There must have been some

					                                                                                                    PHOTO BY TED WILLIAMS
        By Aïda Rogers


T
      here must have been some
     thing about the lights—those
     dazzling prisms of neon that
tripped across the marquees of
movie theaters years ago. People
who went to the movies in the ’30s,
’40s and ’50s sound almost hypno-
tized as they reminisce. They can
tell you what movie they saw, how
much it cost plus popcorn, what
they wore if it was a special date.
      Magically for many of them,
those neon lights are beaming
again, glowing against black skies
on a Carolina night. Across the state,
people with romance in their souls
—and powerful persuasion skills—
are restoring those once-wonder-
ful, later-neglected, single-screen
beauties to a new, updated life.
      “Just the marquee makes
downtown look happy,” says Em-
ma Lou Johnson—perhaps the big-
gest force, with her husband Jim-
my, behind the triumphant Main
Street Theatre in Conway. The
former Holliday Theatre, it burned
in 1990. Today, it’s a two-story
structure with a 2,500-square-foot
auditorium for the local theater
group. Mrs. Johnson’s been told
the marquee, created to look like
the old one, is the largest in the
state. “When it’s lit up, it’s just a
great, welcoming thing for Conway.”
      Former director of a dance
                                                                                                      PHOTO BY CHIP SMITH
school and an active member of the
Theatre of the Republic, Horry
County’s official theater troupe,
she’s a hometown girl. Her father
was mayor; husband Jimmy she’s
known since first grade. Aside from
three-and-a-half years in San Di-
                                                   The Show
ego, when Jimmy was in the Navy,
she’s always lived in Conway.
That’s a big plus when you’re look-
                                          Classic Movie Theaters
                                         bathrooms, a spacious second-floor     partment of Archives and History,
ing for money, in-kind services and      conference room and an expanded        volunteers in Conway created a per-
volunteers. “We figured we would         balcony with good sight lines. “If I   manent home for the vagabond
need about $500,000 but we ended         paid for a ticket, I want to be able   Theatre of the Republic. They’ve
up raising a million dollars,” she       to see,” she declares.                 hired a full-time director, stage
reports, before leading a tour of the         With help from individuals and    manager and office manager. A
theater. Among its finer features:       corporations, and grants from the      show or rehearsal always is going
marble floors in the lobby and           state Arts Commission and De-          on, so the marquee is always lit.

26                                                                                                         Sandlapper
                                                         PHOTO BY MICHAEL SEELEY
                                                                                   But she’s left movies behind. “I can
                                                                                   look at that on TV. I like live stuff.”
                                                                                         Like Main Street Theatre in
                                                                                   Conway, many old movie houses
                                                                                   now are home to the community’s
                                                                                   drama group—many who’d been
                                                                                   wandering between city halls,
                                                                                   churches and school auditoriums.
                                                                                   That’s going on in Newberry (The
                                                                                   Ritz), Orangeburg (The Bluebird),
                                                                                   Georgetown (The Strand), Sum-
                                                                                   merville (James F. Dean Commu-
                                                                                   nity Theatre, formerly Theater on
                                                                                   the Square) and Chester (Chester
                                                                                   Little Theater, formerly The
                                                                                   Powell and the Dreamland). The
                                                                                   Palmetto in Hampton is headquar-
                                                                                   ters for the Hampton County Arts
                                                                                   Council; its complex includes a
                                                                                   courtyard for receptions and art
                                                                                   shows. Other towns are following
                                                                                   suit: In Myrtle Beach, citizens are
                                                                                   raising money to transform the
                                                                                   1958 Rivoli into a 500-seat perfor-
                                                                                   mance hall; The Greenwood Com-
                                                                                   munity Theatre is working on the
                                                                                   1934 State Theater. With live per-
                                                                                   formance a new focus, older movie
                                                                                   houses—already equipped with a
                                                                                   stage—are coming full circle. De-
                                                                                   cades ago, movies were preceded
                                                                                   by local entertainment—magi-
                                                                                   cians, musicians, radio giveaways.
“Just the marquee makes downtown look happy,” says Emma Lou                        The oldest houses were built to ac-
Johnson of the Main Street Theatre in Conway (facing page, below).                 commodate vaudeville and film.
Other revived South Carolina movie houses include the Dane The-                    Many are on the National Regis-
ater (now Dane Cultural Center) in Denmark and the Ritz in New-                    ter of Historic Places.
berry, where a recent live fundraiser was the musical Grease.                            While art deco is a prominent
                                                                                   architectural style, you’ll find the
                                                                                   MacArthur Avenue Players per-



