Tag Archives: Colonial Theater

Aunt Myrtle Played for Silent Movies

Colonial TheaterMyrtle Veronica Motte Snyder Boekhout was my daddy’s sister. She was born in November 1900 and died in March 1984. She was quite a personality. She is why I have been a musician most of my life.

Aunt Myrtle played for silent movies, she told me many years ago. Last year I asked her son Bill Snyder if it was true. “Yes,” he said, “she played for the silent movies, probably in New Orleans in the 19-teens.” I wondered where in New Orleans that might have been but Bill didn’t know.

Since then I’ve found that probably Myrtle played for the silent movies right here in Florence. She was too young when her family moved permanently back to South Carolina (her father’s home state) to have played for New Orleans movies. But Florence had quite a few theaters in the 19-teens and Myrtle was the right age to have put her musical talent to good use here. For quite a while, the Colonial Theater served as a combination Opera House (live performances) and movie house (first for silent movies, later for “talkies”).

I was curious about how the music and silent movies worked. Did the film companies provide the music to the theaters? Did they only send a list of pieces to be played, along with the frames they went with? You know, fast giddy-up stuff for the western chase scenes, slow dreamy-romances for the love scenes? Or did the theater manager pick the pieces? Or hire a musician and then let her pick?

You know, it’s hard to get that sort of information today. I am grateful to the internet for the answers to that question, and now I understand Aunt Myrtle’s stacks of stuff. She had reams and boxes and folders of piano music in her apartment on West Evans Street. Atop the piano and the dining room table were stacks of music. Underneath the popular sheet music were books of classical music; everything she’d ever needed for the films was still there at her fingertips. She entertained us with great rolling renditions whenever we visited her.

I discovered that in big cities, an upscale theater would have an in-house orchestra to accompany the films. Imagine that! The production company would ship the entire score along with the film canisters and the orchestra would rehearse like mad to learn the material before the first showing. (And you know, they still do? Silent movies still circulate in the big cities, in theaters especially dedicated to them!)

In smaller cities the theater might only have an organ, perhaps calliope-style. The organist in some cities rose out of the floor on an elevator. This was a full-time paid position. The organist might receive the score with the film, or if the film company only provided a suggested list the theater manager (if he was generous) or the organist (if he wasn’t) would go out and buy the music.

In smaller towns like Florence there was only a piano. The film came with a suggested music list and the pianist provided her own music. She watched the film as many times as it took to decide what pieces to use where. It must have been a lot of work.

I never did learn how the pianist was paid. Was it by the showing? By the movie? By the difficulty? Was she reimbursed for the music she bought? I have no idea and I don’t know who to ask.

Now, this wasn’t Aunt Myrtle’s only occupation. She was a ladies millinery specialist who worked for some time in a Richmond, Virginia department store. She knew all about ladies hats and she never went anywhere without one herself. Aunt Myrtle lived here in Florence when I was a child, but she didn’t insist I learn all about ladies hats — no, she wanted me to learn how to play the piano. So I did.

Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, big band numbers, movie themes and church music — if she loved it, she knew I would too. At the age of six I began taking lessons from Myrtie Berry Wescott, and for ten years I went twice a week during the school year. I learned how to read music, play scales, do finger exercises, and memorize long concertos. I worked hard, determined to play like Aunt Myrtle.

Long, trilling runs up and down the keyboard were her trademark. Fast or slow, soft or loud, crashing major chords or eerie minor ones, octaves and arpeggios galore. Somehow, however, these beautiful runs escaped me. A glitch in my finger joints has interfered, so I don’t play exactly like Myrtle. But I do play, and I love to play, and that is her doing.

I was born several generations too late, but I wish I could have attended a silent movie with Myrtle at the keyboard. That would have been a blast!

Going to the Movies

Saturday movie rituals were set in stone for 1950’s kids in Florence. Get up, do your chores, get your movie money, and trek downtown to the theater. Admission was a dime and a snack could be had for fifteen cents so a quarter would do it.

Kingstree’s Jimmy Richardson (who grew up in Florence) and Florence optician Jimmy Rhodes recall double-features at the State Theater on East Evans Street. McLeod Hospital occupies that space today. Kids patronized double-features when they had enough tolerance to be glued to hard seats for such a long time. I stuck to the Carolina on South Dargan Street or the Colonial on West Evans.

The smell of hot popcorn dripping in butter and dashed with salt wafted to the sidewalk, drawing you in. Ticket in hand, the concession stand was next. With your fountain Coke you could might enjoy Red Hots, Three Musketeers, Milk Duds or Candy Coated Almonds.

