Theaters all around the country sport the name “Liberty.” If they do not now, some likely were named Liberty at some point in their history. Liberty is a common theater name, much like Star, State, Dime, Gem, Fox and even, as our last post illustrated, the Orpheum.
Most of these Liberty Theatres have little in common and were rarely owned by the same owner. This however is not the case with a series of Liberty Theatres in the inland northwest, our Liberty among them.
Frederick Mercy was born in New Jersey in 1877. He and his farther owned a hat manufacturing business which Mercy successfully built to include a chain of hat stores in New York. He later sold the business and relocated to San Fransisco to take on a new enterprise, motion pictures.
In 1912, Mercy moved to Yakima, Wash. He purchased the Majestic Theater and renovated it to seat 800 patrons. He later acquired the Empire and then built the Yakima Liberty Theatre. This Liberty would open in 1918 and would operate until the mid-1960s. It was then gutted to serve as a bank.
But Mercy’s story doesn’t end here. Him and his son Frederick Mercy Jr. would begin to purchase, remodel and operate theaters in towns all around the region.
Mercy’s theater acquisitions included Libertys in Walla Walla, Sunnyside, Kennewick, Pasco, Toppenish and of course La Grande and by 1932, the Mercy’s had acquired 14 theaters. Sadly, most of these theaters are not open today.
An exception to this is the Toppenish Liberty Theater. This theater was opened as the Lois Theater in 1921. It wasn’t until 1927 that Mercy purchased the theater and renamed it the Liberty. It was later acquired by Howard Hughes in 1931 (yes, the Howard Hughes) and screened films until 1984. There was discussion of demolition by fortunately, the theater was restored and currently operates as a community performance center today.
The Walla Walla Liberty Theater is an example of unique theater conversion. If you have a chance to visit downtown Walla Walla, visit the Macy’s store. The juniors section of the store is inside the converted theater. The walls and ceiling remain intact but a false floor covers the stage and original seating, which is rumored to still be in place under the floor. The Walla Walla Liberty opened in 1917 and was built in a unique craftsman style, much different than other Libertys. It was purchased by Mercy in 1927 and it was converted to retail in 1990.
On September 1, 1930, Inland Theaters, Inc. (Mercy Jr & Sr.’s business name), acquired both the Liberty Theatre and the Granada Theater. An article in the La Grande Evening Observer states,
In the next few days, many changes will be made in the two houses. Redecoration will be extensive. Comfortable loge seats will be installed. Additions to the equipment will be made which will make a distinct improvement in the quality of the sound and of the projection of our pictures. Wherever a Mercy theater is to be found you will find a theater equal in quality to any in the entire United States. It is our intention that the same will be true of our La Grande Theaters. In making these changes it is our indention never to lose sight of the fact that patrons who pay for entertainment in our theaters are entitled to the best entertainment we can offer and to all the efforts we are able to provide. A date for a reopening under this new policy will be announced soon.
Mercy would eventually sell his La Grande theaters to Francis Greulich in the mid-1940s. Francis would own the Liberty for many years till its closure in 1959 and its conversion to retail. The Greulich family still own the Granada today.
As for the Mercy Family, fourth-generation owner-operator, Steve Mercy still carries the torch. The family owns and operates three theaters in Yakima, The Majestic, Yakima Cinemas and the Orion Cinema. The Orion is a recent addition to the mix as a newly opened cinema-pub that serves meals and caters to the 21 and over crowd. The Majestic is a 10-screen theater and Yakima Cinemas is a multiplex as well.
Mercy’s legacy is nearly forgotten in the communities where his theaters once stood. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to bring one of the theaters he stewarded back to life, the last of Mercy’s Libertys.