History Book: Jewels of the Valleys

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The Lookout Mountain region’s classic theatres reflect an optimistic era in history and hold myriad promises for tomorrow.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…”
– “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In the 1880s and ’90s, America was an increasingly prosperous and self-confident country. Enriched by waves of Irish, German and Italian immigrants, the nation was booming as it mass produced all manner of manufactured goods and exploited and exported its vast supplies of iron and coal.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Fortunes were made, palatial homes built and leisure was attainable for more people. For the wealthy, theatre, opera and symphony performances were the major entertainments outside the home. For the thriving middle and poorer classes, cheap amusement was as varied as local bars and small nickelodeon arcades where, for a few pennies, one could see moving pictures in a variety of styles and covering a range of topics.

The arcades often stood beside vaudeville theatres where magic, song and dance and stand-up comedy were featured live acts. These two forms of entertainment were the forerunners of the movie industry. At first, one-reel silent films were shown as part of the vaudeville show; then, as the quality of film improved and sound was added, reels replaced live acts as the main attraction.

In major cities as well as small towns around the country, some kind of auditorium hosted vaudeville. But with films, only a shallow stage large enough to house a screen was essential. Dressing rooms or space for prop or set storage was no longer needed. The movie theatre was born!

As “movies” became the rage, vaudeville theatres were torn down or modified to accommodate the showing of films. By the 1920s and ’30s, the gateway cities to the Lookout Mountain area – Chattanooga, Atlanta and Birmingham – sported elaborate “movie palaces,” as they were known in pre-World War II America. Smaller cities in the area quickly followed suit; Rome, Ga., and Gadsden and Fort Payne in Alabama built smaller versions of the theatre houses.

In all of these cities, large and small, utilizing and preserving these glorious edifices has challenged modern downtown committees and preservationists. The theatres’ origins, development and style continue to fascinate us and reflect both an era in history and its dreams for the future of this area.

Tivoli Theatre
In downtown Chattanooga, the Tivoli opened in 1921 as the most elaborate movie palace in the area. Modeled after elegant beaux-arts principles, it impressed early audiences with its grand lobby and crystal chandeliers. Fortunately for its future, it was built to accommodate both film and live performances, with seating for 1,500. In 1924, a Wurlitzer organ was installed, and when Paramount-Publix Theatres Corporation bought the theatre in 1926, it contained many of the same features as the company’s other Southern venue, the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham.

The Tivoli dominated the downtown entertainment district during the heyday of film and experienced the typical downturn in the 1950s as audiences stayed home to watch television. Chattanooga native Ariel Colburn remembers the sadness she felt watching the theatre close in 1961. “I was not quite old enough to understand the reasons it closed, but seeing the blank marquee was distressing,” she says.

Fortunately she also witnessed its revival beginning in the 1970s and attended a visiting ballet company’s performance of “Cinderella” led by legendary dancer Frederick Franklin, who performed the role of the ugly stepmother. “He gave a whole new meaning to the idea of ‘ugly!’” she recalls with a chuckle.

The Tivoli will continue to provide such memorable experiences to theatregoers because by 1989, thanks to efforts by private foundations and the city of Chattanooga, the theatre had been restored and now hosts both Chattanooga’s symphony and ballet. With its expanded stage and supporting spaces – green room and dressing rooms – it is suitable for a wide diversity of entertainment.

Fox Theatre
In Atlanta, movie impresario William Fox adapted his theatre from an auditorium originally built for the Shriner’s fraternal organization. Inspired by the Alhambra in Spain and Egypt’s Temple of Kharnak, the exterior is marked by sweeping archways, domes and minarets. Inside, beautiful fabrics and grand, swirling, gold-leafed details create an opulent feel. Fox spared no expense, and when his grand “palace” opened to the public in 1929 with a showing of Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” to a sold-out audience of 4,000, it was the social event of the Atlanta season.

Like all of these expensive venues, the Fox Theatre suffered during the Great Depression and, even more so, with the exploding popularity of television entertainment after World War II. Today it has been rescued from the wrecking ball and thrives as a home to a wide variety of events from Broadway travelling performances to concerts, lectures and seasonal specials such as ghost tours at Halloween and performances of “The Nutcracker” at Christmas. Tours of the theatre are regularly available as well.

Alabama Theatre
Two years before the Fox, the 2,500-seat Alabama Theatre opened in Birmingham. Built by an early movie conglomerate, Paramount-Publix, it was, like its predecessor the Tivoli in Chattanooga, based upon the beaux-arts style that imitated European performance halls with faux box seats, swirling and ornate architectural highlights, heavy red draperies and velvet-upholstered seats. It was built for silent film and featured an organ for film accompaniment.

