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

(Part 2 of 6) Feature Presentation (2nd reel): The Parlor Circle, a first-class picture show (Jan. 1912 - June 1915)

By "Jim"

One can only imagine the excitement and buzz around the Square when in January 1912, the News announced that Messrs. Ray Conover and George Montgomery planned to start a first-class picture show (or theatre, as it would now be called) in Columbia in the immediate future. In fact, those gentleman already had secured the hall above W.H. Wilson's store in the new Sinclair Building and Mr. Conover had "left Monday morning [January 22nd] for Cincinnati to purchase the outfit and to make all necessary arrangements."

The News went on to state that

Only first-class pictures will be put upon the canvass. It will be a place of amusement, such entertainments as to merit the endorsement of Christian people.

Picture shows have become quite popular, and all towns the size of this place support one. We are glad to make this announcement, believing that the people of the community will enjoy the entertainments, and be glad to patronize the promoters.

A "late breaking" addendum stated that Mr. Geo. Lowe had bought an interest in the business and that he would be in charge of the music.

(Mr. Lowe and his wife and son, natives of Pennsylvania, arrived in Columbia in early 1906 from Cincinnati.. A tonsorial artist by trade, he first worked in the barber shop of G.W. Flowers, Jr. The March 21, 1906 News stated that "Mr. Lowe is also a musician, and will instruct the band during his stay in Columbia." Some years later, the News commented that "as a cornet player he is in the A-1 class...")

Not until the last line of the article did the News get around to stating "The name of the show will be the 'Parlor Circle.'"

Some two weeks later, Mr. Conover's purchases--"a Standard machine, the best that is made, the necessary number of chairs, piano, etc."--had arrived, and the February 7th News tersely announced "Everybody be at the Parlor Circle this (Tuesday) night. The show will open." In short, opening night was February 6th. (Although the News always carried a Wednesday publication date, in this case, the 7th, it actually went to press on Tuesday and was available to Columbia residents on Tuesday afternoons.)

Perhaps a word is in order about Mr. Lowe being in charge of the music and about the piano Mr. Conover bought. In the silent movie era, live performers provided background music to fill the lulls between reel changes and other stoppages such as equipment malfunction, and to set the mood for whatever scenes might be playing on the screen. The June 17, 1914 News reported that

The music at the Parlor Circle is invariably good, but it was unusually fine last Friday evening. Miss Esther Nell, who is visiting here, assisted Mr. and Mrs. Lowe with her violin, and a number of very delightful selections were rendered. Miss Nell plays scientifically but few persons can draw more music from a violin. Mr. and Mrs. Lowe, as every body knows, are skilled musicians.

(Miss Nell, a native of Somerset, was the niece of former Kentucky Lt. Gov. J.R. Hindman. In the 1908-1909 school year, she had been in charge of the Music Department of the Lindsey Wilson Training School and the following year, served as the head of the violin department of Burleson College in Greenville, Texas.)

The following week (February 14th, 1912), the News bubbled over with enthusiasm for the Parlor Circle enterprise but didn't note the title(s) shown on that historic opening night:

The Picture Show

The Parlor Circle is a delightful place to spend an hour or two before retiring. The show was started last Thursday night, the hall being filled to its utmost capacity. The pictures were good and the machine worked perfectly. The few stops made were unavoidable, as the film in one of the reels was [broken] in two or three parts. Hereafter the films will be examined before starting. The music, piano, cornet and tenor drums rendered each evening, is delightful. The hall will be open Thursday and Saturday night. Two shows will be given Saturday night, one to commence at 7 o'clock, the other at 8:30

The evenings that shows were projected upon the screen changed frequently. For examples, in the February 21st paper came the announcement that it would be open Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, while the following week's edition stated "Parlor Circle show Friday and Saturday nights for white persons. Thursday night the doors will be open to colored persons."

Not until May 8, 1912, almost three months after the Parlor Circle opened, did the News mention the subject of a movie or the price of admission:

Don't Miss It

The greatest Motion Pictures ever made, complete in three reels--3,200 feet.

20 years in Sing-Sing. The exciting horse races. The arrest and conviction. The Real Life in the Famous prison, etc., at Parlor Circle Tuesday May 7. Admission 15 cents. Two shows.

(Searches for the title of this movie turned up no information. However, there's a bit of foreshadowing in the ad's "20 years in Sing-Sing" phrase. About two decades later, Spencer Tracey & Bette Davis starred in a prison movie titled 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing.)

A movie shown in the spring of 1912 occasioned what surely qualifies as the first movie review ever to appear in the News. The May 29th edition carried this ad for the Parlor Circle:


The Great
Titanic Disaster

Will be shown in moving Picture at the Parlor Circle Friday night, the 31st. Also 2000 feet of other interesting pictures. Admission adults 15 cts, children under 12, 10 cts. First show begins at 7 o'clock.

While the title of the movie wasn't given, the ad almost certainly refers to Saved From the Titanic, a highly fictionalized (and apparently quite cheesy) one-reel account of the sinking of that ship. Incredibly, Saved was released on May 12 or 14 (sources vary), 1912, only 28 or 30 days after the Titanic went down. Even more incredibly, the movie starred Dorothy Gibson, a survivor of that great tragedy.

The above-mentioned review appeared in the June 5th News in the Hatcher (Taylor County) newsletter and puts many a Siskel and Ebert pronouncement to shame:

Several from this place attended a moving picture show at Campbellsville Thursday night. It represented the wrecking of the Titanic. The show was not at all creditable and many seem to think they were fleeced in a small way.

Unfortunately, there are no known extant copies of this film for modern audiences to view and bring forth their own Hatcher-esque reviews.


