Backstory: Remembering the Rex, Casper’s first luxury theater (Photos)

The Rex Theater is seen at twilight in 1939 with the MGM comedy “Fast and Loose” advertised on the marquee. At right the Henning Hotel’s neon sign can be seen. (Western History Collection, Casper College Western History Center)

CASPER, Wyo. – The lot at 124 South Center in downtown Casper has likely been a parking lot longer than it was anything else.

Its longest resident, other than the Wyoming sage and sand that covered the area before Casper’s existence, was a small, ornate theater built by a prominent pioneer family in 1911.

Originally called the Iris, the theater was an early brick structure when Casper’s dirt roads were lined with hastily-built wooden buildings.

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W.R. Sample and his wife Marcia Sample bought the Bell Theater on Center Street after moving here from Colorado. That building was destroyed in a fire, so the couple then constructed the modern brick Iris a little to the north of the Bell’s site.

The Iris Theater as it looked shortly after it was constructed in 1911. To the right the Midwest Hotel would be built a couple of years later, eventually becoming the Henning Hotel after a large addition. The Iris was remodeled with white plaster and renamed the Rex in the mid-20s. (Thompson Collection, Casper College Western History Center)

According to early newspaper articles, the Iris didn’t have a proper stage until 1916 when the Samples added one to attract traveling talent from other states. A “putty plaster wall was the first screen for the silent pictures,” says a 1960 article in the Casper Tribune-Herald.

In the early years, nightly Iris Theater performers were advertised simply as “home talent,” but larger shows did roll through town to entertain Casper’s residents.

An article published in the Natrona County Tribune on December 26, 1912 announced a three-night engagement with the Applegate and Hugo company, who were to bring “twelve high class dramatic and vaudeville artists, carrying all their own scenery, band and orchestra.” The article promised the company would be “the biggest and best we will have this season.”

By the middle-1920s, the Iris was renamed “Rex” and painted white.

The Rex Theater seen in 1928. (Casper College Western History Center)

The Samples built the bigger America Theater across the street several years later, and in 1929 leased both properties to Rialto owner E.J. Schulte, who invested around $25,000 to fit the America with state-of-the-art sound equipment. While silent movies were still booked at the Rex, it was given a stage upgrade to benefit its live theater abilities before eventually being converted for cinema sound in 1932.

Center Street looking north, 1922. The America is on the right, and the Iris is at left. (Mokler Collection, Casper College Western History Center)

When not booked with local and traveling live entertainment, the Rex was often a second run or “B” movie house in the shadow of the newer and larger movie houses downtown.

Marcia Sample ran the family businesses after her husband died. She died at age 50 in 1938 from an apparent heart attack, but the America and Rex stayed in her family until 1960, when the Rex was sold to the neighboring Henning Hotel.

The Henning, originally the Midwest, opened in 1914 and sat on the southwest First and Center Streets. A later expansion made it one of the largest and finest hotels in Casper for decades.

The Hotel Henning on the corner of First and Center Street is seen on a vintage post card. The card is undated, but the cars seen in the photo appear to be from the mid to late 1930s. A corner of the Rex can be seen at left. (Courtesy Reed Merschat)

According to a June 19, 1960 article in the Casper Tribune-Herald & Star, the Henning owners said “future plans for the building…are in keeping with a planned expansion program which has been underway in the present hotel building.”

The article mentioned plans for the Henning to use the Rex property to build “one of the finest modern convention halls in the Rocky Mountain region.”

Demolition started the following year, but the Henning’s grand convention center never panned out.

The Rex’s space became a parking lot for the Henning. In a few years, new motels near the new interstate would have a devastating effect on Casper’s old central hotels. One by one they closed, and in 1973 the Henning was demolished.

A clip from the July 26, 1973 edition of the Casper Star-Tribune shows what was left of the Henning Hotel after it was demolished.

The entire site is now a parking lot.

The site of the old Hotel Henning on the corner of First and Center Street across from the America Theatre has been a parking lot for decades. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

The Rex’s big cousin across the street, the America, still shows first-run movies on one of Casper’s largest screens.

The Iris Theater is seen at right as the Casper Fire Department poses on Center Street in this undated photo, likely taken in the early to middle-1920s. (Casper College Western History Center)
The interior of the Rex Theater, date unknown. (Fredric Schulte Family Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
The 100 block of Center Street is seen in 1935. The Rex Theater is center right. (Casper College Western History Center)
The west side of Center Street is seen in this undated photo, likely the late 1940s. The Rex Theater is near the center. (Casper College Western History Center)
Center Street looking South in 1922. At left is the America Theater as it originally appeared. The Iris Theater can be seen just south of the Henning Hotel on the right side of the street. (Casper College Western History Center)
The Rex Theater is seen around the time it was sold to the owners of the Henning Hotel in 1960. It was demolished the following year, and the Henning was demolished in 1973. (Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center)
This undated photo shows Casper’s Center Street looking south, with the edge of the new Iris Theater at the very right of the frame. (Casper College Western History Center)
A newspaper ad for the Rex Theater from Sept. 7, 1952.
A newspaper ad from Jan. 8, 1935 announces a wrestling match at the Rex Theater.