News Column

Efforts afoot to revive historic West Tennessee movie theater

December 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 06--Whatever monster or villain was on the screen, the most intimidating presence at the Luez Theater in Bolivar, Tenn., for its first two decades of operation was usually owner-manager Louise Mask, who had no children to christen but gave a shortened version of her first name to her movie house.

"She was a little bitty thing, barely 5 feet tall, but she was a strict disciplinarian," remembers Steve Hornsby, 59, CEO of Bolivar's Downtown Development Corporation. "She'd bring her little red flashlight and shine it in your face, and if you took a girl in there, you did not hold hands. You conducted yourself properly."

"Miss Louise," as she was known, is gone: She retired from the movie business in 1968, and died in 1982 at age 88. But her baby, the Luez, is as impressive as ever, despite almost a half-century of use and outdated equipment that has made the theater as obsolete as it is beautiful.

The Downtown Development Corp. this weekend begins operation "Save Luez," an effort to raise funds to refurbish the Main Street theater and restore it to its central position in the culture of the historic small town in Hardeman County, about an hour's drive east of Memphis.

To raise some money but mostly to call attention to the Luez, supporters are hosting a screening of the 1954 Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye musical "White Christmas" at 3 p.m. Saturday at the theater. At 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14, another Hollywood classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," screens at the Luez.

The films will be shown via a portable digital projection system provided by Malco Theatres Inc., which is helping Bolivar bring the Luez back to life.

"The building is almost pristine," said Nathan McDaniel, Eastern Regional Manager for Malco. McDaniel is a volunteer consultant in the effort to bring the Luez into the modern era while maintaining what he calls its "1940s ambience."

"It's got some normal wear and tear from the years, but it's really a gem," McDaniel said. "It's a very unique situation to have a theater that is intact to the way it was 50 years ago, with its original Art Deco fixtures and everything. It's really amazing, actually. You don't find this very often."

Defying the odds, the Luez, which opened in 1948, remained in operation as a movie theater until Sept. 20, 2012, when owner Charles Wheeler shut it down, citing the expense of replacing old-school film equipment with the digital projectors being mandated by the studios.

The closing left Bolivar's 5,800 citizens without a movie theater closer than the Wolfchase Galleria Cinema 8 to the west or the various Jackson, Tenn., multiplexes to the northeast.

This summer, the Bolivar Downtown Development Corp. bought the Luez from the Wheelers for $135,000, with the idea of converting it into a multipurpose venue for first-run and classic movies, kids' events, live music and so on, much as Memphis restored the Orpheum to be a hub of its own downtown renaissance.

The cost of the makeover is estimated at $350,000, much of which is likely to come in the form various grants, Hornsby said. Bolivar also benefits from state sales tax rebates for money spent within its downtown commercial zone.

Bolivar could use a sparkling, vibrant Luez. Its downtown district is home to some "legacy" businesses, a few professional offices and some retro-pioneer newcomers (an art gallery recently opened), but many of its 48 downtown storefronts and offices remain unoccupied.

"The Luez is absolutely central to our plan of developing tourism as well as providing entertainment for people," said Hornsby, who believes the theater can help make Bolivar a "heritage tourism destination," if the city can tap its ties to the Civil War, the "Trail of Tears" and Davy Crockett.

'Save Luez'

What: Benefit screenings at the historic Luez Theater, 219 N. Main in Bolivar, Tenn.

Showings: "White Christmas" (1954): 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission: $5; "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946): 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14. Admission: $10.

Info: 731-659-0341 or visit facebook.com/LuezTheater.

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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