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July 2008

The Heyday of the Silver Screen
Written By: 
James Hutchisson

The movies: Probably no other form of entertainment has so enchanted America. Yet once, in an era long ago, when cell phones and video games were futuristic gadgets in a Flash Gordon serial, going to the movies was a dazzling experience. Return with us to the age of Charleston’s picture palaces, when the grand old movie houses brought the glamour-rich aura of Hollywood to King Street, and the show, as it was said, began on the sidewalk

Return with us to the age of Charleston’s picture palaces, when the grand old movie houses brought the glamour-rich aura of Hollywood to King Street, and the show, as it was said, began on the sidewalk.

The first movie theater in Charleston stood at 321 King Street. A Pottery Barn occupies the space today, but in 1907, it was home to the elaborately named Theatorium, which opened on Groundhog Day. The Theatorium was the brainchild of George Brantley, a hard-charging entrepreneur from Macon, Georgia, who had fallen in love with the idea of owning his own business and saw the future, so to speak, written on the silver screen.

At that time, picture shows—as the movies were known—had not yet caught on, and so were it not for the considerable sales skills of Brantley and his wife and partner, Florence, the site might have become a bakery. But the Brantleys were passionate about the movies and determined to sell the idea to the citizens of Charleston. Shrewdly, they rented the building without telling the owner of their intention to start a theater, fearing he wouldn’t agree. Running strips of celluloid through a lamp-lit contraption was surely a formula for bankruptcy—or so it was thought.

The Brantleys succeeded through a combination of hard work and community spirit. Florence worked the ticket booth, and George stood on a stool, cranking up the phonograph and keeping the needle from sliding off the records he chose to accompany the films. The place was a hit, with continuous daily performances and crowds on the sidewalk, edging out onto King Street and obstructing the flow of the few motorcars that passed. Flush with success, George even contacted local orphanages and allowed kids to come for free, anytime they wanted.

Success, of course, bred competition, and soon there were a number of theaters downtown, most of them, like the Theatorium, seating around 100 patrons. Just down the street at 253 King, another businessman, Francis Kerr, opened the Wonderland, the first of the venues to boast a glittering, lighted marquee—a feature that would later become iconic in the architecture of movie houses. “It’s cool and comfortable at the Wonderland,” its slogan ran, “the brightest spot on King Street.”

To compete, the movie theaters also began to broaden their offerings. All sorts of other attractions were added to the standard bills. In 1914, for example, the Ziegfeld Follies performed at the Princess Theater at 304 King Street (where Leroy’s Jewelers is today). In 1918, orchestras played at “the little Hippodrome around the corner,” the Victoria (later renamed the Victory in 1918, in honor of the United States “crushing the Prussians” in World War I). And when the minor-league ball club, the Charleston Sea Gulls, hit a winning streak in the 1920s and attendance at the movies declined, another movie house started up a baseball bulletin service. A newspaper ad urged moviegoers not to miss a film on account of the game because the score would be “thrown upon the mirrorscope so that all may read while sitting under the whirling fans.”

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome

The Golden Age of movie theaters began just before the Great Depression and lasted until just after the end of World War II. This was the era of the great picture palaces. Monuments to the magnetism of the movies, these huge venues with elaborate architectural designs and plush interiors sprang up all around the country beginning in the 1920s. Archaelogical digs, sub-Saharan expeditions, and sensational 
discoveries like King Tut’s tomb inaugurated a seemingly endless public fascination with Egyptology and ancient empires and an appetite for the exotic took hold of the popular imagination. The architecture of 
the theaters began to reflect this, and thus were born America’s pleasure domes, temples of dreams, and celluloid fantasies that beckoned Americans inside by the millions.

