The By-Jo Theatre
A feature for the Allen family
by Dolores A. Grunwald
At a time when many movie theatres around the country are dimming the house lights and closing the doors, the marquee lights at the historic By-Jo Theatre in Germantown, Ohio, a village of just under 5,000, 15 miles southwest of Dayton, still shine brightly and each week announce the upcoming attractions.
Soon to observe its centennial, the By-Jo was founded at the turn of the 20th Century, and first opened its doors in what had been the old Farmers Hotel at the northeast corner of Center and Plum Streets. Homer Kern, Germantown's centenarian, who was born June 26, 1900, said his first memory of going to the "picture show," was in 1907, when his dad, Johnny Kern, took him. "I think Joe Endress, the tobacco man, owned the picture show then," recalled Mr. Kern, "and the cost of a ticket was just a nickel. I don't remember the name of the show we saw, but I do know it wasn't a talkie."
In the "olden days," the silent films were accompanied by music from a player piano, or someone hired by Endress, or a later owner, Johnny Bankerd, to actually play the piano. Arthur Hoyt was one of the early operators of the player piano, and the music rolls selected were always appropriate to the picture being screened. Another of the regular piano players was the late Corwin Taylor, who years later graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and went on to chair the Department of Music at the University of Maryland.
Mr. Kern remembers that a local restaurant owner at the time, Mike Ryan, would often come by the theatre and stop to talk to the young people milling around outside. "Mike would ask how many would like to have tickets to go to the show," said Mr. Kern, "and then reach into his pocket to pull out enough nickels to buy tickets for all of them."
There were no refreshments on which to munch during the early days at the By-Jo, and anyone sneaking in hard tack, licorice twists, or, heaven forbid, ice cream 'dopes', would get the less-than-royal heave-ho!
Two of the favorite pastimes for the young people in those days were to walk around the block between Main and Plum, arm-in-arm, time-after-time, on a Saturday night, and anyone able to rub two nickels together, would go to the picture show! At the end of the first showing of the evening, Mr. Endress would stand up to say, "Those who came in late may stay for the next show, free."
There are many stories about how the By-Jo got its name, but most of the oldsters, including a former mayor, Rodney Miller, agree that the name is the result of a contest sponsored by Mr. Endress to give the picture show a name. Winning first prize, a Flexible Flyer sled, was Harold Kercher, after whom Kercher Community Park was named almost 60 years later. Apparently, Mr. Kercher submitted his contest entry in the form of a poem, which ended: "I want that sled, BY-JO!"
Wild West cowboy shows with the likes of Tom Mix, and action films with Harold Lloyd or Douglas Fairbanks were very popular, as were the romantic comedies, and Charlie Chaplin spoofs.
There continued to be quite a following of the "picture shows," and in 1926, the theatre was relocated to its current location at 20 North Main Street. Ticket prices went up to 10 cents, and the decorum of watching picture shows was strictly monitored by the new owners, Ron and Ann Emrick. Favorite "flicks" were "Little Miss Marker," with Shirley Temple, "Boom Town," starring Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, "Citizen Kane," with Orson Wells, "All's Quiet on the Western Front," with Lew Ayres, "Gone With the Wind," with you-know-who, all the Doctor Kildare movies, and "The Wizard of Oz," starring Judy Garland and Toto.
When remembering "where they were," December 7, 1941, the Sunday the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, at least 100 should recall they were at the By-Jo watching, ironically, "Navy Blues," starring Jack Oakie and Ann Sheridan.
Following the death of Ron Emrick, the By-Jo closed, but was later re-opened to movie-goers by The Germantown Lions Club. The movie house closed again in 1969, and remained vacant, haunted by the ghosts of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Nelson Eddy, Lionel Barrymore, John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, and Popeye, the Sailor Man, until 1986, when it was purchased and completely refurbished by Don (Scotty) and Barb Allen of Germantown.
Under the management of the Allens' son, Rick, and his wife, Nina, the renovated movie theatre, complete with 180 new seats, and a refreshment stand just behind the ticket office, re-opened December 20, 1986, with the feature film, "Firewalker," starring Chuck Norris and Louis Gossett, Jr.
The only movie house between Germantown and Richmond, Indiana, to the west, and between here and the Dayton Mall area, east, the By-Jo continues its run with such top attractions as "Harry Potter" and "Pearl Harbor" and remains a favorite pastime of young and old alike. And yes, it's still possible to walk around the block after the show on Saturday night to enjoy the aura of Germantown's National Historic District, in which the By-Jo plays a starring role.
Whether it's nostalgia, first-run movies, buttered popcorn or friendly hosts, you'll find them all at the BY-JO.