I started the story of Rome’s theaters last week right in the middle. I’ve noticed writers do that to a lot of stories. I just found the eight-page addition to the Rome News-Tribune that superseded everything going on in the world to announce the opening of the DeSoto Theatre, Rome’s first talking picture show, fascinating.
And the amount of his life that O.C. Lam dedicated to movie theaters was nothing short of a love affair. Now I’m going to continue, right in the middle of the story. Movies played a big part in my life growing up.
When I lived on Linden Street in Rosemont Park, we went to the movies almost every Saturday in the summertime. Me, Larry and Jerry Howell, Kenny Greene, Gary Beam, Charles Callaway, Ronnie Roach, Joe Lambert and others, not all at one time, but a mix on any given weekend. We all smoked, except Ronnie “Coach” Roach, in a later life, but we couldn’t smoke in the theater so we stopped and got a couple plugs of chewing tobacco, either Taylor Made or Apple sun-cured was usually our choice (I still like Apple every now and then). Anyway, after a small Coke, we had a cup to spit in and we’d sit back and enjoy whatever was playing.
Since we walked the railroad tracks, we’d smoke on the way home, maybe stop and throw rocks at the Anchor Duck boys (yes, they threw them back), but these were peaceful, fun-filled, lazy days of summer.
Then there was the drive-ins, three of them. I’m sorry that the kids in Rome don’t have them now.
As small guys, our parents took us to the Cedar Valley. They had the best playground in Rome. We loved that place. Then, as a group of boys, we all piled in a car for a cheap night show, sometimes with half of us hiding in the trunk and sneaking in free. Yep, sometimes we got caught. They just made us pay. Then girls appeared. What a wonderful place to take a date. I wonder how many couples would admit that one of Rome’s three drive-ins was instrumental in their marriage. I would think a lot.
Later, as a starving Rome Police officer, I worked for a long time at the West Rome and North 53 drive-ins, just walking the parking lot and keeping everything quiet. I had a deal worked out with most of the kids that came to the show. If it was a car full of boys or girls, they would stay off the back three rows, and so would I. I left that for dating couples.
What safer place to park than at a drive-in theater with your own security guard? The only time I would venture back that way was when a blinker inadvertently came on by itself. They really light up the dark. Usually a flashlight in the windshield took care of the situation. It was a good job. Miss Annie at West Rome and Mrs. Darnell at 53 kept me in Cokes, hot dogs and popcorn.
Mr. Lam came to Rome about 1916 and opened his first theater, the Amus-U. It was renovated and ran until 1929, but it wasn’t Rome’s first theater. Early films brought by early projectionists were in town around the turn of the century. Some were shown in a second floor room at 433 Broad St., which at one time had been Rome’s City Hall, and later at a building occupied by the Fifth Avenue drug store.
The first theater advertised in the Rome Tribune-Herald on July 1, 1908, was the “Dixie” at 207 Broad St. “Mr. Raymond Wilden will open a theatorium on Broad Street this week … Night performances will be given … Pictures are educational in nature, showing scenes of travel and the like, while of course comic scenes will be given due attention, and Mr. Wilden stresses that there will be nothing in these films suggestive, offensive or unclean.”
The Airdrome opened around 1910. It was an open-air theater on West First Street, about where the parking lot next to the Forum is now. They had rollup canvas walls to suit weather conditions. The Airdrome was also used for mass meetings and for Lyceum or Chautauqua-style programs.
(Got to run a rabbit before I close. “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” spent a lot of time in Rome, Georgia. She was one of the first African-American women to belt out the blues, she traveled and recorded with Louis Armstrong, “See See Rider Blues,” for one, and with Thomas Dorsey, son of a preacher, band leader and pianist from Villa Rica. He wrote “Take my Hand, Precious Lord,” Mahalia Jackson recorded it. It was said to be Dr. King’s favorite song. My point is, somewhere in Rome, “Ma” Rainey had a theater and Thomas Dorsey performed there with her, but Lordee, that’s another column.)
The Tribune-Herald in 1911 stated that the “Lyric and Bonita” are the prettiest theaters in the South. The Bonita was located at 237 Broad St., later changed names and became known as the Alhambra and then the Strand. The Lyric was located at 319 Broad St. and was operated, along with the Airdrome, by John R. Jones.
In 1911, the newspaper spoke warmly of the Elite (ee-lite) as one of the South’s finest theaters. This $20,000 theater opened at 225 Broad St. It had a $3,500 pipe organ. The front was Bohemian art glass and fixtures were most modern. It could seat 450 on the main floor and another 100 in the balcony. It was the first theater in Rome built with a sloping floor and specifically for showing movies. Mr. O.C. Lam bought the Elite in 1924, renovated it, and renamed it the Rivoli.
My Lord, I saw movies in the Rivoli. I just hit the high spots, but I hope you got something from our love affair with movies that still continues to this day.