McSwain Theatre Ushers in 96 years of Top Talent

Thursday, July 07, 2016

by Media Relations Office

ADA, Okla. -- For 96 years the McSwain Theatre has offered a compelling variety of entertainment to Ada residents and visitors alike. Vaudeville acts, silent films, major motion pictures and live musical performances have helped make the theatre a staple of the main street scene.

For 24 of those years, Jae L. Stilwell, singer, performer and lifetime Ada resident, has been a marquee attraction. She worked with the McSwain both behind the scenes and on the stage to help keep the theatre going through good times and bad.

“The McSwain, through all these years, has given me a place to continue singing and that’s what I love,” Stilwell said. “It’s given me a lot of good times, good friends.”

Stilwell’s story intertwines with the modern story of the McSwain. A young Stilwell was just as likely to be seen using a desk lamp spotlight for family performances as visiting the McSwain for a film showing.

“I remember the smells of the popcorn, corn dogs, hot dogs and the giant sour pickles,” Stilwell said. “I loved the McSwain Theatre even as a little girl.”

As popular forms of entertainment changed over time, so did the McSwain. Eventually, the theatre would offer Stilwell an outlet to bring smiles to faces with the music she loves.

Her current position of general manager for the McSwain tasks Stilwell with maintaining the quality and success of the theatre, while planning movie showings like the ones she grew up with, as well as live performances.

But Stilwell wasn’t alone in fostering the success of the theatre or considering it a special place. History is peppered with such wards, including Foster McSwain, Paul Alford and Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby.

Foster McSwain constructed the theatre in 1920. He and his family lived on the third floor. He decided to make the theatre business a career after seeing his first motion picture, which at the time had no color or sound.

Foster chose “Suds,” starring Mary Pickford, as his first silent film premiere at the new theatre July 19, 1920.

The McSwain Theatre continued to be a movie destination through the 50s, 60s and 70s, experiencing all the changes of the film industry. Patrons were still lining up to see movies like “Psycho,” “The Godfather,” “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”

After multiscreen theaters opened across town, many moviegoers abandoned main street and the McSwain closed its doors in 1988.

Paul Alford, Stilwell’s uncle, renovated the McSwain in 1992. This is when the stage became a place for live musical performances, thanks to Alford’s appreciation of Branson-style shows.

“Before he bought it, he asked me to manage it, put the shows together, bring people in. Together, we brought it back to life,” Stilwell said.

She said they hosted a show every other weekend then. She also began giving voice lessons, a passion she embraces to this day.

As a music destination, the McSwain brought in the likes of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Patti Page, Blake Shelton, Neal McCoy, Ray Price and The Osmond Brothers, among others.

In 2002, the Chickasaw Nation purchased the theatre and began extensive renovations. The building next door was purchased to facilitate an expansion.

“It is a real passion of Governor Anoatubby,” said Stillwell. “He used to come here as a child. He wanted to restore it for the city of Ada, for the community to be able to enjoy the family atmosphere.”

It reopened in the summer of 2009 with a new lighting system, sound system, theater lighting, dressing rooms and other amenities. Stilwell said the only part of the facility not to be enhanced were the walls, and even those received a coat of fresh paint.

Thanks to advocates like Foster McSwain, Alford, Stilwell and Gov. Anoatubby the McSwain Theatre now serves as a family-friendly, social entertainment destination with a focus on the community and local artists. It’s a safe place to come and feel happy, reminisce and find fellowship, according to Stilwell.

The McSwain hosts year-round family film showings with a new movie each Thursday. And in the summer when children have a break from school, the Children’s Summer Movie Series offers a cool and comfortable escape 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Each month, Jae L. Stilwell and Crossover host a variety show, often featuring up-and-coming local artists.

This month, the annual Grand Awards Show begins its preliminaries during July’s Jae L. and Crossover show, 7 p.m. July 16. This show shines a spotlight on talent in and around south-central Oklahoma. July’s show will be the first of three events leading up to the Grand Awards Show in October.

For more information and history on the McSwain Theatre, visit With questions about events and shows, call 580-320-8108.