A gem in history: the Gem Theatre


Josephine Moore

The Town Galleria has a rich history over the past 100 years. From 1919 to 1992 is was a movie theatre that went by the name Gem Theatre.

Baldwin City is a small, quaint town with a rich history remembered by the community and unknown to most students of Baker University. Most students here know where to get their coffee in town whether it’s at 133 Coffee, Homestead, The Grind or even Daylight Expresso Café in the Town Galleria. But the Town Galleria on Eighth street was once a movie theatre known as The Gem Theatre.

Images from An American Citizen (Short 1914),  Hearts Adrift (Short 1914) and The Bishop’s Carriage (Short 1914). All of them were the first films shown at the Gem Theatre.

It all started with John Hitchcock, a cousin to the local pharmacist at the time. Originally operating from inside a tent for four years, the Gem Theatre moved into a building in 1919 and showed its first short films, including “An American Citizen,” “Hearts Adrift” and “The Bishop’s Carriage.” As the Gem Theater grew in popularity advertisements were posted in The Baldwin City Ledger.

In 1933, John Ward “Sparky” Speilman took ownership. He owned the Gem Theatre for most of his lifetime in Baldwin City. While running the theatre, Speilman soon became a recognizable figure in the community.

John Ward Speilman, “Sparky” owned the Gem Theatre from 1933 to 1984

“[Speilman] was always a small, old guy to me [that] ran the show with the help of his sister, I think. He said very little but was always at the Gem,” Baldwin City citizen Chris Ridley, age 65, said.

The Gem grew in popularity after Speilman took over and the twenty-first anniversary of Speilman’s ownership quickly came to pass.

“He always tried to get shows he would like to see regardless of their price for he knew his customers would like good shows too,” said the Baldwin City Ledger in 1954.

Speilman created a place in the Baldwin City community where people could have fun no matter their age.

“One night a local man entered the show while the film was in progress and wandered down the darkened aisle looking for a seat. On the screen some actor said, ‘Well, sit down,’ and the local patron shouted, ‘Well, I will as soon as I can find a seat,” the Baldwin City Ledger said in 1954.

Bob Huston, 75, moved from Baldwin City when he was an 8-year-old but had been told stories about the Gem from his parents.

“I remember my parents, Dale Hobson and Veranell Horn, telling me that when they were in BHS [Baldwin City High School] (Class of 1943) they would go to the Gem on dates,” Huston said. “They said they could see a movie and share a Coke and popcorn, all for 25 cents.”

In 1948, Sparky did a complete remodel of the Gem Theatre to hold 170 people, according to the Lawrence Journal. The Gem was always busy after the remodel. Seats were always packed with locals to enjoy the showing that Speilman picked. A few years later, in 1954, Speilman further involved the Gem Theatre in the community by hosting special events around Easter and Christmas.

“On Easter weekend, Saturday I imagine, a long series of cartoons [were played] while adults hid eggs on the Baker campus. Eggs had things you could redeem at the local vendors,” Ridley said.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Due to Speilman’s old age, he started leasing the Gem to Bill Bempsey in 1979 according to the Lawrence Journal. Bempsey bought the theater after Speilman’s death on Nov 7, 1984. The Gem theater only lasted a little less than 10 years after the new owner when it was turned into a video center in 1992. It is now known as the Town Galleria where customers can purchase locally made products in Baldwin City and coffee from Daylight Expresso Café.

Many great memories and good times were created at the Gem Theatre. It is constantly on the minds of community members and they miss it dearly.

“I have vivid memories about Sparky and the tiny little vending area before you went into the theatre. I believe it closed after I left town, [but it was] still sad to see it go,” Ridley said.