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

(Part 3 of 6) Feature presentation (4th reel): Ascension of the Parlor Circle (July 1915 - June 1916)

By "Jim"

The July 28, 1915 News reported that

Mr. G.W. Lowe, who successfully conducted the picture show in this place until Mrs. Lowe was taken sick, has sold the outfit to Mr. Edgar Reed, who will continue to give exhibitions, in the same hall, beginning Monday night of the week of the Fair, continuing nightly the entire week. After the Fair there will be two shows a week, Thursday and Saturday nights. Mr. Reed will arrange for first-class pictures and good music.


The announcement above gave quiet notice of the advent of Columbia's first if all too brief Golden Age of Cinema, an era not rivaled until the opening of the Columbian Theatre in February, 1947.

Mr. Reed reopened the Parlor Circle on August 5th, but not before installing much-needed electric fans--one can only imagine how hot the second-story Parlor Circle hall became in the summer. The August 4th paper advertised "The latest pictures and first-class music. Come, every body. Friday night the way will be open for colored people, and Saturday night for the white population."

Come the middle part of October, a notice in the News informed patrons that "the show will be opened from now on Friday and Saturday evenings, Thursday date cut out." However, a month later, an ad admonished readers, "Don't forget to attend the big Picture Show...Thursday and Saturday night, and see three big shows for the small sum of 10 cents."

This same mid-October issue mentioned that

"Reed & Miller are seriously contemplating the erection of a picture show building on the Miller old homestead on Water Street. A large comfortable show house is something the town needs. A suitable building would draw first-class troupes."

However, this proposed building never came to fruition.

(Reed & Miller most likely referred to Edgar "E.W." Reed--or possibly his brother Geo. R.--and his kinsman, H.N. Miller. Mr. Miller and Geo. R. were partners in the hardware business.)

Later that month, Mr. Reed brought to Columbia what probably was that fair town's first "big" movie. The October 27th issue stated that

Satin (sic), a story of humanity, drew a good audience to the Parlor Circle Monday night. The play was splendid from start to finish, teaching a valuable lesson. The story starts in the Garden of Eden, and the events leading up to and including the crucifixion were graphically portrayed.

This was the 1912 Italian photo-play Satana, released in the US as Satan, or The Drama of Humanity. It was based on Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost and was released in the United States in January, 1913.

The following week (early November, 1915) came an announcement of near epic proportions:

Mr. Edgar Reed, manager of the Parlor Circle, has arranged with a large pictures concern for high-class shows. He will show from four to six reels a night, and will commence using the new pictures next week. Shows this week Thursday and Saturday night.

The November 10 edition iterated that the Parlor Circle would begin "showing pictures from a new firm" the following evening, and these pictures "are more costly and will be more attractive" but not until late December did the paper mention Paramount, the new supplier, and then only in passing.

Two weeks later (mid-January, 1916), an ad in the News, in referring to Paramount movies, advised readers that

[T]hose who read the daily press, The Saturday Evening Post, and the leading magazines, are convinced that the very best pictures in the United States are shown to the patrons of the Parlor Circle.

Quite possibly, this and many subsequent ads were provided by Paramount. They used a variety of other slogans, such as, "The best plays and the players for the best people who appreciate quality pictures," and "Plays of supreme quality, stars of the first magnitude."

In late December, 1915, the News, most likely via the pen of John Ed Murrell, expressed an appreciation for Mr. Reed's efforts:

Mr. Edgar Reed, manager of the Parlor Circle, is to be congratulated upon the character of the shows he has been putting on for the last three or four weeks. They are up-to-date in every particular, many of the best actors now playing throughout the United States, appearing nightly. It is a high-class, moral show and every body in Columbia and in the vicinity of town should attend regularly.

During this era, Paramount pictures typically were shown at the Parlor Circle on Thursday and Saturday nights and Charlie Chaplin ruled the Friday night screen.

The first two movies specifically identified as Paramount pictures were The Country House, starring Hobart Bosworth, and Mrs. Black is Back, a four-reel flick touted as "One of America's Funniest Comedies." These played on Thursday, January 20 and Saturday, January 22, 1916, respectively.

The February 16 News reported that "The Paramount plays now being put in at the Parlor Circle, are attracting large audiences each evening."

