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A Brief History of Early Cinema in Columbia, Ky., c. 1903 to late 1922

By "Jim"
Copyright February, 2011

(Part 1 of 6)


Between February, 1912 and September, 1922, no fewer than four movie houses opened in Columbia, but only for six months were there ever two in operation at the same time during this period. So inextricably intertwined are the histories of the four theaters it brings to mind the old saw about the hammer found in an antique shop, it allegedly being the very hammer used by President Washington, only the head and the handle having been replaced in the intervening years.

Feature presentation (1st reel): The gypsies, c. 1903 & later --"have projector, will travel"

The first mention found of moving picture shows in Columbia appeared in the October 5th, 1904 edition of the News with the announcement that "W.D. general manager of the Kentucky celebrated show, billed for Columbia, Oct. the 7th and 8th." The court house served as venue for these shows.

Mr. Tarter, a general store merchant turned showman, had been giving such presentations for some time, as an entry in a September, 1905 stated that he was "out on his fourth annual tour with his moving picture show." If that were indeed the case, movies possibly were "thrown upon the canvas" in Columbia as early as 1901. However, other references seem to indicate that perhaps these gentlemen--Mr. Tarter and his partner, J.T. White--made a couple of tours "annually," so 1903 may be a more accurate date.

Early movie moguls such as Messrs. Tarter & White had no permanent home for their screenings. Rather, they rented whatever was suitable and available for an evening or longer. These accommodations included court houses, school houses, and fraternal halls.

Others who possibly exhibited films in Columbia in this era included Holder & Stephens, of Russell County, and Hardin & Doss, of Dunnville, Casey County. The former gentlemen were showing at the Salem schoolhouse, near Eli, in December, 1905, while the latter were "on the road again" in August, 1909. Although no mention ever appeared of W.I. Feese of Cane Valley giving public exhibitions, he placed the following ad in the News in the early weeks of January 1906:

For Sale-A stereoptican and moving picture show,. Over 800 candle power gas making outfit, 2000 feet of film, 20 different subjects, 125 stereoptican views and all goes at a bargain

(Early mentions of motion pictures nearly always referred to the number of reels or to the number of feet of film. One reel equated to about 1,000 feet, or approximately ten minutes of viewing time.)

The last mention found of Tarter & White appeared in April, 1906, when the News announced that Mr. Tarter would be in Columbia May 3 and 4 "with the greatest collection of moving pictures ever exhibited in this part of the country."

Movies apparently became a staple of the Adair County Fair in 1908, as the August 12 edition of the News that year promised "Moving picture show and negro (sic) minstrels at the Fair Grounds each day of the exhibition," and the August 31, 1910 issue reported that

The KaDell & Kritchfield big show entertained at Columbia during the Fair and it was well patronized throughout the week. The show consists of the best dancers, musical artists and comedians...The moving picture department is something grand...

A related article two weeks earlier, reprinted from the Taylor County Inquirer, gave considerably more detail concerning the "something grand" part:

One of the best tent shows to exhibit here in many years is the KaDell and Kritchfield Shows...One of the principal attractions with the company is the very latest scientific sensation, "The Camerphone." This machine is almost life itself, and sings, talks and plays musical instruments with the pictures with a life-like reality that is almost uncanny. It is truly the acme of electrical appliances.

This article also noted that admission to the KaDell & Kritchfield show was 15c and 25c.

Such early talking picture shows (including those shown on the later-mentioned Renfax machines and most likely those with sound via "Mr. Edison's New Phonograph") were achieved by synchronizing the movie projector with a phonograph machine. Generally, the synchronization left something to be desired and the sound was of lackluster quality--but it was sound! One can hardly imagine the amazement of the patrons.

(True sound-on-picture movies didn't begin appearing until the latter part of the 1920s. In the spring of 1921, the News observed that "A person can get more real enjoyment in a good picture show than he finds at a circus," then wryly added, "A great many persons remain away from a picture show because they cannot hear the lion roar.")

