The Tall Chief Theater, built by the father of ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, is hosting monthly art events in hopes of funding further restoration work of it in the future.
Alex Tall Chief built the theater in 1928 in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation. At the time, the Osage were in the midst of an oil boom, making members of the tribe the wealthiest people per capita in the world. It also spurred a number of murders, a tale that was recently documented in author David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon. Grann held a recent signing at the theater.
“He built it just as a movie and vaudeville theater. He didn’t build it for his daughters. They were little girls at the time. He built it as an enterprise,” said Carol Conner, who, along with her husband, is leading the effort to restore the historic theater.
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It was taken over by a movie management company in the 1930s, said Conner, who is editor of the Fairfax Chief newspaper. “But the Tall Chief was used and used continuously until the 1960s.”
Then demand fell and people moved away from the community, and a local organization took it over and ran it for a while, but they couldn’t make any money and the theater closed, she said.
Conner has been working with John McConnell, who is helping to restore the Orpheum Theater in Okmulgee. McConnell recently visited The Tall Chief Theater and was impressed by it, Conner said.
“He came and looked at it a couple of weeks ago and he was just stunned by our theater,” she said. “He said he couldn’t believe there was a movie theater of this quality and size in a town as small as Fairfax. He was just stunned.”
Conner noted that the population between the 1920s and today probably hasn’t changed significantly. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the town had 470 residents in 1907 and peaked with 2,327 citizens in 1940.
She noted that much of the story about the Osage Indian murders took place in Fairfax, and that one room next to the theater was the police station. The other was a barbershop. The room that was once the police station measures approximately 12 by 15 feet, she said.
“Everyone walks in and says, ‘Oh well, I’m sure that was fine because there wasn’t much crime then.’ But the irony is that that is when all the murders were taking place. So instead of there wasn’t much crime, there wasn’t much local law enforcement,” she added.
“This is history that the Osages have known for a long time, obviously, but it’s so new to everyone else to hear about. The thing that blows peoples’ minds is that there were rich Indians,” she said, adding that racism and prejudice led to the killings.
Conner and her husband took over the project from another woman who had previously fundraised for the restoration but stopped when money ran out. Estimates for costs associated with its revival range from $50,000 to overhaul the plumbing to $1.5 million from architects, Conner said.
“It’s old, old plumbing, and the bathrooms were, I don’t think one normal-sized American could get in one today,” she said. “So they’re not handicap accessible. And we’ll have to reconfigure some things to even build bathrooms, so that’s a huge issue.”
Conner, whose husband is Osage, hopes to eventually host multipurpose events at The Tall Chief Theater, including theater groups, ballets and she would love for the film Killers of the Flower Moon to film at the historic theater.
To fundraise, they have been hosting monthly art markets. So far they have held four with 11 artists showcased. They have also held a book signing with Grann. The next art market is scheduled for July 8 along with a demonstration of stickball.
“We’re doing that once a month to keep people interested and coming down to see the Tall Chief,” she added.