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The Lost World

June 2024
2min read

When the National Theater of Breckenridge, Texas, opened for business, on May 20, 1921, the local paper just knew that on this grand occasion the town was about to be brushed by the wings of history. This “marks a photoplayhouse era in Breckenridge,” a reporter predicted. The article went on to enumerate the attendant wonders of this “era”: “A balcony is provided for those addicted to the smoke habit”; overhead “is a night-sky scene—in which stars twinkle, and clouds lazily hang on the horizon.” The organ had cost two hundred thousand dollars and was the largest in Texas, “equal to a 30 piece orchestra.”

In 1921 Breckenridge was just starting to take such marvels in stride. An oil strike a few years earlier in nearby Ranger had transformed all of West Texas. In the space of a single year—1920—Breckenridge grew from a place with about fifteen hundred inhabitants to a city of thirty thousand. Not long before, according to a local historian, “an automobile would occasionally bump into . . . town and attract considerable attention and comment.”

It was in 1920 that the first passenger train stopped at the town depot, banks became plentiful, and schools and churches multiplied. So did movie theaters, and the National was soon joined by the Alhambra and the Palace. Then, almost as quickly as it came, the oil boom sputtered to a halt. Production from the town’s wells fell from a 1921 high of more than thirty-one million barrels to less than six million in 1925, when the photo at left was made. All the banks in the county failed, except Breckenridge’s First National. Yet the movie theaters seem to have taken root. According to Professor Jerry Rodnitzky of the University of Texas at Arlington, who is studying the town’s history, “Breckenridge remained an oasis in what had been an arid cultural wasteland.” Professor Rodnitzky, who called this pair of pictures to our attention, writes that the photographer, Basil demons, “came to Breckenridge with the oil boom in 1920 and spent the rest of his life photographing the town through good times and bad. His photos of cultural life were particularly valuable because boomtowns such as Breckenridge were where national culture and small-town America met in the 1920s.”

In the space of a single year—1920—Breckenridge grew from a place with about fifteen hundred inhabitants to a city of thirty thousand.

Clemons’s camera has captured a promotional float for the film The Lost World , based on an Arthur Conan Doyle fable of prehistoric life on the South African veldt. The star was Wallace Beery, and the film’s monsters were the work of Willis O’Brien, who specialized in outsized creatures and who created the real star of the 1933 movie King Kong .

The town’s first National Theater was lost to fire. This, the second, seems to have suffered the fate of many small-town movie houses, making a less dramatic departure than the original but one just as definitive. When Professor Rodnitzky leaned from the third-floor window of an apartment building across the street to shoot the matching photograph, he could see pigeons nesting on the collapsed roof of the moribund National.

Breckenridge remains viable, but the theater it gave birth to more than seventy years ago is as extinct as the papier mâché dinosaurs that once roamed its streets.

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