Heyday of the Movies in Conway

By William T. Goldfinch

One day while visiting the Horry County Museum, located in Conway on Main Street at the site of the former post office, I commented to the receptionist about there being a motion picture theatre a half block away. The young lady, who was not a Conway native, looked at me in astonishment. She found it difficult to believe that a 999 seat theatre was in such close proximity to her place of employment! That made me wonder how many residents of the town are either unaware that it ever existed or that the auditorium still graces Main Street, behind the original entrance which is now occupied by two other businesses.

When I grew up in Conway in the forties and fifties the Carolina Theatre played a major role in the lives of the citizens of the town and of the county. Alas, today there is not even one movie theatre in Conway! Who would believe that in 1955, the year that I graduated from high school, there were two movie theatres operating downtown, the Carolina and the Holliday; one theatre for the colored people, the Hillside located on Race Path Street just off the corner of Race Path and Highway 378; and two drive-in theatres, the 501 Drive-In on Highway 501 a few miles west of town beyond the crossroads at Cultra Road as well as the Conway Drive-In on Highway 701 just across Crabtree Creek! During three brief periods Conway contained two first run motion picture theatres in operation to Myrtle Beach’s one! The periods referred to are October 1, 1947-February 7, 1948, all of 1952, and October 1, 1953-December 31, 1953. During the period September 15, 1954-August 15, 1955, the Carolina operated basically as a first run house and the Holliday as a second run facility.

My primary purpose is to comment on the movies in downtown Conway during my formative years. However, a brief history of the motion picture business in Horry’s county seat is imperative, although much information in that regard is at best scanty. According to an article in the Horry Herald dated May 22, 1947, the first movie ever shown in Conway was exhibited in an open lot at the rear of the Kingston Hotel. That location is at the site of the Holliday Theatre where the last movie shown in a movie theatre was presented in August, 1986. The article commented that the showing of that movie in an outdoor setting "had nothing but the sky for a roof." I thought it interesting that recent performances in the burned out Holliday Theatre building were done in the same fashion. The original screening was operated by Jim Skipper. His equipment was said to have been purchased by "a foreigner" who installed it at one of the buildings on the eastern side of Main Street north of 4th Avenue.

McQueen Quattlebaum later purchased the equipment and continued the operation at the same site, which is located at about the same place as the front of the Carolina Theatre. He called his "theatre" the Casino. Mr. Quattlebaum closed up his operation when the Pastime was opened. I have been unable to verify the date that the Pastime opened. The earliest mention that I have found regarding the Pastime is an ad in the Horry Herald, March 6, 1919. The 1947 article stated that the Carolina Theatre was completed in 1935, an error, as that theatre opened August 6, 1936.

THE PASTIME THEATRE

Situated across the street from the Carolina Theatre was the Pastime Theatre. It closed in August, 1936, upon the opening of the Carolina. That building which remained in existence until it was torn down in May-June, 1947, captivated my imagination. The front of the building was rather stark, lacking a marquee. Instead, it had a sign in the shape of a "T" which hung out over the sidewalk. It said "THEATRE" in large letters across the top and "PASTIME" vertically beneath. At the entrance was an inset where the ticket office protruded. To its left was the door to the auditorium. Out on the sidewalk was a door on the right which led to the projection room and balcony. When the Pastime opened it was said to be a modern playhouse, the equal to any in a town of Conway’s size. It was where the first sound movie played in Conway. A record was utilized to be played while the reel was shown. Coordinating the two was indeed a task, I am told. The Pastime was built by H. G. Cushman and managed by his father-in-law, A. B. McCoy.

The closed Pastime Theatre intrigued me and I wanted to go inside and examine it from one end to the other. Many tales had been told to me about the theatre, arousing my interest in it. My sister, Claire Goldfinch Riggs, related just how she and her friend Jackie Frierson Nelson would remove the cushions from surrounding seats and stack them up so that they could get a better view of the screen. My mother, Jewell Pepper Goldfinch, would tell me about the rats roaming the theatre, which caused a neighbor of ours to spend more time watching the floor than the screen while attending a show! (In fact, when the Carolina opened, popcorn was forbidden. A movie with no popcorn--who can believe it? I recall when popcorn came to the Carolina in the late forties!) I am told that a certain patron would always sit in the same seat, chew tobacco, and spit the juice on the wall! My brother-in-law, Alton Oliver, who worked at one time as a projectionist at the Pastime, related how certain boys would slip in without paying and how the manager would cane them if they were caught.

