While taking a walk the other morning, I had the urge to stop and photograph the building at 782 East McMillan Street in the heart of the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati. At first glance it might be slightly repellant—like a pale lifeless body. The graffiti on the side doesn’t help matters. Not only is the electronics store that once occupied the building long gone, the painted sign still promotes what is basically a defunct industry: television repair. Obviously, this building hasn’t been touched in quite some time, and that’s precisely why I took a picture of it. Things never seem to change, until suddenly they do. Wrecking crews work quick, so if you don’t capture an image, all you’ll be left with is a memory. This neighborhood, like so many others, is being razed with sturdy old buildings being replaced with formless apartment buildings built atop generic retail space—perfect places for young professionals to binge watch content and get their carryout slop delivered to them for a few years before they move further away from the city.
If I sound cynical, well, that’s because I am. But it’s not empty cynicism, it is cynicism based off of knowing some of the history of this building. If the wedge-like shape and suspended part of a marquee weren’t a big enough indicator, this husk of a building was once a movie theater. In fact, it was The Guild Theater, operated by one of the city’s most colorful and ambitious characters, Willis Hopkins Vance.
Later in life, Willis described himself as an orphan and this was more or less accurate. Willis was born in Minneapolis in 1902, but the Vance family relocated to Madison, Indiana soon after. Willis’ mother died when he was eight, and his father died two years later. Vance recalled with pride that he started his first job at this point; he was flung into adulthood and, it seems, never stopped working from this point forth. That first job was as a water boy for a construction project in Pittsburgh. This likely influenced his education path at the University of Cincinnati studying civil engineering. During his time in Cincinnati, he landed a job managing The Standard Theatre, a downtown burlesque house. Undoubtedly, this managing job was like his graduate program and it led him to operate the newsreel theater in Cincinnati’s famous Art Deco-styled Union Terminal when it opened in 1933.
This experience at the Union Terminal was eventually leveraged to operating an armada of theaters including the one in Walnut Hills and the nearby Norwood theater. Vance also spearheaded the construction of the grand 20th Century theater in Oakley and the Dixie Gardens Outdoor Theatre (and playground) in Fort Wright, Kentucky.
Vance did not construct The Guild, it was already operating as the Eden, named after nearby Eden Park, when he took over operations. The Eden was not even its first incarnation—according to a 1953 article in The Cincinnati Post, “The [Walnut Hills theater] was built in 1902 as The Cincy, first theater constructed just for movies in the city.” Without further research, I’m not taking this 1902 date as gospel. There is, however, a 1912 Cincinnati Enquirer article that confirms the theater’s existence. The piece is about the controversy surrounding Darkest Cincinnati, a film documenting tenement housing and the tuberculosis epidemic. The article ends, “Walnut Hills residents will be given an opportunity to see the film to-night at the Cincy Theater, McMillan street, near Peebles Corner.” While the entire timeline of the theater is murky, The Guild most definitely came into existence on November 4, 1948.
In an article titled “Premiere For Art Theater,” the Enquirer spells out The Guild’s aim:
In response to an ever increasing national demand for a type of intimate theater offering serious adult screen plays, comedies and musicals, Cincinnati now will be represented in the showing of exceptional pictures which are winning favor with discriminating audiences elsewhere.
The first film at the newly christened Guild would be One Night With You, a British production starring the Italian tenor Nino Martini. Some of the serious and exceptional films that followed in the next few years included Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, The Red Shoes, Queen of Spades, José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, So Long at the Fair, The Blue Lamp, Kon-Tiki, Leave Her to Heaven, Blanche Fury, Bitter Rice, and The Lady Vanishes. The Guild even did some revival showings, such as a double bill of Will Rogers’ Steamboat Round the Bend and David Harum in 1950, but a more ambitious project was to come three years later.
In 1953, Vance approached the local film critics and got their suggestions for a festival of some of the greatest films of all time. Excitedly, a list was compiled by the newspapermen featuring directors such as Welles, Renoir, and Chaplin and stars like Humphrey Bogart, Will Rogers, and Greta Garbo. As reported by a disappointed E.B. Radcliffe of the Enquirer, Vance was unable to obtain prints of any of these titles. When The Guild’s Cinema Art Mid-Summer Festival premiered on June 26th, the focus was narrowed to just British productions of a relatively recent vintage. The lineup was still impressive: Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, Tales of Hoffman, Quartet, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Seventh Veil. It was maybe the best six-week film school this city had seen up to that point.
Vance never changed The Guild’s mission. For the next decade, it continued strictly as an arthouse theater. When Vance eventually did sell the business in 1963, the last film shown under his charge was typically offbeat, The Small World of Sammy Lee starring Anthony Newley.
Vance did quite a bit more with his time than operate movie theaters. Locally, he bought up downtown property in a bid to create Cincinnati’s first indoor sports arena, intending on bringing professional hockey to the Queen City. When this project failed to materialize (Cincinnati Gardens won the race), Vance rebounded by making the space a massive parking lot and formed the Ad-Vance’d Parking Lot Construction and Equipment Co. (Ad-Vance’d, get it?). He later attempted to turn some of his riverfront property into living spaces—not homes or apartments, but instead a new kind of property known as “condominiums.” This proposed development led him into a fight with the city that lasted until his death in 1965.
Vance could fight creatively and relentlessly. He was a spokesman for the delightfully named Indignant Exhibitors Forum, a group of theater owners dedicated “to resist in all legal and effective ways the demands of producer-distributors for excessive film rentals and increased admission prices.” Perhaps Vance’s biggest beef was with the IRS, known at the time as the Federal Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Vance created a new way to number the tickets he sold. Gone were the days of boring old sequential numbering, which could expose a theater’s grosses to nosy interlopers. Vance’s Cryptix system (obviously a portmanteau of cryptography and tickets) substituted alpha characters for numbers in a way only the theater owner could decipher “through use of a specially-made converter, small enough to be carried in the pocket,” per Boxoffice in 1948. Cryptix was quickly adopted by 26 theaters in the area, including all of Vance's properties. Although there was a master converter available for tax collectors, the Bureau was still not happy and threatened Vance with criminal prosecution if he continued using the system. According to Vance, the Bureau's main objection was that Cryptix "might open the door to less meritorious numbering systems." As late as 1955, industry articles note that Willis Vance was still fighting to use Cryptix.
Vance died on October 2, 1965, at 63 years old. The Enquirer published a fitting tribute:
The fact that Greater Cincinnati is embarked upon a program that demands all of the boldness and imagination the Queen City can muster makes the sudden death of Willis H. Vance all the more grievous. For Mr. Vance had dreamed his own dreams of Cincinnati, and he possessed the sound business judgment that could have translated many of them into reality.
The tribute continued:
Mr. Vance was an individualist in the most admirable sense of the term. That rare quality left an indelible mark on the life of the Queen City and makes his death a distinct loss.
In 1969, a few years after Vance died, The Guild made headlines when The Cincinnati Vice Control squad raided the theater and seized Russ Meyer’s Vixen. The Guild obstinately ran it again the next day. The Vice Control squad seized that second print. The film was subsequently ruled obscene and banned in the city by Judge Simon Leis, Sr.
Absurd as the Vixen story seems now, there is something to be said for the way Vance ran The Guild with their programming of “serious adult screen plays.” Although, any type of programming would be better than what we have now, which is…nothing.
I wonder what Willis H. Vance would do with that property if he were alive today. Maybe he’d restore it to its former glory and show cinema at its finest again. Or perhaps he’d bring in the Ad-Vance’d Parking Lot Construction and Equipment Co. to bulldoze the damn thing to make way for condos with ample parking.