The Avenue Theatre is an art deco local landmark which has been a part of its community for over six decades. Its story began when it opened as a movie house in 1950. It derived its name from its location on Washington Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the small southern Missouri town of West Plains. A newspaper ad from 1950 shows that the first movie shown there was "Fancy Pants." In addition to showing movies, many area residents remember music shows being held at the Avenue Theatre in the 1950s and 60s. Local performers sang there as well as others from out of town. Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe made an appearance at the Avenue Theatre.
As a movie theatre, it was successful for many years until its decline in the 1970s. The final blow to the movie era at the Theatre came in the mid-70s when a new twin cinema opened on the outskirts of town. It offered brand-new shine and first-run movies. The Avenue Theatre managed to hold on a few more years, often showing movies to less than a dozen people (sometimes only two or three) before permanently closing its doors in the early 1980s.
With many active arts groups in the West Plains area looking for a stage in a nice auditorium, there was quite an interest in a facility for the performing arts. When an initial effort to pass a civic center issue failed in 1985, a not-for-profit organization called Arts on the Avenue was formed with the expressed desire to somehow find a way to build, buy, beg or borrow a place for the performing arts. They had their eyes on the vacant Avenue Theatre as the prime target.
Their hopes were soon sent packing, if only briefly, because at about the same time, a local family in the rental property business, purchased the Avenue Theatre from Dean Davis who had done nothing with the building since he had closed in down. When the Grisham family bought the building, they were initially unsure what they would do with it, but they did have a vague idea that it would be a nice place for the community to have access to a stage.
Enter Arts on the Avenue. Perhaps they could persuade the Grishams to donate the theatre to a not-for-profit organization, and to sweeten the deal, they applied for and received Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) tax credits through the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Sure enough, the deal was made, and even though it took about three years for the paperwork to be finalized, the theatre eventually became the property of Arts on the Avenue.
Even before the transaction was completed, the first community theatre play was held at the Avenue Theatre. Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap was staged on the tiny space where the movie screen had been. With homemade stage lights and a makeshift light board, the show went on in the dank and dark 475-seat theatre in May of 1990. (May was chosen because there was no heat or air conditioning in the Theatre, and it was hoped the weather would be cooperative.)
When the transfer of ownership was finally completed in December of 1991, the Theatre had already hosted four community theatre plays and three children's theatre productions. At the beginning of 1992, Arts on the Avenue formed a theatre project board bringing in additional volunteers. The group immediately went to work raising funds in the community to renovate the old movie theatre.
Since that time, many improvements have been made and tens of thousands of people have enjoyed the performing arts in south central Missouri, both as actors and as audience members, as over 120 plays have taken to the stage at the Avenue Theatre.