A tale of two downtown Gadsden movie theaters

Mike GoodsonMike Goodson

 Into the early days of the 1960s, the local movie theaters were the place to go to get away from life for a while. These air-conditioned palaces with their snack bars and double features were the place to go on the hot dog days of summer and the cold nights of winter. 

Things would soon begin to change for moviegoers in Etowah County during the late days of 1963. The competition between the managers of the Princess and the Pitman theatres had reached an unbelievable pitch by 1963. It was during November of that year, however, when Gadsden’s beautiful Princess would show its last feature.

The competition between the two theatres would come to an end on Monday night, November 4, 1963. This night was a usual night at the movies. A small crowd of under 100 people was enjoying the movie “All The Way Home.” 

The movie ended around 10:30 p.m., and the theatre closed its doors for what would be the last time in this grand venue’s long life.

At 10:48 p.m., Gadsden police officer Bill O’Bryant was walking his downtown beat when he noticed what appeared to be a garbage can burning next to the theatre. 

O’Bryant turned in the alarm, and several fire engines answered the call from the downtown central fire station. 

When the first trucks arrived on the scene, they found the theatre totally engulfed in flames. The firemen battled the flames into the night and early morning hours. 

Although the fire was finally contained to the theatre, it appeared for a while that the entire downtown block would be lost. Several nearby businesses, however, received extensive water and smoke damage. 

By daybreak the next morning, the once beautiful Princess Theatre had been gutted and reduced to smoldering embers. The flames had burned completely through the roof and water was standing over six feet deep at the front of the theatre.

The opening of the Gadsden Mall and its Twin Cinema signaled the decline of Gadsden’s Pitman Theatre. The Pitman had been the last remaining theatre in Gadsden until the construction of the Gadsden Cinema at the Agricola Shopping Center. The Gadsden Cinema was a plush, 863-seat theatre that was constructed by the Georgia Theatre Company at a cost of $200,000. 

With the opening of this movie house and the coming of the Gadsden Mall Twin Cinema, the Pitman saw its reign as Gadsden’s last downtown theatre come to a close. With the coming of the new multi-screen theatres combined with the Pitman’s age, it was only a short time until this theatre closed its doors, although the theatre’s management vowed to keep its doors open as long as it was economically possible. 

On January 9, 1981, the beginning of the end came for the Pitman when its management began to operate on weekends only. Although it was obvious from the outset that people preferred to go to the cinemas that were getting the first-run movies, the Pitman remained open and operated on this schedule for quite sometime. 

The decision finally was made to bring the days of the Pitman to a close. The theater was closed and stood vacant for several months.

The Pitman briefly opened for a one-week period in 1983. Sponsored by the BIGMEN and Gadsden Theatre, Inc., a one-week film series was shown at the venue between the dates of September 27 and October 2. 

The Pitman was completely refurbished for this special week. The final movie in this series was “Singin’ In The Rain,” starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. The Pitman closed its doors for good on October 2, 1983.

The theater stood vacant for many years and fell into a state of disrepair. In 1986, the property finally was purchased by the city of Gadsden for $26,000. The once-beautiful Pitman Theatre became a home for pigeons and homeless people, as well as a place for teenagers to party. 

The stage was destroyed and the drapes were burned. A leaking roof collapsed, and the theater seemed doomed to destruction.

The early 1990s saw a move to restore the Pitman to its once grand appearance.

Fundraisers were held and a committee was formed to evaluate the future uses of the theater. Work slowly began to take place to replace the roof and remove the asbestos from the auditorium. 

The air-conditioning system was replaced, and the Pitman now can be  used for civic functions. Movies have actually been shown in the refurbished Pitman.

The Ritz Theatre in Alabama City also has been restored and once again is showing movies. The Pitman currently is being renovated and will soon take its place as Broad Street’s only movie house. The Premiere Cinema 16 located in the Gadsden Mall and the Sand Mountain Drive-In are Etowah County’s only other movie theaters.

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