SECO, 1914: Rockville’s First Movie Theater
Around the turn of the century, people began to think about places filled with seats where movies could be shown. Budding exhibitors took existing stores, gutted them, decorated the fronts, and installed seats. They added screens, sat a piano player under the screen and built tiny booths for the primitive projectors. With a staff made up of friends and family as cashiers, doormen, ushers, and projectionists, they were ready to make their fortunes.
The Seco, Milo, Arcade, and Villa Theaters presented movies in buildings on the main street in Rockville, Maryland from the 1920s through the 1960s.
The SECO theater in Rockville was opened for silent films and vaudeville shows around 1915 in what had been a general store dating back to Civil War days by W. Valentine Wilson. Prior to its opening, impromptu showings of films were held around the county at various stores and commercial buildings. It was perhaps the earliest movie house in Montgomery County and drew patrons from as far away as Mt. Airy in Frederick County.
Mr Wilson had operated an electrical business in the building and the SECO got its name from that business, the Suburban Electrical Company. The earliest ad for the SECO is in the Montgomery County Sentinel of October 22, 1915:
Shows four times a week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Our Monday night feature shows are the finest ever exhibited in Rockville and the management will continue to give nothing but the best of film service to the town.
On Saturday, October 23, we will feature Sally Crute and Augustus Phillips in a strong three-reel drama entitled, “Her Vocation,” with two other reels of laughter and side-shakes. … You never waste time by enjoying SECO moving pictures.
The SECO ran 10 films days after the first-run theaters in downtown Washington and had protection over the rival Takoma, Tivoli, and York theaters. A July 1916 advertisement read, “Paramount pictures at the SECO Theater three times every week, Monday, Thursday, Saturday, starting at 7:30 P.M.”
By the mid-1920s, the SECO had moved to 509 Commerce Lane. Sidney Lust took over the operation of this theater between 1931 and 1935 and renamed it the Arcade Theater. He installed a sound system in the Arcade for $2,250 in 1932 and closed it down on April 21, 1935. He opened the new Milo later that year.
Wilson also owned the SECO in Silver Spring that opened on November 7, 1927. Costing $60,000 to build, Silver Spring’s SECO had 500 seats and featured a 12×16 ft. screen and a projection system “said to be the latest word in motion pictures machines.”
Several Rockville businesses closed their doors during the depression. Some suffered from modern competition, and the economic downturn finished them off. Val Wilson’s 1929 purchase of a new organ to accompany silent movies at his SECO Theatre was the final straw for an enterprise losing ground to the “talking pictures” or “talkies”.
From The Evening Star, Washington, DC 25 Jul 1935:
One of the most modern theater, store and office buildings in this section of the country will be opened here September 1 when work is completed on the new Milo Theater on the site of the old Lincolnway Inn.
The structure is being erected by Rufus E. Milor of Rockville, contractor and owner, at a cost of $100,000, and it will contain two stores and 14 office rooms in addition to the theater, which is named for the owner of the building. The two stores, Peoples Drug Store and Sanitary Grocery, Co. will flank the theater lobby.
A two-story building with a modernistic, white limestone front, the new structure will be an attractive addition to Rockville’s business section. In addition to the main structure, Milor is building a new restaurant on an adjoining lot.
A paved parking area large enough to accommodate 300 cars will be opened at the rear of the main building.
Sidney B. Lust, owner of a chain of theaters in and around Washington, will operate the Milo. A stage to take care of any vaudeville requirements will be built, and the theater will seat 750.
The theatre continued through to the late 1960s. Seating about 700+, in the mid 1950s, the name was changed to the Villa by new owners. The old movie house has since been torn down years ago, and the site built over. In a 1914 Theatre Guide, the Rockville Opera House was found listed, with theatre seating on the second floor of the building.
Sources: Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997
Newspapers.com online archive
“Maryland’s Motion Picture Theaters” Images of America Series