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Academy of Music - Charleston, SC

Above: A cartouche, carved before 1860 which hung above the proscenium of the Academy of Music. The cartouche now hangs above the proscenium of the Workshop Theatre at 20 Queen Street, home of Charleston's Footlight Players.

Left: Interior of Academy of Music, also known as Owen's Academy of Music.

Academy of Music
225 - 227 King Street
Opened: December 1, 1869
Torn Down: 1937
The Riviera Theatre was built on the site of the Academy of Music.

In the book "Charleston in 1883," by Arthur Mazyck (1883) and Gene Waddell (1983) there is an excellent description of the Academy.

"It has a front of sixty feet on King Street, and is two hundred and thirty-one feet in depth, and seventy-five feet high. It was purchased in 1869 by Mr. John Chadwick, a Northerner residing in Charleston, and adapted to its present use. The theater occupies the rear of the building; in front, a large store opens on King Street, and two large halls form the second and third floors. The theater is quite ornamented and well arranged, with a capacity for seating about twelve hundred persons. The stage is an unusually good one in proportion to the building, being forty feet deep, fifty-three feet wide, and fifty-one feet high. And now, when any performance of merit takes place at the Academy of Music, the building is almost invariably filled to its utmost capacity."

Other descriptions which ran in newspapers in 1869 provide more detail.

The main entrance on King Street was between two stores. It was 15 feet wide and 100 feet deep with Corinthian columns on each side. Panes between the columns had statuary and the floor was of white marble. Past the entrance was a vestibule and a great staircase leading to the "dress circle," beyond which was the auditorium. The horseshoe shaped auditorium had double tiered galleries supported by iron columns painted gold and white, representing the South Carolina palmetto tree. The ceiling was domed and painted to depict a sky of stars surrounding a "sun burner." This "sun burner" was a large gas lighting fixture containing more than 100 jets of gas flame.

Seats in the galleries and orchestra were covered with red morocco and damask. The space under the galleries was called the "orchestra circle" and had semicircular benches also covered in red morocco. The walls and gallery ceilings were painted pink.

The proscenium was an arch supported by gilded columns and moldings. A drop curtain cost $1,000 which was a generous price in those days. It was painted by Minard Lewis, a noted American scene painter from Niblo's Garden, New York, and depicted an Alpine scene.

"Birth of a Nation" advertisement appeared in Charleston's
Sunday News
, January 23, 1916.

Some of the greatest names in the theater performed live at the Academy. Between 1905 and 1936 the live programs offered such notables as Lillian Russell, Lilly Langtree, John Philip Sousa and his band, Fanny Brice, Eddie Foy, Billie Burke, and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Archie Shepard's Moving Pictures was the first of many films to be shown at the Academy of Music. Movies shown at the Academy were typical of the period.

An article in the newspaper announced on April 1, 1916 that Lillian Gish, star of Birth of a Nation would appear in a film entitled, The Lilly and the Rose. The feature would be accompanied by a Keystone Comedy, The Great Vacuum Robbery, a parody of The Great Train Robbery.

The mix of live entertainment and motion pictures gave Charleston audiences a rich variety. Among the live performances, Walter Dernrosch delighted audiences as director of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Fred Allen, Olsen & Johnson, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and the La Scala Opera Company performed as did Basil Rathbone and Ethel Barrymore.

In September 1919, Pastime Amusement Company purchased the Academy of Music for $35,000. Major road shows and vaudeville acts were moved to the Victory Theater where the stage and dressing rooms were better. The Academy continued to show minor attractions.

Many Charlestonians still remember the Academy of Music. Mr. J. Frampton Baldwin, who worked as a projectionist in Charleston movie theaters for many years, recalled attending the Academy when he was very young. "During a performance by Kelly Cotton, a drunk yelled, 'Fire!" Cotton rapped the man over the head with his cane and said, 'Pay no attention to this man, he's an idiot!"

When I went to the Academy, it was getting very old. They warned us before every show not to stomp our feet or applaud too loudly as the ceiling plaster would fall."

In 1937, the Academy of Music was torn down and a new theater, the Riviera, was under construction.

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