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The Castle That Shadows Built

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Promptly at 6:30 p.m. on January 18th, 1921, the doors of Walter Rosenfield's new Fort Armstrong Theater at the corner of 19th Street and Third Avenue in Rock Island opened to the public and the many visiting dignitaries.

In contrast to the small renovated theaters where Rock Islanders had been able to peer into nickelodeons or watch short continuous-strip films, this new movie palace was dazzling. In the tiled lobby were a soda fountain, a tearoom, and a brand-new Hickey Brothers Cigar Store. The women's rest room on the lower level was compete with cribs for babies, toys and a sand box for children, and a nurse on duty.

The theater itself was even more breathtaking. Cushioned seats for 1,800 people, an orchestra pit, a pipe organ, a curtained stage and screen, amid polished wood, marble, and plaster friezes with an Indian theme.

The program that first evening included an organ recital, a quartet, an orchestra number, the pictorial news, a Harold Lloyd farce, and the feature film, "Midsummer Madness," starring Lila Lee and Conrad Nagel.

But the main feature was the building itself. There were those who wondered why Rosenfield had built such an opulent palace for the projection of "mere moving pictures." Rosenfield was a prominent Rock Island businessman who had never been known as a "theater person." What was his attraction to a second-rate art form—if it was art at all?

Walter Rosenfield had an answer. The silent film was a new art form entirely, "fictionalized photography." In those flickering shapes of characters in black and white who moved across the screen, often indistinct and ghostly, there was a spiritual quality. For those who watched the shapes move, the story became an allegorical pageant revealing human hopes, fears, dreams, ambitions. If this new art form was spiritual, then an opulent temple was its proper frame.

A movie executive from Chicago who came out for the opening put it best. "This," he said, standing in front of the Fort Armstrong Theater, "is the castle built by shadows."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.