Prior to becoming the Ruffin Theater, the current building was called the Palace Theater. An article published on December 11, 1924 announced that Mr. L. L. (Buck) Lewis had bought the theater from Mr. J. H. Paine who thanked the public for 15 years of patronage which means it had to be built in or before 1909. This recent discovery puts the building at more than 100 years old! The earliest advertising we could find goes back to an ad in The Covington Leader in January of 1918. It announced a show for five nights featuring Ed and Iola’s Princess Stock Company with the play, The Sweetest Girl in Dixie with high class vaudeville between acts. Information is spotty between then and 1927. We do not know if is because the theater did not advertise that often or if the pages containing the ads were lost over the years.
On June 3, 1927, it was announced in the local newspaper that Ruffin Amusements owned by Mr. W. F. Ruffin bought the Palace Theater. Mr. Ruffin owned a small chain of theaters in West Tennessee. On June 24, 1934 he began work to convert it into one of the most modern playhouses in West Tennessee at the time. It was to be completed within 8 weeks and only to be closed down for 4 days for the installation of flooring and new seating. He expanded it 23 feet and increased the seating from 200 to 580 on the main floor. New heating and ventilating equipment with an “air washing system” were installed.
On Wednesday, January 29, 1936, at about 8:30am, someone noticed fire breaking through the “celotex” wall of the balcony floor. Within 10 minutes the entire ceiling was a mass of flames with firemen concentrating five lines of hose on adjacent building.
Shinault’s retail grocery occupied the building to the east. According to the manager, fire loss was restricted to a very few dollars where water seeped through the flooring. Their sales were only disrupted during the fire.
At first Mr. Ruffin asked the firemen to not use water thinking the blaze could be extinguished with chemicals, but as soon as the water was turned off fire broke out in the ceiling near the stage through a hole made by a lighting fixture. It was at that point, the firemen realized the entire space between the “celotex” ceiling and the metal roof was a raging mass of flame.
Within 10 minutes flames began shooting out of the rear of the building and a slight west wind began playing the flames against the second story windows of the Union Drug Company, but a change in wind direction caused the flames to veer away and enabled the firemen to return to their posts and keep their hoses trained on the theater. The Union Drug Company suffered slight water and flood damage from taking a hose through it in order to train the water on the rear of the theater.
The Hanna property with outbuildings and garage situated a few feet south of the theater blazed up a few times, but alert watchers extinguished the flames before they could spread.
Mr. Ruffin said he was not prepared to make a statement of the gross loss at the time as the building and its entire contents went up in smoke. Actually, some of the blackened brick exterior still stands to this day, but the interior was totally gutted. He stated later that he would rebuild as soon as feasible and give the city its first building housing a modern theater. He quickly made plans to operate a temporary theater in the Ray building on West Liberty at Munford Street. In 2 days he installed seating for over 350 on an elevated floor and had all sound equipment installed, adjusted, and properly synchronized.
On February 13, 1936 the Covington Leader announced that Mr. Ruffin planned to build a new, larger, strictly fireproof Palace Theater on the site of the former building. The elaborate plans called for a bigger, better, very modern, art deco theater that would run into many thousands of dollars and would include seating, lighting, cooling, and heating improvements. The newspaper called Mr. Ruffin a born showman who was enthusiastic about his plans as if he were not experienced in the game and a proven success in the field. A Memphis architect contacted him by telegraph to offer his help drawing up plans for the new construction. Mr. Ruffin declined saying he had a mandate to use local labor as much as possible, and that he expected out-of-town contractors would want to use their own crews of carpenters, brick masons, and other artisans. “Short cuts in the matter of service or materials have been sedulously avoided by Mr. Ruffin in the construction of his theater. Extra expenses might have been avoided in the balcony, but the owner raised the roof several feet in order to tier the balcony for better visibility to all.” He pushed for the work to be done for a July opening. It was his hope to offer the City of Covington “A theater which they will be proud to point out to visitors here.”
The new theater was christened the Ruffin Theater on Friday, July 24, 1936 with the showing of Joe E. Brown in Earthworm Tractors followed by Edward G. Robertson in Bullets or Ballots on the following Saturday. The grand opening poster read, “Everything brand new – new building, new seats, new carpet, the last word in sound by Western Electric Wide Range and scientifically cooled by the latest General Electric air-conditioning equipment.” There were 3 shows daily, a matinee at 3:00 and evening shows at 7:15 and 9:00. Adult tickets were 25 cents, colored balcony adults 25 cents, and all children up to 12 years old 10 cents.
It is said that Elvis played here on March 16th, 1955. In 1992 it was added to the National Registration of Historic Places under #92000248. Today guests will experience a combination of both days of old and modern amenities. Live plays and concerts are being performed monthly.