#Lookback: Belle Mote and the beginnings of the Acme Theater

    The Acme Theater on Main Street in the early 20th century.

    How Belle Mote Laid the Acme Theater’s Sturdy Foundations

    Most people who live in Riverton know the Acme Theater. The building which houses it has been a fixture of Riverton’s Main Street for over a century and has acted as a movie house that entire time, showing everything from “Gone with the Wind” to “Man of Steel.” If it wasn’t for the intrepid determination of the building’s first owner, Belle Mote, it’s likely the Acme would no longer exist. Her resolve to give Riverton the best product possible as well as her generosity and active participation in the community laid a foundation for the theater in its early years that made it an irreplaceable piece of Riverton.

    The Acme Theater itself predates its current building and even Belle Mote’s ownership. The name came from the “Acme Amusement Company,” a short-lived enterprise that came to Riverton in 1914. Run by Mr. L.P. Smith from Thermopolis, the Acme Theater showed shorter, silent flicks to packed houses in the King building which was on North Federal Boulevard, across the street from where the Trailhead is now. 

    The types of early silent films shown at this venue were often quite different from the narrative-based films we are used to seeing in theaters today. In fact, many of the early movies at the Acme – and in the world at large – were more spectacles than anything else. For example, a highly anticipated feature was simply a recording of a circus performance. This movie was accompanied by a live octopus, which the Riverton paper referred to as the “greatest curiosity ever shown in the inland states.”

    In August of 1915, Smith headed back to Thermopolis, shutting down his Acme Theater in the process. At this point, Belle Mote had been living in Riverton for almost ten years with her husband, Lee. The couple moved out to Riverton only a few months after it was founded in 1906 because doctors thought the climate may cure Lee’s serious case of consumption. Even though Lee wanted to return to their home state of Indiana upon arriving in Lander, judging it as too “rough (a) place for a woman,” Belle took a stand and convinced her husband to continue on to their destination of Riverton.

    The two lived in the new town, with Lee slowly recovering while working at the Hays General Store. Belle took work as well, first at W.S. Adams’s Riverton Hotel, then as a teacher at the school. On a visit back home in 1911, one of Belle’s friends took her to a small theater house she was running. This created the spark in Belle that would eventually result in one of Riverton’s most famous and longstanding businesses.

    Upon returning home, she told her husband about her idea to open a movie house in Riverton. He did not approve, saying that it was a “foolish venture” and that she’d lose everything she put into it. He didn’t want anything to do with the business and it seems like his disapproval was strong enough to deter Belle for a few years.

    However, it seems like L.P. Smith’s success, selling out the King building almost every time a film was shown, turned out to be proof of concept enough for Belle to finally launch her plan in 1915. Just two weeks after Smith left, she stepped in to re-open the Acme Theater, along with Ted Abra. Abra was a necessary partner because he owned a movie-projecting machine for which he had traded a horse on a trip out east. Belle soon bought him out and took sole control over the theater.

    Running her business as a woman was not easy. When she tried to get the Acme Theater into different quarters later in 1915, in the newly built Cain building on Main Street, she was told that “the moving picture business was no business for a woman to be running.” The building was rented out to another theater in a town that was judged to be “not big enough for two shows” at the time.

    This encounter with sexism could have proved deadly for Belle’s business. Even though Rivertonians had a healthy appetite for entertainment, it was certainly true that there just weren’t enough people yet for two theaters to be profitable and the Cain building seemed to be the more optimal location. However, Belle did not let this deter her in the slightest and the Cain theater lasted barely a year, closing in 1917, likely outdone by Belle’s industriousness and drive to put on the best show possible in her theater. 

    Belle often had to go all the way to Denver to do deals to get the best equipment and films. She didn’t seem to mind very much as it furthered her goal of making the Acme Theater comparable to any theater in any city in the world. In 1915, Belle partnered with Paramount, one year after the motion picture giant was founded, in order to ensure that she would have access to quality films. She was also able to get a contract with the star Mary Pickford’s production company. Now, the Acme would be the first theater in the state to show new Pickford films, a huge advantage as Pickford was one of the biggest celebrities in America at the time.

    Another reason Belle bested the Cain was likely because she was also able to make the theater a community cornerstone. Time and again, she put the theater at the service of the community, during this early period and for the entirety of her ownership. Several different Christian denominations in Riverton held events at the venue, Belle having donated the space on these occasions. Sometimes, Sunday sermons were even given in the Acme. And, in addition to hosting the various levels of schools in Riverton for their class plays, high school graduation ceremonies were also held there. Further, the venue was used for political gatherings, like those of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a political group that was devoted to social reform.

    Belle’s ability to make the Acme both marvelous and irreplaceable was special. Her leadership and hard work helped the infant theater outlast its competition and laid the first stones of a foundation she would continue to build over her 34-year tenure as owner. At the time she retired, the Acme, by then in its current home on Main Street for almost three decades, was a sturdy cornerstone of Riverton society.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    July 22, 9-2 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Bonneville Pass Nature Trek” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    July 22, 10-2 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Historic Burnt Ranch Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    July 22, 9-2 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Sinks Canyon Geology Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    July 26, 7 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Indian Dancing and Native American Culture” 

    December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum. The WRCCF will help deliver the long-term financial support our museums need to flourish. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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