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A rough sketch of popular entertainment in Marion, South Carolina during the twentieth century would prove that a hope, expressed in 1892, was realized. An article in the newspaper, the Morning Star, regarding the opening of the new Opera House, stated, “…it is hoped there will no longer be ‘dread monotony of crushing calm’ in Marion.”
Traveling stage shows and musical entertainments were presented in the Opera House but it is unlikely that movies were shown there. By 1920, it was no longer in use and was sold to Marion Motor Company. The city purchased the building in 1997 when the automobile dealership closed. Today, it houses a 300-seat auditorium used by the Mullins Playmakers theater group, various community and civic organizations, and the Marion Chamber of Commerce.
In the 1920s, Marion had two movie theaters, The Colored and The Idle Hour. Both theaters were managed by Mr. D.K. Davis. There is a photograph of Main Street being paved in 1929 that shows a billboard for the 1922 silent film “Pawned” starring Tom Moore and Edith Roberts.
The local movie theater was more than a place to exhibit films from Hollywood. It was part of the fabric of the community. It provided baby-sitting services so mothers could go shopping on Saturday. The movie theater manager was sometimes referred to as the “cheapest baby-sitter in town.” It also provided information that we now find on cable television or the internet. One such example is “Star In My Kitchen” a film which was exhibited at the Rainbow Theatre in Marion, October 13, 14, and 15, 1938.
Before there was The Food Network or “allrecipes.com,” there was “Star In My Kitchen.” This one-hour and fifty-minute film was promoted as a “Motion Picture Cooking School” by The Enterprise newspaper in Mullins. “Lock the doors and come to town!” prompted a page-one story on Thursday, October 6, 1938. The article described the event as “entirely free to every woman in town.”
In addition to the film, which starred Richard Denning and Mary Lou Lender, there were cooking demonstrations, model kitchens, recipe sheets, and gifts. Women were encouraged to “hear the informal chats from one-good-cook-to-another.” The film was also exhibited at the Anderson Theater in Mullins.
The schedule of events at the Rainbow Theatre for the week of January 30, through February 3, 1945, is a good example of the typical fare available in most of the single-screen movie theaters at the time. The theater generally had three shows each day. There was a 3:30 matinee, and evening shows at 7:15 and 9:00 p.m.
Wednesday’s movie was “Girl of the Big House” with Lynn Roberts and Richard Powers, followed by Chapter 5 of the twelve-part serial “Federal Operator.” Wednesday night’s were “Cash Night” at the Rainbow Theatre.
“Cash Night,” a variation of “Bank Night” was a promotion used to get patrons into the theater on nights when attendance was traditionally low. It was a simple process. A person would sign a book in the lobby beside a number. On “Cash Night” the theater manager would draw a number from a large drum on stage after the movie. The person who had signed by that number had about three minutes to come to the stage and claim their money. Prizes were usually $100. If no one claimed the prize, it was increased to $150 and the drawing repeated the following week. This promotion helped the manager fill the theater on off nights and allowed him to run cheap films to a packed house.
The movie for Thursday and Friday was “What Next, Corporal Hargrove?” with Robert Walker and Keenan Wynn. This was the second of two film comedies about an American soldier stationed in Europe. The previous film was “See Here, Private Hargrove.” These nights included a “News” film. During World War II, the only place to see moving pictures of the war was in the local movie theater’s news reels.
Saturday’s were traditionally Westerns at the movie theaters. The Rainbow Theater exhibited “Marshall of Loredo” with Wild Bill Elliott as Red Ryder and Robert Blake as Little Beaver, followed by Chapter 4 of “Jungle Raiders.” This was a fifteen-part serial. The plot revolves around a doctor who has discovered the “miracle drug” of the century, but who has vanished in the jungle and may be a prisoner in a lost city! The dangers faced by our hero included a pit filled with daggers, a crocodile infested river, and molten lava.
There was an “Owl Show” on Saturday night that started at 10:00 p.m. This show was “Voice of the Whistler,” the fourth film of the Columbia Studio’s series based on the CBS radio program. "The Whistler" starred Richard Dix and Lynn Merrick. This movie was followed by a cartoon.
