News Column

Theaters have long been a central part of downtown entertainment options

July 7, 2013


July 07--About the time Winston and Salem officially merged in 1913, motion pictures were making inroads in this area, with new theaters opening and offering such amenities as comfy seats, house musicians and clean, wholesome entertainment.

Downtown theaters had been popular going back several decades earlier. Brown's Opera House opened on the corner of Main and Fourth streets in the 1880s with touring opera singers, Shakespeare productions and more, before closing and being taken over by the Winston-Salem YMCA. But starting in the 1910s, movie theaters became a prominent part of downtown life.

The Amuzu (as in "amuse-you") Theater at 116 W. Fourth St. opened in 1910, taking the place of the earlier Lyric Theatre, which had opened in 1909 with "4,000 feet of beautifully colored films -- the like of which has never been shown in this city" and a five-piece orchestra of local talent.

The Amuzu was a silent movie house that offered "good clean solid amusement," as an ad put it. A marquee for the Amuzu from around the time the cities merged -- the photo is undated, but is likely from late 1912 or sometime in 1913 judging by what was playing -- advertised the "feature to-day" as "Put Yourself in His Place," a drama about an English manufacturing town that included a scene the theater promoted on the marquee, "the dynamiting of Henry Little's factory."

A city directory advertisement later described the Amuzu as "the place you know" with "motion pictures of quality and superb pipe organ music."

The Amuzu joined a small crowd of theaters that had sprung up downtown. Many of these theaters not only played movies but also showed musical acts, high-wire acts, stage productions, magicians, comedians, and minstrel shows, a form of entertainment popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries with performers wearing blackface while performing musical comedy shows.

The Marvel, which opened on Main Street opposite the Court House in 1907, was advertised as an "Electric Theatre" with moving pictures and "illustrated songs" -- a live performance accompanied by still images, some of which were meant to illustrate the lyrics of the song. Admission was 10 cents, or 5 cents for children.

An early ad even pitched it as a dating option of sorts, with the following exchange:

"Where are you going, my pretty maid?"

"I'm going to the 'Marvel,' sir," she said.

"May I go with you, pretty maid?"

"If you'll buy the tickets, sir," she said.

Despite such potentially lascivious implications, theaters often boasted of how family-friendly their shows were. An advertisement for the grand opening of the New Liberty Theatre on Sept. 11, 1911, proclaimed it would be a "high class house."

"We are going to book only the best talent to be had in Vaudeville," the ad reads, "and promise the mothers and other good people of the city that they may come to this theater without hesitancy; there will be nothing permitted to cause you to regret you came."

And in 1912, the Rex Theatre, at 104 E. Fourth St., proclaimed that its one-week run of the Alabama Minstrels was "a particular show for particular people: an entertainment clean in every line and feature, giving tone, class and dignity to an amusement. Founded by Americans, cherished by Americans. A show that respects your opinion and provides 1005 laughs without a single blush."

Hyperbole was common in ads for the early theaters.

The Airdome on Trade Street promised "a splendid program of three first-class Vaudeville acts and motion pictures" with music furnished by the Winston Concert Band and "good spacious seats for everybody."

And the Hippodrome on Liberty Street, which opened in 1910, said that it had "the best moving pictures shown in the city and one double act of Vaudeville -- Huegel & Sylvester, Acrobatic Clowns."

The Elmont Theater, at 411 N. Liberty St., opened in 1912. One of its early offerings was "Queen Elizabeth," a film with actress Sarah Bernhardt depicting episodes from the life of Elizabeth I. The ads were boastful even by Hollywood standards.

"A page of history transcribed by a genius!" one ad proclaimed. "The crowning triumph of Bernhardt's brilliant career!"

But that pales in comparison to the ad for the Elmont's screening of the 1912 "Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress," which had "50 startling scenes," "unexcelled photography" and the "100 best motion picture actors of Europe," promising "every scene a glowing tribute to art. Double exposures, dissolves and other sensational effects make this production The World's Greatest Motion Picture Feature ."

The Pilot Theater opened in 1913 and, despite all the other movie houses already in town, billed itself as "Winston-Salem's Modern 'Movie'" and later signed a deal to be the exclusive provider of movies from Paramount Pictures for the city, proclaiming that it was "being ever aggressive, alert and on the job to give the theater goers of this city the very best in motion pictures."

At the time it opened, the Elmont was one of three motion picture theaters operating near the courthouse. That number eventually swelled to six within two blocks of the courthouse square.

"All were small in seating capacity, but did a thriving business," as a Sentinel article later described it.

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