Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Summerville's Rich Theater History-From Silent Movies To Live Theater

I had curiously wondered about the unimposing James F. Dean Theatre since moving to Summerville eight years ago. Back in Ohio, I had become a theater lover over the years and was a passionate patron of Cleveland's vibrant Playhouse Square--the country’s largest performing arts center drawing more than a million people annually to its eight performance venues, topped only by New York City's Lincoln Center.

It was a Third Thursday and my curiosity was about to get the best of me, heightened even more by the fact the opening performance of "Wait Until Dark" was soon to take place. I entered the unpretentious theater door and was more than pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Summerville's theater history dates back to the early 1900's with the beginning of the silent movie era -- 1894 to 1929. The silent movie credited with being the first of the narrative films was directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman. The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute-long silent film, was released in 1903. The short movie established the notion that film could be a commercially viable medium and inspired the need to construct the permanent movie house. Summerville was one of those places.

The Summerville Amusement Company was the town's first motion picture theater. A key organizer of the theater was a Summerville resident by the name of Henry C. F. Peters, owner of the Summerville Tea Pot in 1905 and father of Albert Peters, one of Summerville's early mayors.

A 1920's photo and 1923 map of Town Square corroborates the existence of a ornate, triple-arched facade with the words Arcade Theatre engraved on it. The facade housed a long, arcade walkway that led to a 250-seat capacity building where silent films complete with violin and piano accompaniment were viewed. Under the middle arch, the entrance to the walkway was marked by a ticket booth with shops on each side under the adjacent arches. In 1924, the theater was mentioned in an article from the Summerville Journal. With these dates in mind, it is safe to say a theater was built somewhere between 1903 and 1924, located behind where Treasure Box Collections, Edible Arrangements, and Karate are today.

Around the early 1930's, Summerville went through a major reconstruction. The facade and many of the buildings in the east block adjacent to the Square were demolished. It is difficult to say whether the large, wooden building that housed the Arcade Theatre was among them. A photograph documenting the demolition doesn't show the area where the building stood, a parking lot today. Nonetheless, the Arcade Theater, in similar fashion as the old train station and the Pine Forest Inn, tacitly faded from the scene.

Between 1930 and 1935, the Legendre's, operators and owners of a string of Southern theaters with headquarters in Summerville, built a theater on the corner of South Main and E. Richardson. Morris Legendre, head of the chain, was a partner with his brother Sidney Legendre. Sidney owned a house near Golf Rd on South Main Street.

Shortly after exploring Abyssinia for the American Museum of Natural History as part of the Sanford-Legendre Abyssinia Expedition in 1929, Sidney married the expedition's co-leader Gertrude Sanford. Gertrude once said, "I don't contemplate life. I live it," and she did, but that is another story. Many of the big-game heads she collected from 1923 to 1929 travelling the world as a big-game hunter in South Africa, Canada, and Alaska lined the auditorium walls of the new theater. The Legendre's amassed a 6,695 acre estate called Medway Plantation located in Mount Holly within Berkeley County. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The brick theater prospered into the late fifties, until the winds of change blew in the form of wide-screens and the advent of television stole away patronage and necessary revenue to maintain a vibrant theater. By the early sixties, "The Show" was gone with the wind. The doors were closed and cobwebs filled the seats.

In 1976, a group of theater enthusiasts formed the Flowertown Players and rescued the theater with a new vision. The projector and spinning movie reels were replaced with colorful sets and live actors. For the next seven years, the group produced four to five shows a year with all the proceeds used to nurture the ailing building. Their valiant efforts could not stave off the unrelenting deterioration of the aging structure. It eventually was considered unsafe for public assembly and the Flowertown players were forced to leave the building, but it was not abandoned.

In due course, by way of a public referendum, the town of Summerville sold the old building to the Flowertown Players and new life was infused into its walls by way of private capital. Laughter and applause have since filled the James F. Dean Theatre.

In 2013, plans were drawn up to replace the theater's marquee and return it to the original design.

The old marquee was removed. The new marquee was constructed and completed in 2014.

So, whether you are a resident or a visitor, take the time to check out your hometown theater on The Square and schedule a night out. Its hard working staff and local group of actors are dedicated to presenting you their best in the way of live theater.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

I was one of the group who "broke" into the theater and started cleaning it to become a little theater in the 1970s. It was owned by a man who allowed us to use it - not the city at that time. I believe he was a doctor in Charleston and may have charged us $50/month rent. He did not have a key - it was padlocked shut - and we had to cut the padlock to get in! I kept a scrapbook of the first three years with lots of pictures.