Goes On                                                                            forming in a Spanish Colonial the-
                                                                                   ater in Dillon and the Cheraw-
                                                                                   based On Stage troupe presenting
                                                                                   their talents in the 1920 beaux arts
                                                                                   Theatre on the Green. Many are

Still Bring in the Crowds
     As she sees it, Main Street     provide nighttime activity for resi-
                                                                                   used for community events or spe-
                                                                                   cial programs: graduations, fash-
                                                                                   ion shows, the occasional funeral.
Theatre gives people a chance to     dents. “The city wanted something             In Saluda, The Saluda Theater,
work onstage and backstage, and      that was going to bring a lot of              undergoing restoration, is used for
others a chance to be entertained    people downtown,” she says, add-              performances; it connects to a his-
at a reasonable price (tickets are   ing that nearby restaurants do                tory museum of changing exhibits.
$13 in advance, $15 at the door).    well when a show is playing.                  Programs and pageants for
Shows bring the snowbirds who             Now 69, Johnson remembers                Voorhees and Denmark technical
winter on the Grand Strand and       seeing Gone With the Wind here.               colleges occur at the old Dane The-

Spring 2005                                                                                                            27
                     PHOTO BY MAXINE TUTEN   PHOTO BY SCOTT POWELL




                                             Clyde Hudson threads a film
                                             print in the projection room
                                             above The Capri in Gaffney.
                                             Pink and green neon define the
                                             Palmetto in Hampton (left).
                                             Below: an artist’s rendering of
                                             Cheraw’s Theatre on the Green.
                                             Facing page: hula hoops and
                                             bluegrass at The Sylvia in York.

                                             ater in Denmark, now called the
                                             Dane Cultural Center.
                                                  The single screen made these
                                             movie houses obsolete, although
                                             the automobile age and subse-
                                             quent drive-ins played a role, too.
                                             The multiplex cinema—more prof-
                                             itable with its variety of movies on
                                             smaller screens—is the American
                                             way now. So many of the single-
                                             screen theaters languished, along
                                             with their luxurious drapes and
                                             fabric wallpaper, empty on main
                                             streets across the country.
                                                  “In 1946, there were 206
PHOTO BY WYLIE COX




                                             movie theaters in South Carolina,”
                                             reports John Coles, who is writing
                                             a book about the subject with Mark
                                             Tiedje, former publicist for the
                                             College of Charleston’s School of
                                             the Arts and fellow film buff.
                                             They’ve been traveling the state,
                                             exploring old movie theaters, re-
                                             cording tales of those already gone,
                                             making friends with people whose
                                             memories linger brightly. Coles, a
                                             former professor of film criticism
                                             and media arts, has written one
                                             book, Movie Theaters of Charles-
                                             ton: Hollywood Meets the Holy
                                             City. It covers the many theaters
                                             that operated there from an 1897
                                             showing of a filmed prize fight to
                                             the opening of the Roxy Theater
                                             in 1993. In his preface, he notes
                                             that while movies today are still

                     28                                                Sandlapper
                                                                                                 PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE BY NITA BROWN




“satisfying,” the experience of go-        Hudson reflects. One thing The          Association may install a screen on
ing to movies is not. At least, it isn’t   Capri offers, though, is good prices.   the back wall for outdoor movies,
the same. Coles, 61, recalls the           Tickets are $3.50 for children, $5      says Glinda Price Coleman, the
flash of the marquee, the grandeur         for adults. Concessions are half        GFHTA’s executive director.
of the lobby, the courtesy of ush-         what you’d spend at a multiplex.              When it comes to economic de-
ers showing you to your seat. To                                                   velopment, Anderson is skeptical