If your total worth for the morning was a quarter, it was a difficult decision: popcorn, candy and no drink? Candy, drink and no popcorn? Split a popcorn and candy with a buddy? Good solution.

What a morning it would be! Cartoons starred Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Petunia, Micky Mouse, or Tom and Jerry. The Newsreel might demonstrate a brilliant new invention or feature a “Rally Round the Troops” speech by the President.

Next might come a Short. What’s a Short? Well, it’s a 15 or 20-minute film that could be a complete story featuring the zany antics of the Three Stooges or Little Rascals. It could also be a Cold War Atomic Bomb scare film, but they didn’t always put them on with kid movies.

Often we’d see the latest cliffhanger Serial episode. Serials were 20 to 30 minutes long, a dozen or so episodes to the whole story. The exciting derring-do of Superman, Batman, or the Green Hornet would alternate with space adventures of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.

One week Buck would blast off from earth on the way to some galaxy or other, and by the end of the episode he’d be arm wrestling with alien octopi and dumped into a dungeon. Next week he’d win the wrestling match and escape from the dungeon, only to be led by an enticing beauty into the midst of a another mess. We enjoyed the Serials, but they were just warm-ups for the main event — the Movie!

Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry — all were our heroes in the early 50’s. Plots and characters were easy to follow. Good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats. (Lash LaRue was an allowable exception, garbed in black from head to toe.)

At least one faithful sidekick always hovered nearby and could be an grumpy old codger or a naive greenhorn, usually hilariously funny. Naturally a bank robber, cattle rustler or otherwise all-around bad guy was up to no good, and naturally a damsel in distress was tied to the railroad tracks, cheated out of her ranch or robbed of her inheritance. Hoppy to the rescue! Or “Who was that Masked Man?” and his faithful companion Tonto.

Week in and week out, same sort of plot, same sort of ending. Dependable! Good guys always beat bad guys, won fair lady’s heart and saved the day. Plots varied with Monday to Friday films, less shoot-em-up in the musical romances and comedies, more in the detective and war stories. Grownups preferred those.

The Carolina Theater housed a wonderfully dim second-floor balcony where friends could giggle and tell secrets to their heart’s content, contributing bits of unpopped corn or sticky Cracker Jacks over the railing to friends (or enemies) below. If an occasional sprinkle of fountain Coke got added to the mix, the offender might be hustled down the stairs and out of the theater in a flash by an eagle-eyed usher.

The Colonial balcony was a favorite hide-away for boys. My brother Harold remembers the spacious ceiling space in front of the big brass rail as perfect for sailing improvised flying saucers: flattened popcorn boxes.

The Colonial was in the City Hall building, smack in the middle of the 100 block of West Evans. At one time it had been the O’Dowd (Opera House first, Theater later). For a while after moving pictures came to town, the auditorium alternated between live performances of stage plays or traveling vaudeville troupes and movies, either silent or “talkies.”

Advertisements for both often appeared on the same page in the Morning News Review, a flyer for a stage show at the O’Dowd on the left, one for a film at the Colonial on the right. It was puzzling to discover they meant the same auditorium. Eventually the Schnibben family bought out O’Dowd interests and only the name “Colonial” remained thereafter.

The building was set back from the street, the walkway to the ticket office flanked by a pair of ponds complete with lily pads and large, multicolored goldfish. Wrought iron fences kept our feet from slipping in, and trying to spot the swishy tails kept our attention occupied while standing in line for tickets.

It was fun going to the Colonial to watch the fish, even if not attending a movie.

The theaters occasionally hosted live entertainment even in the 1950’s. Lash LaRue came in person to crack his bullwhip from one side of the stage to the other. The Duncan Yo-Yo man came to town regularly, giving a demonstration out in front of the Colonial before moving inside to do fancy tricks with the latest yo-yo model.

Harmonica performances, talent shows, civic and school events shared the auditoriums with movie-goers.

In the 1910-20’s Florence had boasted at least six theaters: the O’Dowd, Orpheum, Imp, Majestic, Airdome and the Mirror. With the advent of film Vaudeville slowly dwindled away, the need for so many theaters with it. By the mid-1920’s Florence was down to three, the O’Dowd, Colonial and Bijou.

In the early 1950’s we still had three downtown theaters, the Colonial, Carolina and State, and our Saturday ritual of meeting friends at the movie was an integral part of our lives. Today you can buy just about any of the old Cartoons, Shorts, Newsreels and Movies on videotape or DVD, even the scary Atom Bomb films. It’s just not the same, though, without the balconies, Cracker Jacks and flying popcorn boxes.