The latter part of October, 1910, someone--the party or parties unnamed--temporarily set up business in the common school house in Columbia. A month later, the News reported that "The moving picture entertainment now going on nightly at the common school house is the best show of its character ever in Columbia. The pictures are high class and instructive," and the December 21, 1910 paper served notice that "The picture show that has been entertaining at the common school house for the past two months, will give its last show this Wednesday evening."

This same edition of the News may have indirectly given the identity of the showman in the form of an ad which appeared only one time:

Partner Wanted

Party with complete moving picture outfit. Wants partner with small capital. For particulars see H.F. Allen, Columbia Hotel.

The Dirigo correspondent early January, 1914, reported that "Willie Bennett has purchased a stereopticon and so we presume that he will soon be on the road with a moving picture show."

The gypsy shows still came to Columbia as late as February, 1914, when the News mentioned there had been four shows given at the courthouse the previous week, and they were still playing out in the county for quite some time after that. In the spring of 1916, the Neatsburg correspondent noted in passing that "The moving picture show was largely attended at this place Thursday night," and in late May, 1921, the Ozark correspondent mentioned that "Our community will be given an opportunity to see [the] Loy Bros. picture show to-night (Tuesday)," then added

If [a picture show] teaches a good, moral lesson the ones who operate the machine should be patronized. On the other hand, if the pictures are ugly and indecent, they should not be tolerated.

In the "neither fish nor fowl" department (that is, neither "gypsy" in nature nor of Columbia), L.M. Smith of Cane Valley advertised thus over the span of a few weeks in the latter part of 1920: "Moving Picture Show at my hall every Saturday night." This line was appended to a block ad headed "Fertilizer." (Mr. Smith stated he needed more room for his business and was selling the fertilizer he had on hand for two dollars per ton less than he had paid for it.)

Segue, Part I: Coming attractions

In the summer of 1910, Columbia businessman Frank Sinclair purchased, for the princely sum of $900, the empty lot on the west side of the Square, between the Paull Drug Co. and Mr. W.H. Wilson's store house, with the intention of putting up a brick commercial building. In the latter part of September, he sold a one-half interest in the lot to G.W. Dillon and the announcement came shortly thereafter that construction would soon start on a building some sixty feet deep. By mid-November, 1910, the News informed readers that "Carpenters are now cutting the framing for the Sinclair business house, in the West corner of the square. It is said that the brick work will commence the latter part of the week."

No more was heard of the venture until the opening days of April, 1911 when the following article appeared in the News. One very nearly needs a sharp pencil and a scorecard to keep up with all that's packed into these few lines:

The Paull Drug Company will remove their stock of goods into the building, now occupied by Mr. W.H. Wilson, the 15th of this month. Mr. Wilson will remove his groceries into the ell of the same building. The building in which the Paull Drug Co., is now doing business, will be razed, and a brick structure, running back to the alley, will be erected which will be occupied, when completed, by the drug company. Messrs. Frank Sinclair and G.W. Dillon will build on their lot at the same time. It is our understanding that Mr. W.H. Wilson has the [right of first] refusal of this building when ready for occupancy. The two will be handsome buildings and will add greatly to appearance of the square.

By the middle of June, 1911, master brick masons were hard at work on the Paull Drug Co. building, and the June 28 News stated that "The business house of Messrs. Sinclair & Dillon will also be put up by the same masons, the Messrs. Sims, and the two buildings will go up together." The brickwork continued somewhat sporadically until the middle of August, when "Mr. Lonny Sims...returned to Columbia, Monday [August 14th] to finish up the Paull and Sinclair buildings, there being about one week's work on them."

No more news about the buildings appeared for some months, but each was completed, at least enough for occupancy, before year's end. The December 13, 1911 edition carried a brief ad from Mr. W.H. Wilson, stating "I am now in my new place of business with a clean stock. Call and see me," and the following week's paper noted that "The Paull Drug Company is now in its new place of business, west corner of public square..."

A search of the 1912 editions of the News provided no information about which, if any, businesses or professional men might have occupied the upper floor of the Paull Drug Co. building. However, early that year the paper reported a handful of Columbia businessmen had started an enterprise on the second floor of the adjoining Sinclair business house -- an enterprise that would forever change Columbia.

"Jim" Copyright February, 2011

This story was posted on 2011-03-06 06:10:55
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