Ornamental Separator

Looking back at the Kimball Theatre

The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin first proposed the idea of Merchants Square to John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1927. Recognized as one of the earliest planned shopping districts in the United States, the plans included a theatre. A movie house, The Imperial Theatre, stood in the general area where the new square would be built. The building was eventually purchased and demolished to make way for a theater suitable as “center stage.”

The Imperial Theatre on Main Street in Williamsburg, Virginia. Movie posters to the left and right advertise the films, "Lasca", "Susan Lenox", starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable (1931), "Possessed," starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable (1931), Lane Grey's "Riders of the Purple Sage" and "Personal Maid", starring Nancy Carroll and Pat O'Brien (1931). The sign above the central doors reads: "This Theatre Now Using Western Electric Sound System "The Voice of the Screen". Image citation: Visual Resources N1742 Photographer: Frank Nivison

On January 12, 1933, the Williamsburg Theatre lifted its curtains to the public. It was an official Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) along with two other theatres Rockefeller owned: Radio City Music Hall and The Roxy Theatre in New York City.

RKO Newsette (Vol. 1, No. 1, January 7, 1933) Cover announcing the opening of the Williamsburg Theatre. Corporate Archives. Image citation: Media Collections D2016-COPY-1216-0004
Construction progress photo: a view of the stage inside the Williamsburg Theatre (now called the Kimball Theater), January 3, 1933 Image citation: Visual Resources N3540 Photographer: Frank Nivison

For the invitation-only gala opening program, the William and Mary Players presented the play The Recruiting Officer, a popular Restoration-era comedy by Irish writer George Farquhar about the adventures of Captain Plume and Captain Brazen, two British Army recruiting officers. The movie section of the program included a Pathé newsreel, a Disney Silly Symphony, a comedy short, Jitters the Butler, and the world premiere of RKO’s The Conqueror, starring Richard Dix and Anne Harding.

Original invitation to the Williamsburg Theatre opening January 12, 1933. Corporate Archives. Image citation: Media Collections D2018-Copy-1017-010
Programme for the formal opening of the Williamsburg Theatre, January 12, 1933. William & Mary presented the play The Recruiting Officer and the theater screened the film The Conquerors. Corporate Archives. Image citation: Media Collections D2016-COPY-1216-0003
An ad for the Williamsburg Theatre in the RKO Newsette (Vol. 1, No. 1, January 7, 1933, page 4) Corporate Archives. Image citation: Media Collections D2016-COPY-1216-0007

According to the January 13 edition of the Virginia Gazette, the festivities included “a squadron of planes circling over the new Theatre in anti-aircraft searchlight beams, spangling the sky with blazing fireworks” presented by the William & Mary aviation school. The Williamsburg Theatre was a first-run cinema, showing five to seven movies per week, until 1989, when it converted to a format of classic and foreign films and second-run recent box office standouts.

North elevation of the Williamsburg Theatre. Signs in front advertise the film The Crime of the Century, March 15, 1933 Image citation: Visual Resources N3783 Photographer: Frank Nivison
The Williamsburg Theatre, with advertising for the film King Kong (released in 1933). Image citation: Visual Resources 1996-379 E Photographer: Unidentified
Soldiers entering the Williamsburg Theatre, ca. 1940's to view a special preview of "Beachhead to Berlin." Image Citation: Visual Resources 1996-370 Photographer: Unidentified
The Williamsburg Theatre (now the Kimball Theatre). Taken in 1947. Image Citation: Visual Resources 1947-W-634 Photographer: Thomas Williams

From 1999 to 2001, a theater restoration led to its renaming in honor of Bill and Gretchen Kimball, who funded the project. The Kimball Theatre presented Colonial Williamsburg evening programs, arts films, William and Mary performing arts events, and community lectures and concerts.

Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Colonial Williamsburg, September 28-30, 2001. Colonial Williamsburg President Colin Campbell speaks inside the Kimball Theatre. Image citation: Media Collections D2001-DMD-6027 Photographer: David Doody

In 2017, the Kimball Theatre closed to the public. William and Mary leased the theatre as a venue for their performing arts programs during the renovation of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall — which reopened for the fall 2023 semester. We all look forward to the next stage of the Kimball Theatre in Williamsburg.

A sepia view of the Kimball Theatre interior; March 31, 2016. Image citation: Media Collections D2016-TEG-0331-0058h Photographer: Tom Green
Night views in Merchants Square on March 25, 2021. Here: a view along the south side of Duke of Gloucester Street, with the Kimball Theatre in the foreground. Image citation: Media Collections D2021-JMC-0325-0043 Photographer: Jerry McCoy

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Kimball Theatre