In May, 1947, my chance to enter the theatre finally came! It was opened in order to tear it down. I had previously dreamed about the interior of the building and to my amazement it looked in minute detail exactly as I had dreamed it would. En route to a show at the Carolina, my friend Johnny Long and I discovered the doors of the Pastime open and went inside. We examined it all over. Time has dimmed my memory of the details of the interior, but I do recall an ornate stamped metal ceiling, side lights that protruded from each side wall with scalloped frosted shades. The theatre was small and I doubt if it had as many as three hundred seats. Its popcorn machine, which could be seen through the ticket window from the street was still there eleven years after its closing.

THE CAROLINA THEATRE

The sixth of August, 1936, must have been a most exciting day in Conway’s history. At 7:45 that evening, the Carolina Theatre opened its doors to the public. At the time of its opening, it was said to be the third largest motion picture theatre in the state of South Carolina. The announcement of the first performance in the facility stated that "No expense was spared in procuring the very best materials that money could buy" in bringing this building to Conway. "Entrance to the main auditorium of the theatre is from Main Street through a hundred and twenty foot lobby. This lobby is very attractive with its terrazzo floor, stamped metal ceiling, rough textured walls, and latest type of lighting fixtures and display stands. Entrance to the balcony is from Fourth Avenue." The auditorium contained the "latest type cushion-seat-and-back chairs, modernistic lighting fixtures, handsome carpets and draperies, and contains a spacious stage, completely equipped." The theatre was air cooled and heated with the air being "purified." The sound equipment was the RCA High Fidelity Sound System—"the finest money can buy." In fact that was the same sound system used at the time in Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

The first movie shown at the Carolina was "Private Number" starring Robert Taylor and Loretta Young, with news reel and comedies also on the bill. Thus began a 29 year run with two interruptions. At times there were live performances provided, such as celebrity appearances, stage shows such as the WSM Grand Ole Opry, and one particular attraction that I recall. On Saturday, August 26, 1950, hundreds of children crowded into the theatre to see "Cheetah," Tarzan’s famed chimpanzee--or so we thought! The monkey was very large and feisty. When the manager of the theatre, Mrs. Edna Copeland, introduced the act, "Cheetah" took out after her and chased her off the stage. Then he leapt forward into the audience, like lightning, climbing row after row of seats, and then scaled a column, bounding into the balcony where he caused a great commotion before being summoned back to the stage by his owner-trainer. That poor chimp was killed in Darlington in the 1950s when he was left in a car on Main Street. He found some matches and set the car on fire. Only in the last couple of years did I learn that this chimp was not the real Cheetah, whom I saw recently on television, looking like an old man, smoking cigars! The "Cheetah" we saw was owned by a man in Darlington. However, we did get to see "Lash" LaRue in person. I cannot forget the skill with which the cowboy star cracked that bullwhip! When I was in high school in the fall of 1952, William Lundigan, a matinee idol, came to Conway with some starlets promoting the movies. One of these starlets was Pat Crowley, who was in a popular television show, "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies," some years after she came to Conway.

Incidentally, Mrs. Copeland, the manager of the Carolina in the forties until the fall of 1950, kept order with an iron hand. If you misbehaved, she would ban you from the theatre for perhaps a month--and she kept track of it, too. Your sentence could not be mitigated, no matter who you were. She sat in the auditorium during every performance and watched over the theatre like a hawk. And she was backed up in her job by the theatre’s owner. After she left the Carolina, no one else kept things running as smoothly as she did. During the years she was at the theatre, her husband, Bill, was the projectionist.