Form truly followed function in the design of these “cinemansions,” as cultural historians later dubbed them. Their uniqueness is what first drew John Coles, author of the definitive cultural history of Charleston movie theaters, Movie Theaters of Charleston: Hollywood Meets the Holy City, to the subject. “The picture palaces,” Coles says, “were specifically designed to pull you in on several levels. First, there was the marquee with its lights. Then, typically, there was a low-ceilinged, arched entryway that then gave way to a huge, open space. The effect was to make you feel like you had entered some other world—perhaps a temple, or even a cathedral.” Coles cites a New Yorker cartoon of the ’30s that sums up how small one could feel in such extravagence of space and gilt adornment. In the cartoon, a little boy standing in the grand lobby of a movie palace looks up at his mother and asks, “Mommy, is this where God lives?”

One of the earliest examples of such a palace in Charleston was the Garden 
Theater, a Baroque fantasyland magnificently wrought in velvet and gilt-edged glass that opened in 1918. Today the building is used as retail space, but 90 years ago, patrons entered through an expensively tiled foyer topped by an ornate arch. That, Coles writes, led into a garden of “hanging flower baskets, caged singing canaries, trellises upon which climbed exotic, flowering vines, and crystal chandeliers.”

Show Business

The Garden Theater was designed by Albert Sottile, who later became an important figure in the Charleston movie business. Born in Sicily in 1880, Sottile came to Charleston in 1891 at the urging of his brothers, who “had already found Charleston and found it to be a good place for a young man to get along in the world.” 
Albert was a businessman who got into the theater business by chance. His brothers had opened several small theaters, but they had little financial sense. When competition became tough, they called on Albert to rescue them. He concluded that there was too much duplication of managerial effort, and so he formed the Pastime Amusement Company, became its president until his death in 1960, and brought together his brothers, Kerr, the Brantleys, and the other movie house owners in a limited partnership.

Competition, however, wasn’t the only problem. In a small Southern city like Charleston, the movies were still an untested quantity, like a chemical compound whose side effects couldn’t be predicted. Although in a publicity release, Sottile trumpeted the Garden as “a playhouse fashioned after the best of today—an edifice where men, women, and children may each find wholesome pleasure and diversion,” public opinion of the movies wasn’t always favorable. By 1932, after a spate of films of questionable taste ran there, a local Methodist minister announced that the city government should censor movies. He cited in particular one film in which “the heroine lied, dissipated, gave up her honor and her virtue, and then got by.”

The Great Escape

But the movie momentum couldn’t be stopped. The Depression, followed soon by World War II, made movies an even bigger business. Worries could be cheaply forgotten in the haze of the big screen. A vicarious life of luxury could seem real for a couple of hours on a Saturday night. And the big name stars—Gable and Lombard, Astaire and Rogers, Hepburn and Grant—could, with a single well-timed screen kiss, transport the lonely and the lovelorn into a fantasy life of happy endings and delicious self-indulgment in a time of privation, sacrifice, and fear. As Kerr recalled, the movie palaces were better than ordinary Americans’ living rooms, so during the Depression, for example, “people found it cheaper to spend hours in the theater than to go home and heat their homes. So, in actuality, we were their home-away-from-home.”

An even glitzier example of the picture palace was the Riviera, at 225 King Street, which survived as a theater until 1977, when it was renovated as event space. One of the few surviving examples of Art Deco architecture on the peninsula, the Riviera, which opened in January 1939, boasted 789 seats and all the modern conveniences of the 20th century. (Most of its original fittings are intact.) The gushing description in the News and Courier of its opening gala had as many rhetorical flourishes as the building had decorative niches, but it gives a good measure of how elaborate the interior really was: “It is modern in style with classic proportions and Greek motifs. The vestibule and foyer are finished in black formica and chronium with a background of flexwood. The mezzanine is fronted with a grill and opposite it is a long mural depicting a scene of Lake Como.” The mural, the story noted 
incidentally, was a painting-over of a previous mural, which had been deliberately “marred by the original artist in a fit of pique.”

Stars of the Local Screen

The crown jewel in Charleston’s theatrical empire, perhaps, was the Gloria on George Street, renamed The Sottile by the College of Charleston when it purchased the building in 1976. Under the supervision of Albert Sottile, the construction of the Gloria took more than six years, in part because of the deflated economy and in part because of the elaborateness of the design. When it finally opened in 1927, it was the largest theater to date. The building measured 268 feet long and 90 feet wide, with a vestibule running 100 feet from the main entrance on the corner of King Street to the foyer.