With a bellowing of chords, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ rose from the orchestra pit bathed in light as the organist, already seated at the bench, began to concertize. With the advent of “talkies” (films with sound), the organ was heard only before or after the movie.

Throughout the ’50s, a date at the Alabama was an occasion for “dresses and pearls for the girls and coats and ties for the boys,” remembers Frances Hardwick of Birmingham. The whole atmosphere was elegant. “Even the lounge outside the restroom entrances featured red-velvet chaises,” she recalls.

But in the 1960s, like most downtown theatres, the Alabama lost audiences to suburban multiplexes where jeans and bling replaced neck ties and pearls. Like other downtown businesses, the Alabama faced the possibility of demolition. Thanks to the American Society of Organists, funds were raised to save the Wurlitzer, one of only 25 like it, and the hall that surrounds it.

Today, the Alabama Theatre supports a busy schedule of ballet performances, special concerts, a symphony series, the showing of classic movies and performances by individual artists. One of its most storied events is a Halloween special in which the silent movie “Phantom of the Opera” is shown while organist Tom Helms plays his original score to accompany the action.

In the 1920s, smaller cities in the Lookout Mountain region were simultaneously enjoying the rush of civic pride as investors and entrepreneurs banking upon the enormous attraction of the movies built miniature “palaces” in their communities.

DeSoto Theatre
In 1928, the Lam Amusement Company that would build several movie houses in rural Georgia designed a 1,000-seat theatre for Rome, Ga. Known as the DeSoto for the Spanish explorer of the Lookout Mountain area, it opened its doors in August 1929.

Owner O. C. Lam modeled the theatre after New York’s Roxy. Unlike the aforementioned movie palaces, the DeSoto was a model of restraint in design, electing the Georgian clean line over the more ornate beaux-arts look for its interior. It is luxurious in its very simplicity; entering the lobby feels like stepping into an elegant Wedgewood bowl rather than being submerged in gold leaf and heavy velvet.

As the first theatre in the Southeast to be designed and built for films with sound, it also was equipped with the latest movie-house technology – a Vitaphone sound system as well as an early form of air conditioning, state-of-the-art fire safety equipment and multiple exits that allowed a full house to be emptied in two minutes.

The exterior, also elegant, is art-deco style, a popular 1930s look in both Europe and America. Like its contemporaries, the DeSoto lost audiences over the ensuing years. After decades of physical neglect and in need of restoration, it closed as a movie theatre in 1982.

Fortunately, the Rome Little Theatre, a community theatrical company, purchased the building from the Lam family and soon re-opened it. Six years ago, the DeSoto Historic Theatre Foundation was instituted to raise funds for and oversee the revitalization of the theatre.

Thanks to the Fox Theatre Institute in Atlanta, various foundations and private donors, Charles Goulding, a noted plaster artist, was brought in to restore the elegant plaster work in the lobby. Goulding based his work upon original plans and color photographs, and “before” and “after” pictures now displayed in the lobby are astonishing in emphasizing the dramatic improvements. Currently, space is being added to accommodate back-stage needs, and the lobby will soon house a new concessions stand.

Megan Keating, executive director of the Rome Little Theatre, says the upkeep and maintenance of the DeSoto is more than a single foundation or small theatre company can sustain on its own, but “creative collaboration” makes it possible. Between 40 and 50 other groups contribute by renting the space for events and meetings. “Theatres can provide a place of community where a wide variety of people – children, art lovers and people of all ages – can find themselves together in a common, enjoyable experience,” Keating says.

The DeSoto features acts and events as varied as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for Halloween, followed by “The Nutcracker” ballet for the holiday season. The Rome Little Theatre performs an ambitious season of six to eight plays and musicals on stage. Just down the street from the DeSoto, the old Gordon Theatre, also a Lam property, opened in 1935. The theatre did not survive as a performance space, but the building is now the Partridge Restaurant. The proprietors retained much of the façade and feel of the original building.

Pittman Theatre
In Gadsden, Ala., another small but classic movie palace, the Pittman, opened on Sept. 26, 1947, with glamorous Yvonne DeCarlo in a Hollywood big-budget film, “Slave Girl.”

The Pittman flourished for decades thereafter, even being chosen as a venue for a red-carpet showing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1963. Birmingham-based stars Mary Badham and Phillip Alford made appearances.
Despite these successes, the Pittman lost audiences in the next two decades and was officially closed as a movie theatre in 1983. The city of Gadsden inherited the property in 1986 and now has ambitious plans for its use, says Kay Moore, director of Downtown Gadsden Incorporated.