The Carolina was first closed December 31, 1952, for renovation. It reopened October 1, 1953, and remained open and in operation until June 15, 1965. In 1964 it was closed for a few weeks after a fire which did some damage. The opening of the new, completely renovated Holliday Theatre signaled the end of the Carolina. The last motion picture which was shown at the Carolina was "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home" with Richard Crenna and Shirley MacLaine. I went to the theatre that evening with mixed emotions, being certain that it would probably never reopen. As I left the theatre and walked out of the entrance onto Main Street, I saw for the last time a sight that will never be repeated: Conway’s Main Street at night with both theatre marquees ablaze! The Holliday marquee was lit, touting its opening to the public on June 17th.

The Carolina was built by H. G. Cushman and first managed by A. B. McCoy. It was sold in August, 1940, to B. B. Anderson of Mullins, owner of the Anderson Theatre Company. Later the Hollidays of Galivants Ferry acquired an interest in it. In April, 1958, operation of the Carolina was taken over by Stewart and Everett Theatres of Charlotte, NC.

THE HOLLIDAY THEATRE

Construction of the Holliday Theatre in 1947 was a great event for me, a boy of ten who all but worshipped the movies. Conway was going to have two motion picture theatres, somewhat like a big city! Conway was growing as there was a great deal of construction in town in the years immediately following World War II. The theatre’s lovely marquee with its moving lights fascinated me. In the newspaper article about the theatre’s opening, the writer compared it to any theatre in a large city.

I recall watching the marquee arrive in town on a truck and seeing its installation. How exciting it was! It was painted a sort of pine bough green, with the area behind the name "Holliday" being painted orange. The vertical sign hanging above the marquee was painted yellow. The neon on it was also yellow. The name "Holliday" was in green neon and in the center of the marquee was a circle of orange neon. The rest of the neon was blue, except for the neon above each side of the marquee, which was pink. This fine electric sign dominated Main Street, which it still does. It was painted blue the first time in 1952 or 1953, being repainted in 1965 and in 1994.

The theatre was built by Joseph W. Holliday and John Monroe J. Holliday of Galivants Ferry as a memorial to their father, George J. Holliday. It had 650 seats, a "cry" room for mothers with small children, and certain seats were said to be larger than others to accommodate more robust patrons. It was designed to be "as near fireproof as it is possible to build," an interesting fact in light of the building being gutted by fire some forty-two years later.

The main entrance to the theatre was on the right of the front, leading to a corridor approaching the ticket window at the rear on the left. Access to the lobby and auditorium was gained through two double doors. The front of the building contained a marble facade at street level. On the left of the front was the entrance to the balcony. In between the two entrances was an office occupied by Dr. V. B. Morgan, an optometrist. To the left of the ticket window was a staircase which led to the second floor where there were offices and an entrance to the balcony. When there was an overflow downstairs, a section of the balcony was designated for white patrons, the balcony being reserved for colored moviegoers. I recall sitting up there once and feeling rather strange that a single strand of rope marked off the white section from the other. Of course, had there been an overflow of blacks in the balcony, no part of the main auditorium would have been provided for them. By the time that the theatre was renovated and reopened in 1965, all patrons were able to utilize all sections of the theatre as should have been the case from the beginning. When the theatre was opened in 1947, a seat in the balcony was far better than one on the main floor. Balcony seats were more comfortable and, because of the height of the small screen, some neck strain was evident for the main floor patrons.

The first movie shown at the Holliday Theatre when it opened its doors on October 1, 1947, was "The Foxes of Harrow" with Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara. It was announced that the better movies would be shown for four days--unheard of at the time in a town the size of Conway. And during the rather short period of time that the theatre was open, many of them did play for four days. The theatre abruptly closed February 7, 1948, apparently a sudden decision as a couple of weeks before, its patrons were invited to come and enjoy its new heating system, which had replaced the original for some reason. It was reopened January 1, 1952, closed December 31, 1953, reopened in September, 1954, and closed for a ten year period in August, 1955. During that eleven month period, it was operated by A. C. and Ernest Williams as a second run theatre. During its first and second operations, it was leased by the Hollidays to the Anderson Theatre Company of Mullins.

While the Holliday operated in 1953, 3-D movies were shown. How many of us remember the special glasses we were required to purchase in order to enjoy the thrill of seeing a movie with depth! In this, the Holliday is unique, since 3-D movies were short lived, and I do not believe that one in that process was ever shown at the Carolina.

