Archive for August 17, 2012

Our First Picture Show   Leave a comment

Above:  Billy Bitzer Seated at a Movie Projector (Between 1930 and 1940)

Image Source = Library of Congress



From Leaves in the Wind, pages 15-17


“Papa” is John Dodson Taylor, Sr., my great-grandfather.



One day, thanks to the Internet, I was streaming Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio from Newfoundland and Labrador, listening to a midday call-in program.  That day the topic was a small and remote town in Labrador once accessible only via ferry.  Recently, however, the provincial government had installed a gravel road.  I recall residents calling in and talking about how they enjoyed looking at license plates on visitors’ cars.  I wondered at that sense of isolation ending as one’s world opens up, for (A) I live in a cosmopolitan city with many amenities, (B) I can listen to Canadian radio via the Internet in Athens, Georgia, and (C) I can avail myself of home video options.    My reality is far different than the one, described below, in which my grandfather Taylor grew up.

And I am glad to live in a time with considerably less de jure racial segregation.  I know why I think of such matters as I do; my upbringing and social milieu influence me.  Yet I wonder what my racial attitudes would be if I had grown up with rampant de jure segregation, not that anything justifies accepting such a damnable system.  I have found some Lost Cause and other racially insensitive language in some of my great-grandfather’s poems.  I have chosen to publish those works.  Researching and writing Southern history has led to circumstances in which I have had to repeat racist quotes for the sake of accuracy, but this blog is not a scholarly paper.



Summerville has had its share of big moments, but none was bigger than the advent of the first picture theatre.  We had glowing stories of such things, but to us it was just a happy page from from some fairy story.  Naturally, we all yearned for the opportunity to see one; but the idea that our town would ever be so blessed was never considered even a remote possibility.  We were in for a wonderful shock!

One day a stranger and his wife came to town.  We were always fascinated by strangers–it gave us a chance to get nosey and find out something about them.  We played no favorites, for they all got the same treatment; but with this fellow we didn’t have too much success.  About all we ever learned about him was that his name was Jacob Conrad (not his real name), that he came from up “nawth,” and that his family had been operating motion picture shows.  We did find out one thing some time later, but that would be another story.

Jacob had been in town only a couple of days when he made history by announcing that he was going to open a motion picture show.  Though we weren’t through meddling in his affairs when this announcement came, we suddenly cared nothing for any more information about his past!

A picture show in Summerville!  We were thrilled!  New York had them; so dd Atlanta and Rome.  This put us in the big time!  In fact, we felt that we were just one step removed from being a city; but it was a big step.  As soon as she head the show announcement, Julia, our cook, prophesied that we would be getting street cars next.  That prophecy is still in the suspense file.

Jacob rented a vacant store building on what we used to call Broad Street, just a couple of doors from the old Post Office.  It wasn’t many days before this new paradise was open for business.  The one projector was of the hand-operated variety and was at the mercy of the operator, who would speed up or slow down as his fancy dictated.  The screen was a huge sheet stretched across the entire width of the building, about three-fourths the way from the front to the rear.  There was a door at the right side of the screen to permit passage of the show staff.  The white customers entered from the front of the building and gladly set on uncomfortable folding chairs, while the colored customers entered from the rear and sat on equally uncomfortable benches, enjoying the picture as it appeared in reverse on the screen.  I have spent much of my time sitting, and in all kinds of contrivances for that purpose; but never in my life have I occupied so completely uncomfortable as those chairs!  Sitting in one of them assured the viewer that he would take home a memento of the show–a little numbness in certain areas that removed from him for a season the desire to sit down again for a while.

Music for the shows was provided by a hand-operated, something-or-other known as a player piano.  (Modern instruments of this type would bow their heads in shame if they knew just what black sheep their ancestors were.)  The operator sat on a bench while he engineered the device.  This was an ordeal long to be remembered, for it was necessary that he cling to the legs of the piano to keep from upsetting the bench as he pedaled.  There was a pump-handle on one side, and a distress signal from the operator would produce an assistant who would lend a helping hand by pumping the handle to augment the pedal.

