A Palace on Main Street

Once the largest and most dazzling movie palace in the entire Valley, the Nile Theater has reigned over Mesa’s Main Street for almost a century.

When it first opened in 1924, the Nile was a state-of-the-art theater, with sloping floors, a large central stage, and the best cooling system in the city. Despite the theater only being able to feature silent shows at first, the grand movie palace brought people from across the Valley into downtown Mesa. Featuring a massive Egyptian styled sign, the outside of the Nile Theater was unmistakable even without its movie posters and weekend crowds. The city of Mesa has a long history of growth, but it was not until 1930 that Mesa actually grew based on land accumulation. In 1930, Mesa annexed six subdivisions of land from its original city limits of just one square mile. In the decades to follow, particularly after World War Two, the physical growth of the city was followed by an explosion in the population. However, rather than bring an even greater buzz to Mesa’s downtown center, it pushed people further out, enticed by other shopping centers designed for the convenience of new suburbs. The constant thrush of a downtown crowd drawn into the Nile’s bright lights trickled down until finally in 1951, the movie palace closed its doors.

The building of the Nile Theater came at a time when movie theaters had just begun to proliferate, their size and designs increasing to create buildings that were as much of an experience as the pictures they put on. The idea of a “movie palace” as the Nile would have been referred to is truly what these buildings were, the Nile Theater’s name even coming from the popular Egyptian influences of the 1920’s after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. These movie theaters were developing as centers of American cultural life, and featured the most modern innovation, notably being early leaders in air conditioning technology. After World War One, by 1920, about thirty-five million Americans were attending the movies every week, ushering in an era of movie theaters at the center of nightlife and creating a new scene of movie stars that would define what it meant to be American pop cultural icons. However, the success that the post war era of World War One brought to movie theaters would be directly opposed by the decline following World War Two. The expansion of television, laws requiring studios to divest from theaters, and the growth of the suburbs all played a role in the demise of movie palaces. In the case of the Nile Theater, the suburbanization of Mesa proved to be fatal. The Nile Theater followed the same path that many of the other businesses on the once bustling Main Street went down, struggling to hold on for a few years as more and more people moved out, but eventually closed by 1951.

After the theater’s closure in 1951, it underwent major structural changes on the inside. The sloped floors were leveled, and the chairs removed, becoming almost unrecognizable from its original purpose. Once the inside of the building could never be mistaken for anything other than a theater, but quickly transformed into a simple and open box, suitable for the variety of stores that would occupy its space, including small businesses selling clothes and books. The changes in ownership and product would fluctuate multiple times throughout the years, but it was not until the 1990s that the Nile would once again become known as an arts venue, although this time very different from its predecessor.

In the 1990s, the Nile Theater became a venue for live music, specifically underground music for goth, punk, and ska bands and artists. The theater that was once the sparkling symbol of culture for downtown Mesa had been transformed into the hub for the city’s darkest music lovers. Due to the growth of the suburbs around downtown Mesa, the strip that had once proliferated with the Nile Theater had undergone financial struggle, and the Nile became heavily associated with criminal activity including drug usage and violence to the point that there was backlash from the community, which continued until 2002 when the venue was finally closed down. The reputation of the Nile actually follows very similarly to that of downtown Mesa itself, and in many ways the building and its history is a representative of the city around it. After the hardships of suburbanization caused the slowdown of the downtown, what remained began to develop a new reputation and idea of Mesa. Gone was the image of a downtown that people once got dressed up for to go to a showing at the Nile or for dinner on the weekends. Instead, it became an undesirable destination, the effects of community rhetoric adding even more inflation to the demise of the downtown.

Walking down Main Street of downtown Mesa, the tall brick building that once boasted its title of movie palace in neon lights, now just has simple white letters, “The Nile, Est 1924”. Rather than a box office, the front space of the building is now a coffee shop and vegan eatery which was opened under the Nile’s owner since 2010, Michelle Donovan. Donovan divided the building into the Nile Coffee Shop, and has maintained the back portion of the building with a live music stage and the ability to host shows. The Nile continues to be a live music venue, and under Michelle Donovan has once again become a valuable member of the Mesa community as an arts and entertainment hub of downtown Mesa. In fact, the Nile has added a front patio to its coffee shop, and a walk up window to place orders at, quite literally interacting with the street around it. If you decide to venture inside, the first sight that catches your eye is the mural on the wall with bold letters that say “Mesa” three times, reminding everyone who walks inside that the culture of downtown Mesa is just as present within the Nile as it is on the street outside.

The Nile was built at the height of the influx of movie palaces, designed to be a staple of American culture present in cities across the country. The days of the Nile being the largest building and theater people had ever seen seems so far away it’s more of a myth, but the building itself remains a story of the Nile’s influence. Now, the building and its owner imagine it in a different way, to represent a culture of the community in downtown Mesa. In the complicated landscape of current downtown Mesa, where Main Street still maintains original buildings and designs of historical Mesa but is surrounded by the construction of a new Mesa with modern architecture, businesses, and even universities, the Nile is a representation of the clash of a historical Mesa existing through the process of urbanization. The old red brick building that stands slightly taller than its neighbors tells a story of the past while flaunting the new changes that have managed to keep it alive. The Nile Theater is no longer the biggest venue in the Valley, and the building transformed from the grandeur of a movie palace, but those walking downtown Mesa at night are still drawn in through the brick walls from the sounds of people and the arts spilling onto Main Street.

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105 W Main Street, Mesa, AZ, 85201