The interior was, well, palatial. A terrazzo floor was complemented by walls lined with mirrors and glass-fronted cabinets, which displayed the movie posters. The lobby housed a complete rookery designed by a landscape architect from Florida, who used four types of stone, a goldfish pond, stuffed birds, Spanish moss, and colored lights to accentuate the plantings. There were separate lounges for men and women waiting to be ushered into the house. A smoking room was furnished with soft armchairs and Persian rugs. Sottile was most proud of the atmospheric effects created by the interior lighting design. Looking up to the ceiling, a moviegoer at the time noted, “One gazes into the infinite depths of the firmament. Stars twinkle most realistically, while fleecy clouds roll by, traveling serenely in the sky.” Not exactly your shopping-mall octoplex.

The first film shown there, on August 19, 1927, was a mediocre melodrama with Norma Shearer called After Midnight, but the Gloria’s biggest premiere by far was the January 1940 opening of Gone With the Wind. According to Coles, it was the first time a movie ticket in Charleston cost more than a dollar, and all the local celebrities turned out to be seen, including Mayor Henry Lockwood, who bought the first ticket. Part of the stir was because a local woman, Alicia Rhett, had won the role of India Wilkes. But Charlestonians were also proud that their historic city was where the roguish Rhett Butler was from, even if he did have “the most terrible” reputation. Fittingly, people came dressed in evening wear or period costumes. The film played for five weeks—a rarity at a time when a typical run was at most three days.

Of all the big-screen movie houses, one of the longest-lasting was the American, north of Calhoun Street. It opened during wartime, in September 1942, and remained in use until 1977. Like the Riviera, the American was also done in the flashiest Art Deco, and it seated nearly 1,000. It still retains its distinctive marquee, shaped like a parabola, over the entrance. Inside, classical figures and pilasters set off the stage, and topping the proscenium arch is a golden American eagle, put there to honor the country’s soldiers and war workers—“Americans all over the nation whose efforts are being bent toward victory over the axis powers,” as the owner announced at the launch.

During the Civil Rights Era, the American became the scene of a minor racial incident when, in January 1958, Young and Dangerous, a sort of lesser Rebel Without A Cause, was shown to a mixed-race audience, with whites seated on the first floor and blacks in the balcony. A quiet evening quickly turned dangerous when young men in the audience apparently made race-tainted statements that blacks in the theater found insulting, and fights broke out. A newspaper editorial later pointed to the pernicious influence of the film on youth (“We’ve got a right to lead our own lives!” read the film’s tagline)—the zoot-suit crowd emulating models of bad behavior. After closing in 1977, the American stood empty for about 20 years, until it was renovated in the mid 1990s and reopened as a combination theater and grill.

End of an Era

The demise of the grand movie house—“an acre of seats in a garden of dreams,” as one Hollywood wag described it—was due to many forces. The obvious villain, of course, was television, which took control of the entertainment industry in the 1950s and today still holds much sway. And although most movie industry players were quick to cite that as the main reason for the disappearance of the picture palaces, Coles and others point out that the original reason big theaters ever existed was to showcase a particular studios’ films. When Warner, MGM, Fox, and the other giants lost their star-making power and film stars became free agents rather than contract-bound employees of a studio, the big picture palace was no longer needed. Films could be shown anywhere if they weren’t tied to a specific studio head, producer, director, and star.

Later still, the distribution system began to favor multiplex theaters that could guarantee consistently large turnovers in audience from week to week. A single screen venue couldn’t generate the revenue that the suburban multiplexes could. And, of course, in the age of the Internet, more and more of us now have our entertainment, so to speak, dropped into our laps, and the home has become more and more of a cocoon in which the world is brought to the consumer via a magical, invisible pipeline. The larger-than-life fantasia is now reduced to a pixillated amalgam of ever sharper and sharper dots, but the show still goes on—just in a different way.

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