                                           N
him, the golden age of movies was                ot every town has a couple as     about reviving an old theater for
from 1920 to 1950.                              determined as the Hudsons.         arts purposes. Housing makes
     Still, at least one movie the-             In Lancaster, The Parr The-        more sense. “The only strategy is
ater—The Capri in Gaffney—                 ater was so far gone it was razed.      to repopulate the downtown,” he
shows family movies on its 18x22-          After 20 years as an empty lot on       upholds. “When you repopulate,
foot screen. Clyde and Mary Hud-           Main Street, Parr Place Apart-          people claim the space. They walk
son have run the place since 1969.         ments rose in its stead. Besides        their dogs at night, they’re out on
“Business is good sometimes and            offering 17 units for elderly citi-     the street, they shop, they look out
sometimes it’s bad,” Mary Hudson           zens and office space, the building     the windows. It’s real simple. You
says. “We have only one screen and         was designed to resemble its            just focus on building housing
people think that is so dinosaur.”         namesake theater, with a balcony        downtown and the businessmen
     Rewired and replumbed,                shaped like the old marquee. Like-      will come.” True to his word,
much of The Capri is the same as           wise for Mullins, where two movie       Anderson constructed apartments
when it opened in 1936. “Honey,            theaters were joined to create the      adjacent to the amphitheater in
we’ve got the same bathroom                Anderson Center. Its 22 apart-          Great Falls, above city hall.
floors,” she adds, describing the          ments were rented within three                A successful revitalization
black-and-white marble popular at          months. There’s a waiting list for      program requires a “smorgasbord”
the time. They still use the 1940s-        those apartments in both towns.         of projects, he continues. Still, he’s
era lamphouse projectors that                   “Loft-style housing” is the        all for protecting old theaters, and
were installed shortly after the           way to bring people downtown,           for more reasons than their ar-
theater—then called The Chero-             says DeWayne Anderson, an archi-        chitectural value. “They’re hugely
kee—opened almost 70 years ago.            tect/urban planner in Winston-Sa-       important buildings and hugely
     The Hudsons reared their two          lem, who guided the Lancaster and       important symbols. They’re the
sons—Beau, 26, and Chad, 31—in             Mullins projects. He also helped        cultural heart of the city. Of course
The Capri. They still help part-           the town of Great Falls with its        they’re worth saving.”
time, along with Chad’s wife               crumbling 1921 theater. The Re-               Money, of course, is the prob-
Kathy. In 2000, they reconstructed         public Theater, later called The        lem. Roofs, woodwork, plumbing
the stage for live productions.            Falls Theater, is now an amphithe-      and electricity need replacing; en-
     “We’ve really had to sacrifice        ater for community events. In the       tire buildings need to be made
quite a lot to keep it going,” Mary        future, the Great Falls Home Town       handicapped-accessible. It could

Spring 2005                                                                                                                   29
PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE BY BENTON HENRY
                                                                               little pubs and the Sylvia, you can-
                                                                               not get a parking place.”
                                                                                     The Sylvia isn’t on Easy
                                                                               Street, though. Finnican has be-
                                                                               gun offering first-run movies, la-
                                                                               dies’ nights, children’s programs
                                                                               and a Spanish night. On week-
                                                                               ends, you can see a movie at 7 p.m.
                                                                               (tickets are $5) and stick around
                                                                               for the band at 9 (tickets are
                                                                               higher). Beer, wine and snacks are
                                                                               available; separate sound systems
                                                                               have been installed so the band
                                                                               can set up behind the retractable
                                                                               screen during the movie.
                                                                                     On one freezing January
                                                                               night, Barefoot Manner, a blue-
                                                                               grass fusion band from Raleigh,
overwhelm less passionate souls.                                               brought their jubilant sound to the
But fundraisers are creative. In                                               Sylvia. They also brought their
Myrtle Beach, the city’s Cultural                                              “Hula Hoopers,” fans who follow
Arts Advisory Committee spear-                                                 them. In the balcony, wives of the
headed “Carousel Horses on Pa-                                                 band danced. Down on the floor,
rade” to help restore the Rivoli.                                              in front of the stage, other people
Fifty artists and organizations                                                danced. One young man wangled
decorated 50 fiberglass horses for                                             in a hula hoop lit with neon. Neon
auction, bringing in $365,000 for                                              lit the entrance outside, neon lit
their project. (Construction is at      Striking interiors: Dillon’s Span-     the slanted floors inside, and on
least two years away.) In Hamp-         ish Colonial-style theater (top)       the stage, the five members of
ton, a grand piano for The Pal-         and the Anderson Center lobby          Barefoot Manner played and
metto was paid for within three         in Mullins. Opposite: rooftop view     tapped their bare feet on the floor.
months, at $100 per key.                from the Riviera in Charleston.        Part of it was made from a ceiling
     Ask any of these volunteers if                                            that had been taken down.
the work was worth it, and they         in love with it. I thought, ‘This


                                                                               N
respond similarly: “absolutely.”        would be such a great place for              ot surprisingly, the preser-
                                        singer-songwriters.’ ”                      vation-minded city of Charles-


