A glance at area movie theaters in the golden years

By Mike GoodsonBy Mike Goodson

 The date was August 14, 1945 and the news was beginning to spread throughout the entire Etowah County area that the Japanese had surrendered, bringing an end to World War II. 

For hundreds of Etowah County residents, the Japanese capitulation brought about an end to four years of fighting in Europe, North Africa and the South Pacific. 

Following the end of the war, many men and women from Gadsden began to return home and resume their lives in a peacetime America. The following months would see Gadsden residents take up their former jobs at the cotton mill, steel plant and Goodyear. Times slowly began to return to normal, and Gadsden was preparing to enter another phase of growth. 

This growth phase also saw Gadsden residents find new ways to enjoy their free time with the coming of the drive-in theatres and the modern movie houses found in Attalla, Gadsden and Alabama City. Happy days had indeed returned, and the horrors of war seemed like a bad dream.

Managers of the Princess, Gadsden, Liberty, Ritz, Capitol and Gem theaters managed to keep their places of business open throughout the hard times of the 1930s and the days of World War II. However, competition was on the horizon from the new theaters such as the Pitman, Carver, Etowah, Bama, Coosa and Dixie, as well as plans for the area’s first drive-ins.  

The competition for the entertainment dollar took a turn on September 26, 1947, when a new movie house opened in Gadsden. Things would take a drastic change for area moviegoers, as the Pitman Theatre became the newest addition to downtown Gadsden. 

The new movie house was owned and operated by C.S. Pitman from Pine Mountain, Ga.

Pitman owned several theatres in Alabama and Georgia and was looking to open a new theatre in the Gadsden area. Gadsden was thought to be a good market for a new theatre. The location chosen for the Pitman was in the 600 block of Broad Street on property owned by local ophthalmologist H. W. Frank.

The theatre was cited for its construction of fire-resistant materials. The finest materials possible were used to build this beautiful structure, which was made out of concrete, marble and brick. Among the luxuries the Pitman offered were true air conditioning, push-back seats and the largest screen in Gadsden.

The 850-seat auditorium was packed on opening night for the movie feature “Slave Girl,” starring Yvonne DeCarlo and George Brent. A large group of dignitaries and special guests were on hand for the film’s premiere. 

With the opening of the Pitman, a friendly but intense rivalry soon began between the management of the Princess and the Pitman. The Pitman at first had trouble getting first-run movies, while Princess manager D. B. Dixon got his choice of films. 

The first really big movie the Pitman landed was “The Babe Ruth Story” on the theatre’s first anniversary.

Oct. 2, 1947, saw a new twist to movie going in the Gadsden area, when the first drive-in theatre opened in Etowah County. The drive-in theatre was the invention of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., who came up with the notion of an outdoor theatre where people could watch a movie from the comfort of their own car. 

The first drive-in to open in Gadsden was the Tower Drive-In Theatre on US 431, located near the Gadsden-Glencoe city limits. The Tower opened on October 2, 1947, and was in operation until late 1956. 

The idea of watching a movie from the comfort of one’s own car caught on quickly, and the venue was a popular place. 

A second drive-in theatre in Gadsden opened in July of 1949. The Grove Drive-In opened in the Alabama City area and was in operation until 1957.

The popularity of these open-air theatres caught on quickly. Families loaded up the car and visited to the Tower or Grove to see a double or triple feature. This type of theatre was inexpensive because you could take your own popcorn, candy and soft drinks to save money. 

Or, you could visit the snack bar for everything from hot dogs and barbecues to ice cream and candy. Teens loved the drive-in because it was an inexpensive night out, and the challenge of sneaking in was too great to pass up. 

A total of six drive-in theaters operated in Etowah County over the years – the Tower, Grove, Ranch W, Rainbow, Rebel and Lake Rhea.

The movie theater was now the place to go. These wonderful air-conditioned palaces brought Hollywood to Gadsden and Attalla, and people could escape from the stress of everyday life for less than one dollar.

 
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