The exterior art deco marquee and lobby were restored in 2006, thanks to foundation grants, but the rest of the building had become a storage facility for various city departments, Moore says. “You opened the door into the original seating space and found that the interior was basically just a shell with a concrete floor and brick walls,” she remembers. “In 2007, after we found a home for all of that or hauled it off to the dump, we could see what needed to be done.” The ceiling has been lowered and a splendid sound system installed, and now the space does not feel so cavernous. Plans are to retain the bottom floor without fixed seating as a venue for meetings, lectures or dinner theatres and use the balcony with fixed seating for other events.

Competition was fierce between the Pittman and the Princess, a movie house that opened 10 years earlier. Moore laughs that managers of the two theatres used to “look down the block to see who had the biggest crowd.” The Princess burned in 1963, but its spirit lives on as that end of the block has been repurposed as the home of the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts.

The Ritz Theatre
A third Gadsden theatre is located in the Alabama City district, formerly an independent town that was annexed into Gadsden in the 1930s. The Ritz Theatre opened in 1927 next door to its current site and spent its first five years as a nickelodeon.

In 1932, the theatre moved into a former grocery store. The lobby and balcony were constructed and seating capacity was expanded to 800 during a 1938 renovation. The Ritz closed in 1965, but Gadsden Civic Theatre (now Theatre of Gadsden) reopened it in 1971 and still makes its home there. Major interior renovations began in 2008, and in August 2011, the Ritz Theatre began showing movies again. The theatre also is available as an event venue.

Cricket Theatre
In Collinsville, Ala., the Cricket Theatre, built in 1925 in a building that now houses the Collinsville Public Library, seated 197 and showed silent films until 1930, when the first talkie was shown. Packed houses fascinated by this new form of entertainment kept the Cricket, named for the insects that chirped continuously in nearby Wills Creek, filled.

In 1946, a new Cricket Theatre was built on a more elaborate scale with a 40-foot-high tower and a brilliantly lighted marquee that illuminated all of downtown. Seating was increased to 800. The interior was elaborate with terrazzo and carpeted floors and décor coordinated in shades of rose and silver. It was reputed to be quite grand and flourished as a movie house until 1964. It sat empty and deteriorated until efforts to restore it began during the past decade. In 2011, the roof was repaired, helping to preserve the possibility of full restoration. Various efforts are being made to bring the Cricket back to life. For more information, see the Cricket Theatre on Facebook.

DeKalb Theatre
Just up the road from Gadsden, the city of Fort Payne, Ala., also claimed a movie palace. The DeKalb Theatre opened in 1939. In 1941, it was listed as seating 350 people for movie showings only. It offers splendid examples of art-deco exterior and interior adornments.

A projector and a popcorn machine exhibited in its lobby also record two important events in the history of cinema – the advent of modern projection machines and the marriage of movies and refreshments. Snacks were first available in movie houses in the 1930s. Because of sugar rationing during World War II, sweet snacks became rare and expensive and lost ground to popcorn as the preferred in-house movie munch.

The Dekalb Theatre has the advantage of a retractable, sloped seating contraption that makes it theatre- and movie-friendly while retaining flat party or dining space on the ground floor.

The DeKalb suffered some of the same indignities of its sister theatres. From 1988 to1992 it was a wax museum, which preserved the building. Thereafter it was reclaimed as a multi-purpose space by the city of Fort Payne. Its survival has been aided by the popularity and generosity of the band Alabama and especially Jeff Cook, who holds his annual fan appreciation event at the DeKalb Theatre.

Maury Roberts, manager of the theatre since 2013, brims with enthusiasm as he brainstorms the various events and acts he hopes to attract to the theatre, from weddings, parties and school functions to comedians and concerts. He says he would love to show films again. “It would be great to have a time that kids could come see some of the old serial action movies, and also be able to offer movies for their parents to enjoy,” he says.

He also seeks the kind of collaborative partnerships with local groups that have served the DeSoto in Rome so well. A growing church uses the auditorium, and he hopes to attract some community-theatre performances.

These fabulous structures are a study in the economics, history and aesthetics of their times. As the cities of the Lookout Mountain area move forward to preserve them and bring them to life once again, they address something fundamental in the human spirit – the need for community. Despite our fragmented lives increasingly spent staring at screens built for solitary viewers, there is a joy in gathering for entertainment, to laugh and cry with others. Just as movie theatres ultimately helped break down barriers between classes and races, today they stand as more than monuments; they offer us the hope of communing in ways that help us transcend our barriers to understanding each other.

To learn about upcoming events at Lookout Mountain area theatres, see “Lookout Mountain Area Events” above.

 

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