Monday and Tuesday, the theater offered “Doll Face” with Vivian Blaine and Carmen Miranda followed by a “News” program.
There was a special “Late Show” on Monday night which was billed as a “Mystery motion picture” followed by a live stage show called “Zombies Jamboree” with “World Celebrated Magician Mystic Shore” in person. It was advertised as “Ghastly, Horrific, and Out of This World.” It couldn’t have been too horrific as children got in at a reduced price. Admission for this special evening was fifty cents for adults and thirty cents for children under twelve.
We interviewed several residents of Marion in 2005. Patsy Ammons recalled, “My aunt Delle Smith worked at the Rainbow Theatre. I had to be real good when I went to the theater because she was working there. I remember the cowboy movies. The theater had a balcony and I think it had a stage.
The old theater building at 307 N. Main Street was bought by Carolina Power and Light. Then, the Marion National Bank bought it and built a new bank on the property. This is now Carolina First Bank.”
Two men at the local hardware store also remembered the Rainbow Theater and the simpler times. One of them told us, “We rode our bicycles to the theatre and parked them in the bike rack on the street in front of the theater. We didn’t worry about anybody stealing them. I went a few times to see Lash LaRue and the cowboy movies but I don’t remember much about it. I remember how sticky the floor was. People spilled their drinks and your feet would stick to the floor.”
By the mid-1950’s two drive-ins were operating in the area. Competing with the Rainbow Theater was the Swamp Fox Drive-In in Marion, and the Mullins 76 Drive-In. But, otherwise, not much had changed. The Rainbow was still showing the same feature on Monday and Tuesday, a fresh title on Wednesday, another film on Thursday and Friday and a western on Saturday. An advertisement in the Marion Star of November 7, 1955, listed “Apache Ambush” followed by Chapter 12 of the “Batman” serial and a cartoon. Television was beginning to draw audiences away from the local movie theaters.
Dallis Brady, who owns the popular restaurant “Dallis Downtown” on North Main Street, told us, “I remember going to the Rainbow Theatre. You could get in for fifteen cents. For a quarter you could get popcorn, a drink, and Goobers. I loved it and I can remember being so sad when they closed it. I was about thirteen when they closed it and I was born in 1958.”
Around 1970, the Rainbow Theater closed. It soon reopened as the Marion Theatre. Now, one film would be shown for three or four days. Double features were shown often. Television continued to pull more customers away from the theaters. In an advertisement in the spring of 1971, a marketing phrase hinted at the changing times, “Bring the Family Life Back… See a Movie Together.” The double feature accompanying this phrase was “War Between the Planets” and “Superargo and the Faceless Giants.” Both of these films were cheaply (and badly) made Italian science-fiction films.
A typical week at the Marion Theatre in 1972 offered three films that demonstrated the changes in Hollywood over the years. “Shaft’s Big Score” was a sequel with the lead character trying to track down $200 thousand in missing money and, at the same time, keeping his friend's widow from the clutches of two rival gangs of hoods.
“Dr. Phibes Rises Again,” with a tag line, “Flesh crawls! Blood curdles! Phibes lives!” was another sequel with Dr. Phibes rising from the dead and leaving for Egypt with his assistant Vulnavia, still intent upon awakening his dead wife Victoria.
Finally, “Come Back Charleston Blue,” a sequel to “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” had Gravedigger and Coffin Ed trying to stop Charleston Blue, a prohibition era black gangster, dead 4 decades, from once again slitting throats with his Blue straight edge razors.
Hollywood was competing with television and losing. Studios were economizing by making sequels, and shooting more films in foreign countries where production costs were lower. Looking back it is easy to see why local single-screen movie theaters disappeared during the 1960s and 1970s. The movies offered were of less quality but ticket prices were higher. While Hollywood was offering good films in CinemaScope or VistaVision, a small local theater couldn’t afford the expense of upgrading the projection system and screen. Lower attendance reduced profits so that other needed theater improvements and repairs were put off. Larger cities offered multi-screen theaters with smaller auditoriums. The single-screen movie theaters of South Carolina’s smaller cities and towns simply turned off the lights and locked the doors forever.
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