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.

Suburban Electrical Company (SECO) 1914

This image of the Suburban Electrical Company (SECO) shows how it looked in 1914. The upper story of the building was the living quarters of Mr and Mrs B. F. Hicks. The building was later acquired by W. Valentine Wilson, who tore it down and replaced it with the “SECO” Theater. The ground floor was made into a moving picture theater. Posters can be seen displayed on the front of the building. Photo by Lewis Reed.

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.

North side of East Montgomery Ave Rockville, 1914

North side of Commerce Lane near the courthouse. Right to left: H. Reisinger Bakery, W. Hicks General Store, Suburban Electrical Company (SECO), and a two-story dwelling. Note the trolley car on the left. Photo by Lewis Reed, 1914.

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”.

Valentine Wilson's Seco Theater in Rockville after its move from Montgomery Ave to Commerce Lane

This image of W. Valentine Wilson’s Seco Theater shows how it looked after its move from 402 Montgomery Ave to 310/509 Commerce Lane. Date unknown. (The Robert A. Truax Collection)

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.

Arcade Theater Rockville

The Evening Star, Washington, DC 12 August 1934

Milo Theater, Rockville

The Milo Theater (120 Commerce Lane) was designed by John J. Zink and named after its owner, Rufus E. Milor. It opened in October 1935 and lasted until 1969. Sidney Lust operated it until 1955. The name was changed to the Villa in 1956. Google Image

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.

Villa Theater 120 Commerce Avenue

A 1963 photo of the Milo Theatre when it went by the name of the Villa. Google Image

Sources: Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997 online archive
“Maryland’s Motion Picture Theaters” Images of America Series

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About Reed Brothers

I am a co-owner of the former Reed Brothers Dodge in Rockville, Maryland. Lewis Reed, the founder of Reed Brothers Dodge was my grandfather. We were a family-owned and operated car dealership in Rockville for almost a century. I served in the United States Air Force for 30 years before retiring in the top enlisted grade of Chief Master Sergeant in July 2006. In 2016, I received the Arthur M. Wagman Award for Historic Preservation Communication from Peerless Rockville for documenting the history of Reed Brothers Dodge in both blog and book format. This distinguished honor recognizes outstanding achievement by writers, educators, and historians whose work has heightened public awareness of Rockville’s architectural and cultural heritage, growth and development.

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