Lights, Camera, Action!
Experiments with “moving pictures” began in the late 19th century, and by 1890 there was a camera named the Kinetograph, a primitive projector. After 1890, cinematographers began producing silent movies, which became more sophisticated as the years went by.
Moving pictures arrived in Davidson around 1915. On February 3, 1915, the Davidsonian announced that the manager of the baseball team and the manager of the annual were planning “many new features for the more efficient operation of the ‘movies.'” Movies were open to both students and local citizens, and were shown every Tuesday and Saturday nights. At least one of these nights would feature films showing scenes from World War I. By 1916 the movies were being shown in Shearer Hall, but they were not shown regularly because of insurance regulations. That same year, the new Palace Theatre, located on the site of the present-day Village Store, began showing movies every day but Sunday. An ad for the theater that year proclaimed, “Forget Your Troubles at the Palace Theatre.” By 1917 there was news that the entrance to Chambers Building would be featured in a new movie, and that “Messrs. Leon Applewhite and Howard Conway of Charlotte, are two of the movie actors in the scene, while several Davidson students make their initial attempt at movie acting.
In 1919, the college began showing more entertaining movies for students and townspeople alike. They were shown in the gym, and the Davidsonian reported that “In the intervals between reels A.P. Ormond rendered several selections on the piano.” The movies shown that year featured stars like Jack Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lionel Barrymore. In March 1920, the Davidsonian reported that at a recent movie “The band entertained the audience during the changing of the reels with several selections. This music is one of the best features of the weekly movie shows and everyone appreciates it.” In May of that year, according to the Davidsonian, moviegoers were “treated to an excellent musical program rendered by Jojo’s Jazz Band. These skillful sons of Orpheus swayed the audience at will moving them from ecstasies of joy to almost tears.” In March 1923, the local Girl Scouts began selling candy at the shows. In October 1925, the Davidsonian announced that organizers were planning to show “the biggest and best attractions that are being shown on the American screen today,” and that a five-piece orchestra, directed by Tom Barr, would furnish music. Proceeds from the shows went to the college YMCA.
In February 1928, the Davidsonian described the scene on these Saturday nights “when, taking chairs from their rooms, students ‘rushed the gate’ at the gym in order to get first-class seats and thereby gain a vantage point from which to view the “Fire” which might be present. Then… they tried to out-roar the famous silent lion and all such nonsense, followed by cries of “Focus” and “Frame It” as the machine tried its best to go on the blink.”
By 1926, however, the college had some competition when S.T. and Frank Stough opened their theater on the corner where CVS now stands. According to the April 8 Davidsonian, the Stoughs had thoroughly renovated the building where Carter’s garage had formerly operated, and “The managers of the theater have a contract with one of the largest film producers in the country and first class productions will be consistently presented to the Davidson students and townspeople…The moving picture show will fulfill a long felt need at Davidson.” In order not to compete with the Y’s Saturday night movies, Saturday nights at the Davidson Theater would be devoted to “Wild West” shows which would be shown for “the mill people alone,” so that others would still go to the college.
By February 1928, however, the YMCA shows at the college had been discontinued because of the “scant favor with which previous pictures have met.” According to the Davidsonian, “This removal of Saturday night pleasures of old recalls memories of happy times at the conclusion of busy weeks in years gone by…Efforts were made to continue these Saturday night presentations, but financial backing was not given by the students, who have usually spent their twenty-five cents for a show before that time. Prior to 1926, this was the only amusement in the town and was the leading source of expense money for the local “Y” in its various activities. Just what will be done with the machine and other equipment has not been announced by the management.”
On May 2, 1929, the Davidsonian announced that a “talkie” had been shown in Davidson for the first time: “The owners of the Davidson Theatre were hosts to the students and people of Davidson on Monday afternoon at the first all-talking movie ever shown in Davidson. The picture shown was “The Trial of Mary Dugan.” Only very few parts of the dialogue were not clear and on a whole the picture was a success. The object of the show was to get the students’ opinion on talkies. Unless it is the will of the students to have sound pictures, the vitaphone equipment will be sent back to the manufacturer. If talking pictures are continued to be shown, the price of admittance will be raised to thirty-five cents.” The Davidson Theater was completely remodeled and added wide screens in 1953. Davidson’s first cinemascope movie in was shown in 1954. Unfortunately, that same year the building caught fire. While the 200 moviegoers managed to escape, the building was a total loss.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.