Originally a vaudeville theater and movie palace on Route 66, the “Coleman Theatre Beautiful” rivaled New York theaters in elegance and size. Built by local mining magnate George Coleman, the opulent structure, with its Louis XV interior, dazzled 1930s audiences. It still dazzles today.
Originally, the theater held an audience of 1,600. Today, it seats 1,100 because the reproduction seats are wider and softer than the originals. However, the theater’s original beauty remains unchanged. A full schedule of national touring acts, concerts and local performers grace the stage.
“People’s jaws literally drop when they come in and see how gorgeous it is,” said executive director Barbara Smith.
Guided tours tell the history of Coleman, who partnered with Bing Crosby. Many treasures that were taken out of the theater were found and brought back during the restoration. Pre- or post-tour, lunch can be served onstage. It’s the exact spot where Will Rogers and Sally Rand, the fan dancer, performed. Silent-movie star Tom Mix rode his famous horse, Tony, across it, too.
“Groups get to hear the Mighty Wurlitzer organ that was built specifically for this theater,” said Smith. “It was sold in the 1980s, and we found it in Texas 12 years later. Today, it’s been restored and enhanced.”
The big-city theaters of the day also housed stylish shops. In that same spirit, the Coleman Theater offers exclusive boutiques worth checking out.
Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum
Baxter Springs, Kansas
Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum and the Phillips 66 Tourist Information Center both commemorate Route 66. The area claims one of the road’s first paved sections, completed in 1926. At that time, the mining industry needed the road paved due to the heavy machinery being used.
The center’s 20,000 square feet recount Baxter Springs’ history from the Civil War to the present. The story of Route 66 is told through local photos of cafes, businesses and drive-in movie theaters. Displays feature historic license plates, an automobile “water bag” used when traveling through the route’s desert portion and other memorabilia.
“We have a very unique film taken in 1928 when a marathon came through our town and traveled Route 66,” said executive director Phyllis Abbott. “It has fascinated many people.”
However, the showstopper sits several blocks away from the center. Constructed in 1930, the Phillips 66 Tourist Information Center started as a gasoline station owned by the Independent Oil and Gas Company. The Tudor service station operated for 40 years before it was converted to an office in the 1970s.
Today, restored to its 1940s charm, the site is on the National Register of Historic Places. The tile roof remains intact, and the vintage bathrooms sport the original tiles and fixtures.
Automotive artifacts and tools showcase the highway’s golden era. Brick walls in two rooms have been signed by Route 66 travelers from all over the world. The station’s gift shop sells numerous Route 66 items and souvenirs.
“People love to have their photos taken out front by the 1940s gas pumps,” said Phyllis Abbott, curator and exhibit specialist. “It’s actually a museum as well as a visitors center. We followed very strict guidelines during restoration. A preservation architect was here for months and advised us, right down to the paint colors.”
From the museum, groups can travel to the Marsh Rainbow Bridge, just northwest of town. It’s the only bridge of this type still found on the Mother Road.