When you walk down Walnut Street on the square, just past Subway and Landlocked Music, you pass by an impressive limestone façade that once housed the Princess Theatre. Longtime Bloomington residents will remember seeing movies at the Princess and its sister-theater, the Towne Cinema, which was originally called the Harris Grand.
The Harris Grand opened in Bloomington in 1907 as a venue for stage plays, but the owner, Robert Harris, quickly saw potential in a new medium that had only been invented two decades before: cinema. In 1911, Harris began screening movies and hosting vaudeville acts in the Harris Grand, and four years later he abandoned stage plays altogether in favor of these two more popular entertainments.
Then, Robert Harris opened the Princess in 1913, and those two theaters – the Harris Grand and the Princess – dominated the Bloomington movie scene for decades. Talk to almost any Bloomington resident who started living here before 1981, and they can relate a memory of seeing a film at one of those theaters (though depending on their age they may only remember the Harris Grand as Towne Cinema).
A regular Herald-Telephone columnist from the 1980s, Herbert H. Skirvin, often wrote about the Harris Grand and the Princess. In one article from 1980, Skirvin recalled seeing Will Rogers perform a vaudeville act in about 1917, and related that at the Harris Grand in the 1910s, “For 25 cents an adult could see a feature film, a two-reel comedy and a four- or six-act vaudeville show.” Other featured acts in the Harris Grand’s early days included Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and the theater hosted Bloomington’s first “talkie” in 1928.
Sadly, the Harris Grand no longer stands. On April 27, 1981, a devastating fire brought down the building. In its place now stands The Omega, a modern structure just north of the Bluebird and Rockets on Walnut St. and Seventh.
The Princess was almost lost in 1985 when the back of its dilapidated structure collapsed. A Herald-Times reporter, Catherine Liden, described the incident, noting that the collapse “spew[ed] bricks and glass along Sixth Street, causing a power outage in about one third of the city and burying at least six cars.” Thankfully, “No injuries were reported.”
This crushed renovations planned by the owners at the time. At one point, there were aspirations to convert the Princess into a community arts space. However, as we know, it was later renovated, housing a series of restaurants: first Leslie’s Italian Villa, and more recently El Norteno and Alchemy. Its guts have been wholly repurposed, but the façade remains, reminding us of Bloomington’s cinema history.
Thanks to the Monroe County History Center and archivist Megan McDonald for allowing me access to their excellent collection of documents on the region’s movie theaters.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.