The music was almost never cued to the spirit of the picture.  I have seen many shows–“drammys” they used to call them–in which the hero would be at the point of death, and it was handkerchief time for the audience, only to have the piano give out with a joyful rendition of

In the Good Old Summer Time


Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

The opposite was equally true.  Many times, right in the middle of a joyous scene, that monstrosity would wheeze and grunt out a heart-rending arrangement of

Darling Nellie Gray


After the Ball.

One time a very happy scene was accompanied by the strains of

Abide With Me.

I especially remember a wedding scene in which the bride and groom were dashing from the church as the piano serenaded them with

The Fight is On!

This picture show brought the first use of electricity to Summerville.  (Later, through Papa’s efforts, the whole town boasted an electric system.)  Old Jacob couldn’t operate his

pitcher show

without electricity, so he did something about it.  Just around the corner from this newly-arrived haven of delight, Fiddler Wade operated a thriving blacksmith shop and grist mill which was powered by one of the biggest gasoline engines I have ever seen.  A conference between Jacob and Fiddler resulted in the installation of a big dynamo right beside the mill, so that it was possible to switch quickly from one to the other.

Fiddler’s son, Chiel, was made superintendent of the electric power board; and on show nights, it was his responsibility to crank up the engine to the show could go on.  Chiel always sat on the platform right beside the projector.  This platform was actually the ceiling which extended above the show-window and the entrance of the old store.  All would be well until the engine went dead right in the middle of the reel.  Then Chiel could be heard slipping down the ladder, which was the only way to the platform.  He would take the path from the back door to the shop, crank up the engine, and let the show go on.

There was always a long interval between reels.  This was a time of good fellowship, cat calls, throwing of paper bags, paper wads, etc.  Often the lights would go out suddenly for the start of the next reel, while half the customers were still out of their seats, running around the room.  Many traffic jams and near-fights were the results of the stampedes to return to their seats in the darkness.

Jacob had brought with him one of the first electric fans ever to be in Summerville.  One night, just as the lights had gone out and the reel had started, one of the customers tossed a sack of eggs into the fan.  The result was chaotic and would have provided the highlight in a good slapstick comedy, with pieces of eggshell, eggs, and paper bag blowing in every direction.  The operator left the machine, jumped from the platform, and departed through the back door so fast that he threw into an uproar the customers in the colored section.  Finally, peace was restored, and an assistant proceeded witht he show.  The operator was located later and induced to return.

We enjoyed this haven of delight for years, until one night the Post Office burned; and Charlie Neal, the postmaster, acquired the space one occupied by the show for the new Post Office.

For a time our hearts were broken, until we were  told that the old livery stable, across the street from Fiddler’s shop, was available.  Bud Broome had operated it for as long as I can remember, until cars became plentiful and the demand for his commodity began to diminish.  (By this time, Jacob Conrad had sold out and had departed for parts unknown.)  Now, local management took over the converting of the livery stable into our new show house.  (This was located about where Western Auto’s building and lot now stand.)

I shall never forget it!  The ground floor–and that was really what it was–had been converted from stalls to orchestra.  The loft became the boxes, and the projection room was literally ‘way up in the piegon roost.  It was an unforgettable novelty and one that paid BIG, especially when all the pictures of World War I were so popular.  My favorite seat was right in the center of the golden horseshoe area of the loft.  There was no railing, as I recall.  One night as I was “emoting” in a big way over an especially scene from Big Parade, I suddenly lost my bearing, and for all intents and purposes was headed for a three-point landing in the orchestra.  Just as I was poised for the take-off, my subconscious showed me pictures of the old manure pile Nick Montgomery used to keep right where I was headed.  Just at that moment, I was able to summon strength enough to avoid flight, and to return to my seat–to the accompaniment of howls of delight from my fellow patrons.

You may rest assured that our pioneer shows added much to my early childhood in Summerville.