ON A LATE SATURDAY NIGHT in the summer of 1948, Harry Leroy Nace, operator of Arizona’s largest movie theater chain, was busy counting the day’s receipts at the Orpheum Theatre, his lavish showplace venue in Downtown Phoenix. Suddenly, a gun-wielding burglar broke into his office, punching out the theater’s assistant manager and demanding money. The thief, a 20-year-old former postal worker named Martin Lewis, made off with $2,238 in cash, getting away in a stolen car which he eventually ditched in Tucson. When police finally caught up with Lewis hiding out at his mother’s house in Los Angeles, he told officers he’d stolen the money to pay off a bookie for bets he’d lost on horse races.
While the “Theater Burglar,” as he was billed in the papers, hardly sounds like a sympathetic character, Nace nonetheless asked the judge to show leniency. In the end, Lewis was given only five years of probation and ordered to pay back the stolen money to Nace at the rate of $10 per week. Nace helped with that part, too: He offered Lewis a job.
“That’s one of the two stories that really stands out,” says Steve King, a Camp Verde school administrator who has been obsessively researching the history of the largely forgotten Arizona movie house mogul for the past three years. “On another occasion, Nace was standing on Central Avenue when he saw a guy who looked very distraught. Nace was convinced the man was going to commit suicide by stepping out in front of a moving trolley. He talked him out of it and gave him a hundred dollar bill.”
In the detached office/den of his modest home just east of the Verde River, which he likes to canoe, King shuffles through some papers on a bookshelf, an entire section of which is dedicated to Nace. “I talked to his granddaughters and they have this letter from the man, who went on to become a missionary in South Africa, started a family and led a great life. And he wrote, ‘That day on Central Avenue, Harry Nace gave me $100. But more than that, he gave me hope.’ That kind of gives you an idea of Nace’s character.”
Ironically, Nace himself would die of an apparent suicide years later on that very street. On the last day of June 1953, Nace’s son, Harry Jr., found his father dead of two gunshot wounds to the stomach, lying in the hallway of his office/apartment on 2730 North Central, just across from what is now U-Haul corporate headquarters. A note found at the scene read only: “Dear Son: A nervous breakdown. God bless you all, Dad.”
“I have the police report waiting for me down in Phoenix,” says King, who admits he’s been hesitant to make the trip. “But I’m sure it won’t say anything more than that. Besides, I’m more interested in how he lived than how he died.”
King became captivated by Nace’s story after he began researching his own ancestry and discovered that his grandfather, Wes King, worked for Nace as a theater operator for 10 years, running Nace theaters in Mesa, Glendale and Winslow during WWII.
He found out Nace operated 26 movie theaters throughout the state, many with business partner Joe E. Rickards – enough in Phoenix alone to seat over half its population, at his empire’s peak. And he discovered that the diminutive, 5-foot-2-inch Nace, who ran away from his home in rural Pennsylvania at age 15 to become a circus acrobat, gave many other young misfits their start in the theater business. That included Red Harkins, who would go on to form his own family movie theater empire (their heirs, Harry Jr. and Dan, the eventual victor, would become archrivals in court). Additionally, Nace developed what could be called Phoenix’s first water park, Riverside Park on Central north of the Salt River, and brought organized baseball to the city, persuading the Detroit Tigers to begin spring training here in 1929 and owning the Phoenix Senators, the minor league baseball team that would become the Phoenix Giants and later the Firebirds.
So why isn’t he more well-known? King theorizes Nace may have faded from memory because there was nothing particularly sordid about his life. Unlike the colorfully hot-tempered, libidinous Jack Durant, who ran the restaurant across the street from where Nace ultimately ended his life, he was a gentleman, leaving behind no bitter former lovers or associates to drag his name through the mud. “Scandal sells, and there’s really none of that in Nace’s life,” King concedes. “Everyone loved Harry.”
Only a couple of details don’t jell with the lionization of Nace. For one, in his will Nace left $50,000 to his son but only $100 to his Mexican-born third wife, Lupita, and each of her two daughters. “That seems like an insult,” King allows. Secondly, many of Nace’s theaters were segregated, a shameful condition of the times that Arizona’s most powerful theater operator seemed to do little to fight.
Mesa-born filmmaker Bruce Nelson touches on that unfortunate part of the Nace legacy in a documentary he’s currently editing on the Nile Theater, another ornate Nace-owned movie palace that closed in 1951 but reopened in the late ‘90s (and again in 2010 after an eight-year closure) as a punk and hard rock music venue. Like Nace’s Rialto in Tucson and the Flagstaff Orpheum, the Nile operated as a whites-only theater – only his Ramona Theater in Downtown Phoenix openly welcomed minorities – but Nelson found that fact at odds with Nace’s inclusive community spirit. “From my research, that prejudice doesn’t seem like something he fell into personally,” says the African-American filmmaker. “He seemed to be about helping people.”
81-year-old Federico “Perico” Avila of Williams, who worked for Nace first as a janitor, then a projectionist, manager and finally owner of the town’s Sultana Theater, says Nace didn’t pay much – Avila started janitoring at $28.50 a week, low even by 1947 standards – but he encouraged advancement, and never once told Avila who he could or couldn’t admit.
“No, we let everyone in,” he says. “On Sundays, he even let me run all Mexican films. He was a good man, from what I saw.”
King, a 48-year-old married father of two admiring daughters who, upon retiring as principal of South Verde High School in Camp Verde, drew glowing letters from the predominantly Native American and Hispanic student base and teachers in the local paper, would like to think Nace’s track record of niceness matters.
“He owned properties all over the state, but in the last five or six years of his life, there were all these transfers of property to other people for no money – apparently they were employees of his,” he says. “He had been one of the richest people in Arizona, but he died in debt, giving all his money away. A.J. Bayless donated the plot he was buried in.
“I’ve researched his whole life and have yet to hear anything bad about him,” King adds. “That should count for something.”
Curiously, though he rubbed elbows with stars as bright as Frank Sinatra (pictured above) and actor Ray Milland, Harry Nace is less famous than his own ghost. For the past seven years, Joe Atredies has been leading Halloween ghost tours at the Orpheum, the crown jewel in the Nace chain that, thanks to a loving restoration completed in 1997, still stands in all its gilded 1920s glory, and Nace’s former office is always the first stop.
Atredies, a former skeptic of the supernatural, says several people, including a few paranormal photographers, have reported seeing a “short silhouette” of a person walking in front of the second story windows. “It’s a neat trick, because since the restoration, there’s no second floor to walk on anymore,” he says, laughing. “Of all the people that would haunt the place, someone as passionate about the Orpheum – and as short – as Harry, well, it’s possible!”