In 1965 the theatre was completely renovated, bearing little resemblance to its original self. There was a new lobby across the front. The marble that had previously adorned the street level facade was replaced. The original 650 seats were reduced to a much smaller capacity. However, the threatre was beautifully appointed, had new push-back seats and many features which made it quite up to date. Sad to say, before it closed its doors in August, 1986, the Holliday had been allowed to deteriorate. The lovely marquee began to burn out, so that when it was illuminated, very little of it remained operative. Finally, the operators simply ceased to turn it on. The final offering was "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise. After closing, the theatre became a church and was used as such until it was destroyed by fire in January, 1990.

Efforts are being made to restore the theatre. At the opening of the Main Street bridge in February, 1994, I made a small donation to the Holliday’s restoration. I requested that my contribution be used to once again light the marquee, as one of my fondest dreams is to ride over the Main Street bridge at nigh, see the bridge lights glowing, and to see as well the Holliday marquee ablaze with light. A part of that wish is to see the bridge lights painted to match the bridge as those lights were originally. What an improvement that would be!

OTHER THEATRES

In 1947, there appeared in the Horry Herald an article announcing the forthcoming construction of "a theatre for the colored people of Conway." This theatre, the Hillside, operated from its construction off and on until the mid-1950s, I believe. It was not a large motion picture facility, had a plain facade with neon outlining it. There was a sign hanging vertically over the entrance which read "Hillside Theatre." Having never been inside it, I unfortunately am unable to describe its interior. The building was torn down, probably in the 1960s.

The first drive-in movie, the Conway Drive-In, opened in the late forties. When it opened, it did not have individual car speakers, but two loud speakers, one on each side of its screen, the back of which faced Highway 701. On a summer night the sound from the movie could be heard as far away as the six hundred block of Laurel Street where I lived. Since it was outside the city limits, it could have Sunday movies. My aunt lived near the theatre and close to her home was a church where a lot of shouting took place during services. The church complained about the Sunday movies, particularly the noise that those loudspeakers made. My aunt quipped that she could not understand their complaint, since that congregation made so much noise itself that she was certain that they could not possibly hear the noise from the drive-in! Later the drive-in acquired individual speakers. As I recall, that took place at the time that the 501 Drive-In Theatre was opened in June, 1951. The Conway Drive-In did not long survive the opening of its competition.

The Anderson Theatre Company built the 501 Drive-In, which had a run of several years. I recall going to its first movie, but I must admit that I do not recall the title. It was a free movie offered before the theatre had its real opening on June 10, 1951, with Gary Cooper and Ruth Roman in "Dallas." This drive-in had individual speakers, space reserved for colored patrons, and was the equal of any drive-in in the area. There is now a restaurant at the location of the theatre which is utilizing the same building that housed the concession stand and the projection booth. If you pass that restaurant, you will readily see that there is a second floor room above it. Also, if you look closely in the woods behind it, you can still see portions of the screen, which faced the highway.

With the closing of the Holliday Theatre in 1986, an era in Conway suddenly vanished. In fact, there are presently only a few downtown theatres remaining in South Carolina. The last one in Columbia recently closed. In Florence, the only remaining single auditorium theatre saw its last performance on August 15, 1994. However, the Carolina in Conway remains, patiently waiting until it is demolished or becomes something different.

There is a saying that what goes around comes around. In this case it appears not to hold true. How many of us recall Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s "Leo the Lion" visiting Conway on a tour of the nation? Some are able to remember seeing "Gone with the Wind" for the first time at the Carolina, the Holliday or the 501 Drive-in. There are those of us who fondly remember such things as fire drills at the Carolina in the 1940s, the Saturday cowboy movies, cash nights at the Carolina on Wednesdays, the Saturday and Wednesday serials, the news reels, shorts, cartoons and comedies, as well as the late shows on Saturday nights. Does it seem possible today that Sunday movies were forbidden until the 1960s within the city limits of Conway?

What fun it is to reminisce about the Conway of my youth. In my opinion, movies are best shown in a theatre on a large screen. Perhaps one day again Conway will be able to enjoy this particular pastime within its city limits. If it ever does, I hope that I will be able to be in attendance!

The Independent Republic Quarterly
Vol.29 No.4; Fall 1995; pp 5-16

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