. Take the Marceline exit; spend a couple of nights at the Uptown Theatre Bed & Breakfast; and visit the Walt Disney Hometown Museum (open April 1 to October 31 each year).

Back in 2011, when I asked Debbie if there was anything she wanted to tell readers of Yesterland, she just replied, “Come Home to Marceline!”

That’s still very good advice.

 

You might be interested in these other Yesterland articles about Marceline:

 

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Updated March 31, 2014.