Theatre halls often served as venues for other activities as well, and such was the case of the Parlor Circle. The August 14, 1912 News reported in the "Personal" column that

Mr. Earl McGarvey, who is a student in a medical College, Nashville, in spending his vacation in Columbia with his grandfather, Dr. U.L. Taylor and other relatives. Mr. McGarvey is a fine musician, and often in afternoons he entertains his friends at the Parlor Circle...

The following spring, it was announced that

Mrs. Geo. W. Lowe's class will give a piano recital at the Parlor Circle next Friday evening. The class will be assisted by Miss Loretta Dunbar, expression...Mrs. Lowe is an expert pianist and has the gift of imparting her skill to her pupils.

A most unusual use merited mention in April 1914:

The meeting of the members of the Baptist Church, in the Parlor Circle Hall last Wednesday evening, had but one objective in view--to become better acquainted and to spend a few hours in social enjoyment. A large number gathered and the evening was very much enjoyed.

(At this time, Columbia Baptists were unhomed. The old church building had been razed in the spring of 1913 and the new structure wasn't ready for occupancy until the latter part of 1914.)

Feature Presentation (3rd reel): The great jewelry contest and other entertainments (January 1913 - July 1915)

There was but scant mention of the Parlor Circle through the remainder of 1912, but late January, 1913 brought the announcement that Mr. George W. Lowe had become sole proprietor of the theatre and the good Mr. Lowe's stated "his intention to make some improvements." At this time, shows were being given twice a week, on Thursday and Saturday nights.

In February came a large ad in the paper announcing a contest to begin February 12th and to run through the middle of June. The first prize was a $25 diamond ring; second place would earn a $10 bracelet; and third place was an $8 locket and chain.

Each ticket bought would count for 50 votes and when a young lady's name had been written upon at least 10 tickets, she would then be entered into the contest. The ad also clearly stated that "no one connected with the show will take any part in the contest." The prizes were to be exhibited at Russell & Company, by this time four years ensconced on the Isenburg Corner of the Square.

The contest stirred considerable interest, and at the end of the first week, the voting stood thus: Mary Smith, 950; Margaret Lovett, 800; Creel Nell, 700; Ruth Milliken, 650; and Loretta Dunbar, 550.

The same edition of the News stated that "in a very few weeks votes will be counted by tens of thousands." By the time the contest ended, the top five contestants had amassed an incredible number of votes (and, no doubt, in so doing had boosted the attendance at the Parlor Circle considerably).

The closing day of the contest was June 14th. Sadly, the next issue of the paper, which carried the final tallies, is missing, but the June 11th edition reported these totals: Mary Smith, 62,950; Dora Eubank, 60,000; Nell Tarter, 42,800; Eva Walker, 42,650; and Margaret Lovett, 21,700. Those numbers represent over 4,600 tickets sold--an average of almost 1,200 per month for the top five contestants alone. Such heady sales surely brought a fair amount of custom to Mr. Marvin Young's establishment on the Square, where tickets could be purchased in advance.

In May, 1914, the News informed readers that "On the 20th night of June the Parlor Circle will close until the Fair when it will again open for the fall and winter." The week it reopened, "The demand for seating capacity...was so persistent, that [a] second show had to be given." Mr. Lowe apparently made some improvements in the late summer, as an early October edition stated "The lights are stronger than heretofore, the pictures and the reading matter [the subtitles] showing up to a good advantage." A few weeks later, the News noted that "the shows are growing better with each performance. Mr. Walter Sullivan, a splendid violinist, is now a member of the orchestra."

(In the closing days of 1908, Mr. Sullivan had experienced a brush with death. While working on the new banking building in nearby Russell Springs, he had fallen a distance of some 25 or 30 feet but miraculously, "in a short time Mr. Sullivan was walking about, and seemingly but little worsted.")

Business seemed to be doing well in the late summer and early fall of 1914, as a small front page ad in late September stated that "On Saturday evening hall is crowded, and generally a fair audience on Thursday evening. It is a pleasant way to spent an hour."

In February, 1915, the News saw fit to make specific mention of a couple of the films shown. One, the short feature of the evening, was

An Odd-Fellows reel, showing the [Odd Fellows] home and its inmates at Lexington...The pictures will let the public know the grand work in which the Kentucky Odd-Fellows are engaged--the rearing and educating the children of deceased members and also caring for their widows. It will be a show well worth the price and every body should attend...It is hoped that a large number will attend this entertainment which promises to be of special interest. The music will be up-to-date, piano, cornet and violin. The first show will begin at 6:30 promptly.

The next week, the News give the film two thumbs up:

Highly Pleasing

The entertainment given at the Parlor Circle, last Thursday night, under the auspices of Columbia Lodge, No. 230, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, was highly pleasing to the many who attended...The light was good and the machine in fine working order, bringing all the different features out in a manner perfectly satisfactory...The children marching to Sunday School and the day school were of special interest, and the boys band, the members being from 9 to 14 years, parading, brought down the house.

Mr. G.R. Reed, District Deputy Grand Master, explained each picture to the audience.

Later in the month, the Parlor Circle ran this ad for an upcoming show: "Buffalo Bill and Pawnee's Wild West Circus at the Parlor Circle next Saturday night, a drawing exhibition."

The principals mentioned were William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Major Gordon W. "Pawnee Bill" Lillie. The two had merged their respective wild west touring shows in 1909. A short titled Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East was filmed in 1910 and released on September 15th of that year. Almost five years later, the film found its way to Columbia.

As in the previous year, the show closed for the summer in mid June, 1915, and reopened a few weeks later to a bittersweet future.

Copyright February, 2011

This story was posted on 2011-03-27 11:49:10
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