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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The entire site is now a parking lot.
The Rex’s big cousin across the street, the America, still shows first-run movies on one of Casper’s largest screens.