BLUEFIELD — The Bluefield Fire Department has established a 24-hour-per-day watch around the perimeter of the old Matz Hotel on Princeton Avenue, as bricks continue to fall from the old six-story hotel that occupied a prominent position in the Bluefield city skyline for 98 years.

“It is still falling a little at a time,” Captain Richard Hodge of the Bluefield Fire Department said. Hodge’s voice appeared hoarse from being out in the rain for the past two days. “We recommend that people stay back behind the yellow caution tape that we have up. It’s for their own protection.”

While the brick, mortar and steel of the front of the old hotel was falling, the memories of two southern West Virginia landmarks were going up. Samuel Matz built the hotel located at 600 Princeton Avenue in 1911, and also built the adjacent Colonial Theater in 1916.

“It started out as a silent movie theater, was eventually part of the Keesling Movie Theater chain and in the end, was also owned by the Milner family,” according to Dr. C. Stuart McGehee, director of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives of Craft Memorial Library.

“The art deco marquee featured neon lights and a carrera glass covering with the art deco motif continuing into the lobby,” McGehee said. “The theater was remodeled in 1945. Although it was built as a silent movie theater, the stage also supported live presentations.”

Heber Stafford of Bluefield has fond memories of the acts he caught on the Colonial Theater stage including the incomparable cowboy star, Ken Maynard and his Wonder Horse Tarzan, as well as when Gene Austin, the original crooner whose recording of “My Blue Heaven,” was on the charts for 26 weeks in 1928 and stood as the top selling record until Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” out-sold it.

Maynard bought Tarzan in the mid-1920s, named him for the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character of the same name, and got sued by Burroughs. Maynard and Tarzan stared in scores of movies and even more personal appearances over a 20-year period that ended when Tarzan died in 1944. Maynard’s movie career faded after his talented horse’s death, and he died in 1973.

“Gene Austin was here when Coco and Candy were backing him up,” Stafford said. Guitarist Otto “Coco” Heimel and bassist Candy Candido had a radio series from 1932-’34 and traveled with Austin before the crooner who paved the way for other singers of that genre including Crosby and Frank Sinatra, to follow. The incomparable Mae West mentions her family’s “plantation in Bluefield, West Virginia” in her 1932 film, “Red Dust” with Clark Gable, and Austin wrote five songs for West’s “Klondike Annie” in 1936.

“I also enjoyed it when the Great Blackstone, Harry Blackstone the magician, performed at the Colonial,” Stafford, 91, said. “We would watch movies at the Colonial, or walk down the street a little further to the Rialto. They usually played cowboy pictures there.”

While the theater and restaurant that later became Colonial Jewelers owned and operated by Jacob, Edith and Allen Siegel, were draws in themselves, the hotel itself had its own very special appeal. Max Matz was born in 1897, in Pocahontas, Va., the son of Samuel L. and Mary (Davis) Matz of Tazewell, Va. Max married Dorothy Milestone Matz in 1927, and became president of both the Hotel and the Colonial Theater.

“He was also very active in Republican Party politics,” McGehee said. “He represented West Virginia’s fifth congressional district at the 1932 Republican National Convention and placed the name of Herbert Hoover forward for re-election,” McGehee said. “Hoover had been a guest at the Matz Hotel in 1928.”

The Detroit-based Milner Hotel chain acquired the Matz Hotel, and at least as early as 1970, the hotel was renamed and locally called the Milner-Matz Hotel. “I have a city directory from 1976 that has the hotel listed as the Milner Matz Hotel,” Edward J. “Eddie” McQuail said. The Milner family continues to operate some beautiful hotel properties throughout the United States.

“Simply put, the Milner-Matz was the place to be,” U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said recalling the hotel’s better days. “John L. Lewis stayed there when he came to Bluefield in 1920 to begin organizing miners in the southern coalfields, and train crews knew the place as home-away-from-home as they worked that route.

“I remember fondly the news stand there as a place you could get a good cigar and spirited discussion about the latest goings-on in the area,” Byrd said.

Stafford recalled that the famous newsman, V.L. “Stubby” Currence used the Matz (or Milner-Matz) as a base of operations for his sporting promotions that included professional wrestling and boxing matches he promoted on the Ramsey School auditorium stage.

“He brought in Herman Hickman, the All-American from the University of Tennessee, and ‘Father’ Lumpkin to stage wrestling matches,” Stafford said. Herman M. Hickman Jr., from Johnson City, Tenn., was an All-American at UT in 1931, and Lumpkin was known for his fierce blocking and playing without a football helmet.

“There’s also a picture of Stubby and Jack Dempsey, the great prize fighter,” Stafford said.

In addition to the hotel rooms, a “speak easy” club on the top floor, the Milner Grill as well as the cigar and news stand, the Milner-Matz (or just Matz) had a barber shop in the basement to the right of the main entrance. “My first husband got his first job shining shoes at that barber shop,” Barbara Lewis of Bluefield recalled. “An older gentleman, John Brown, had the job before Eugene (Dillard) got it,” she said. “Mr. Brown lived in Pocahontas and was crippled as a result of an injury he received in the coal mines.”

Sgt. G.W. Lightfoot of the Bluefield Police Department said that curiosity-seekers have been staying clear of the old hotel so far. “It is still very dangerous,” Lightfoot said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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