Over the past few months, we have looked at the many collections that I have enjoyed over the past 50 years. Today we will begin looking at a collection that I have enjoyed for more than 24 years, a collection of information and photographs of the one area of history that I have been associated with for as long as I can remember.
My love of movie theatres goes back to when I was a five year-old running up and down the aisles of the Ritz Theatre in Alabama City.
My love of motion pictures had its beginnings in the movie palaces of Etowah County and transcended most of the 50 states of the United States and the far-off country of Canada. Granted, Etowah County never had a “palace” similar to the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis or even the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. For a few hours each week, the grand auditoriums of the Princess, the Gadsden or the Pitman theatres were ideal places to escape reality. After all, these places were where we went on a weekly basis to meet John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, Tarzan, the Three Stooges and even Elvis Presley. Where else could you go to get the “yell” scared out of you for the price of 10 cents to a quarter by the likes of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi? These were the places we met such giants as King Kong, Godzilla and the 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock!
Movie theaters had very humble beginnings in the Etowah County area. The first movie theater in Gadsden opened on November 23, 1906. E.H. Shannon, a popular conductor on the main line of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, opened this small “electric theater” at 315 Broad Street. Known simply as the Electorium, this theater was in operation for less than a year, although it paved the way for the countless other movie houses in the area. The first movie shown at the Electorium was “The Honeymoon,” with admission being 5 cents. Two other theaters opened later the same year. The Nickelodium and the Theato were both located on Broad Street and opened in late December.
While these early theaters encountered many problems and were only in existence a short time, they paved the way for the more modern theaters of the day.
In late 1907, plans were being made to build a huge movie palace in Gadsden. Located at 120 South Third Street, the Hayden-Pake Theatre formally opened to a packed house on September 28, 1908. The auditorium was comfortably filled from the orchestra pit to the gallery. The society people of Etowah County were out in force and dressed for the occasion. An orchestra from Birmingham properly entertained the full house. The opening performance for the new theater was the play “Magda.” The theatre was illuminated with more than 500 lights and the glow from the beautiful modern structure lit the downtown Gadsden night sky.
Another early downtown Gadsden movie house would open in 1911. J. Roy Hunt was the owner and operator of this small venue known as the Belle Theatre at 505 Broad Street. Hunt promoted the Belle, and it was one of the most popular movie houses at the time in Gadsden. Hunt purchased a movie camera and began filming features to show at his theater. He became so talented that Hollywood called, and in 1915 Hunt sold the Belle Theatre to W.B. Wood.
These early movie houses were very crude and most likely uncomfortable, to say the least. They were not the air-conditioned auditoriums that we have today with comfortable stadium seating and ultra-modern sound systems. The crude seating and large electric fans were by no means a comfortable night out to see a silent “flick.” The early theatres did not even offer a concession stand, so movie patrons had to stop nearby to purchase snacks, soft drinks and tobacco to take to the show. When a new attraction was offered Movie theatre managers would place large record players near the sidewalks to attract crowds to the theater. This practice became so annoying that a city ordinance in Gadsden soon put an end to this practice.
Although these early theaters were not the most comfortable places to spend an evening, the theater managers kept looking for ways to bring in the movie patrons. Five-cent admission and unusual give-away promotions kept the theaters going during these early days and would pave the way for the more modern theaters of today. The practice of unusual promotions would carry over into the days of the Great Depression and the master showmen of the 1920s and 30s.
Next week our journey will take us to the strangest theatre promotion that Etowah County has ever seen, as well as the early theaters of Alabama City and Attalla.