M
        aybe the most unique re-             The citizens of York thought           ton boasts three marvelously
       stored theater in the state      so, too. Almost before he knew it,     restored movie theaters. There’s
        is in York. On Congress         Finnican had bought the building,      the American on King Street; the
Street, the town’s business district,   hired some help and made sure the      Sottile, under the auspices of the
The Sylvia is now a concert hall.       reconstruction met state code. In      College of Charleston; and The Ri-
Besides lesser-known regional           August 2002, 10 months after its       viera, a palatial reception hall
bands, The Sylvia has brought in        purchase, The Sylvia—in previous       across from the four-star Charles-
Doc Watson, Janis Ian, Al Stewart,      lives a hotel, hardware store and      ton Place hotel. Until late Febru-
Leon Russell and Leon Redbone.          retail store, as well as a cinema—     ary, only The American still
It’s the brainstorm of Paul Finni-      opened to a sold-out house. Of         showed movies, stopping because
can, a Charlotte financier and mu-      course, it’s not hard to sell 200      it wasn’t profitable. It was the last
sician. While he was doing busi-        seats for a big name. But that’s 200   movie theater in peninsular
ness one day in York, real estate       people and more on Congress            Charleston, unable to compete
broker Tracy Ferguson Jr. showed        Street, where restaurants and bou-     with the “megaplexes” in North
him the vacant movie theater            tiques draw those strolling            Charleston and Mount Pleasant.
across the street. “We were able to     through town. “We’ve got a good             But The American isn’t call-
sneak up into the balcony and look      nightlife here,” observes Jeanne       ing it quits. Patrick Properties
out into the open air of the the-       Ferguson, Tracy Ferguson’s wife.       LLC, which bought the theater and
ater,” Finnican recalls. “I just fell   “Between the restaurants and the       restored it, had already installed

30                                                                                                        Sandlapper
                                                                                             PHOTO COURTESY CHARLESTON PLACE
Internet ports and power outlets.
With its stadium-style seating, the
screening rooms are ideal for in-
teractive lectures and conferences.
Already in use, another potential
patron includes the new Charles-
ton School of Law. The American,
its 1942 art deco glamour intact,
will remain home to The Have
Nots, a local comedy troupe.
       Several blocks south of The
American, the 1939 Riviera The-
atre is once again a King Street
landmark. Executives at Charles-
ton Place bought it in 1995 and
spent $5.5 million to make it the
splendid social hall it is today.
“When people come in for the first
time, they go nuts,” says John L.
Orr, catering sales manager for
Charleston Place, whose office is
in the Riviera. “We’re always
painting, always repairing, putting
in new carpet.”
       Besides the old Simplex movie
projector, on view in the lobby, the
Riviera retained a mural of Lake
Como in Italy. It’s a tribute to
Albert Sottile, the Sicily-born busi-
nessman known as “King of the
Motion Picture Theater Business
in Charleston.” So-tille brokered
the merger of three competing
movie theaters into Pastime             augurated president of the College      completed amid controversy.
Amusement Company in 1908. In           of Charleston, there was nothing        “There was a lot of skepticism.”
the Sottile Ballroom, lavish recep-     glorious about it. “It was a wreck,”         Skeptics are silent now. Walk
tions occur. When the Riviera re-       Lightsey recalls. “There were rats      into The Sottile and you’re en-
opened in 1997, Mark Tiedje and         running around inside, and the          sconced in elegance. Go in spring
John Coles, Charleston movie his-       worst was the orchestra pit.” Wa-       for a Spoleto performance. Sit in
torians, were there. Eight years        ter was seven inches deep there.        the plush seats. Tilt your head
later, Tiedje’s still bragging about          Lightsey remembered going         back and look at that dreamy blue
it. “I’m a lambchop person. Nobody      to the Gloria in the ’40s and being     sky, glimmering with stars. How
has lambchops. They had                 entranced by its blue domed ceil-       could you not just love that? ❖
lambchops.” They also had cigars        ing, made to look like a starlit sky.
on the terrace, an ice sculpture of     Now that the college owned the           To contribute anecdotes to John
a silent film starlet posing for a      theater, he was determined to            Coles or Mark Tiedje about a South
                                                                                 Carolina movie theater, contact
camera, music, dancing and college      make it a showplace again, for the
                                                                                 them at 1424 Moultrie St., Mount
students dressed as paparazzi out-      school and the city. At least $3.5       Pleasant, SC 29464; visit their Web
side the doors.                         million later, The Gloria came           site at www.scmovietheaters
       Maybe the most dramatic res-     back—this time as The Sottile,           .com. Spartanburg’s old theaters
toration in Charleston is the form-     named for the man who built it as        are featured in Marion Peter Holt’s
er Gloria Theater. Completed in         his flagship theat er. Lightsey, back    Magical Places, published by Hub
                                                                                 City Writers Project in 2004 (P.O.
1927, it was the largest in the         home in Columbia after leaving
                                                                                 Box 8421, Spartanburg, SC 29305;
state, seating 2,000. By 1985, just     Charleston in 1993, is unabash-          (864) 577-9349, www.hubcity.org).
before Dr. Harry Lightsey was in-       edly proud of the work, which was

Spring 2005                                                                                                              31

				
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