Other movies gracing the screen at the Parlor Circle in the forepart of 1916 included The Rose of the Ranch, a western drama starring Bessie Barriscale; The Bargain, a 1914 sagebrush saga starring one of the first and certainly one of the greatest of the celluloid cowpokes, William S. Hart, who invariably played a good man gone bad but redeemed by a woman's love by the final fadeout; The Conspiracy, a detective comedy-drama; The Crucible, starring the diminutive world class actress Marguerite Clark; William Farnum in The Sign of the Cross, "a fearless picture of the life in the Rome of Nero," Cameo Kirby, "a fascinating southern romance," with matinee idol Dustin Farnum; and Mistress Nell, "a drama of the daring days of Charles II," starring Mary Pickford, billed as the world's most popular star.

In the latter part of February, 1916, Miss Pickford again lit up the canvas at the Parlor Circle, this time in her stunning interpretation of Cinderella. One must wonder if the audience included a spellbound eight-and-a-half-year-old Alta Barbee.

Of course, every self-respecting movie house of the early 20th century screened serials. In March,1916, the Parlor Circle began showing on Tuesday nights The Broken Coin, the first episode shown "absolutely free!" It was touted as

America's Greatest Serial...The most fascinating story of Adventure ever written. Admirable, wonderful, thrilling--the Photo-play that will hold you spellbound. Every episode crammed with excitement. See this wonderful picture every Tuesday night.

(The Broken Coin was a 22 episode, two-reels per episode, serial movie. The first fifteen episodes were released by Universal Film in beginning the latter part of June, 1915; they proved so popular seven additional episodes were released beginning in early October. The leads were Grace Cunard as Kitty Gray and Francis Ford as Count Frederick.)

Later that year, Mr. Reed brought to Columbia another serial, The Iron Claw, starring the well-known actress / adventuress / stunt queen Pearl White, still famous a century later for her roles in two heart stopping cliffhangers, The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline. (Ms. White made at least one more appearance on the screen in Columbia, starring in The Fatal Ring, a serial filmed in 1916 and shown at the Paramount in 1918.)

Early March, 1916, found more words of praise pouring forth from the News for the Parlor Circle. One brief entry noted that

The Paramount pictures get better and better. The show last Thursday was exceptionally good, as well as the one Saturday night. Mr. Reed is encouraged by good audiences, and as long as the people continue to come in droves, good entertainments may be expected.

Another article in the same edition reported that

Mr. J.P. Hamilton, representative of the Paramount Pictures Corporation, paid a visit to Mr. Edgar Reed of the Parlor Circle Theatre last week, and expressed himself as being well pleased with the attendance the Parlor Circle has been having during the exhibition of Paramount Pictures, and assures Mr. Reed's patrons of a continuous good program.

Paramount producers have added many well-known stars to their already large number and are working them in the best photo plays obtainable. Some of the late additions being Blanch Ring, Harold Lockwood, Lou Tellegen and Geraldine Farrar, the well know Prima Dona. Miss Farrar's initial release being "Carmen" which gives her a wide range to bring into action all her wonderful powers as an actresses.

Mr. Reed has arranged to book some of the Advance Paramount productions and invites his patrons to pass judgment on them as he wishes to keep in touch with the wants of his patrons and secure pictures in keeping with their taste.


Segue, Part II: The Advent of World War One

In June, 1914, an assassin's bullet set off the European tinderbox and plunged that continent into war. By mid-1916, despite a stated policy of non-interference with European affairs, slowly, inexorably, America was drawn into the fray. In early 1917, newly re-elected President Wilson made public the so-called Zimmerman telegram (Germany's attempt to recruit Mexico as an ally in the war), and the United States formally declared war on Germany in the forepart of April, 1917. Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May, and shortly thereafter the young men of Adair County began to answer "the call to the colors."

Feature Presentation (5th reel): The winds of change; the short-lived Columbia Amusement Company; and farewell, Parlor Circle, hello, Paramount Theatre (June 1916 - October 1917)

The latter part of May and the first days of June, 1916 brought what proved to the first of many changes to Columbia's cinematic landscape.

In late May, the News announced that

The Parlor Circle will be removed from its present location to the second story of the building in which Mr. J.F. Patteson and Mr. L.M Young are now doing business. The apartment is much larger and the ceiling higher than at the present location. Workmen are now elevating the floor and making other alterations necessary for the show business. The show will probably be in operation at the new place the latter part of the first week in June.

(For a number of years, Mr. Jo F. Patteson ran a general merchandise store on the square in a building owned by his father-in-law, J.N. Coffey. In the spring of 1916, at the same time the Parlor Circle opened in its new location, Mr. Young opened "a first class soda fountain and ice cream parlor" in the same building. Mr. Coffey, the owner, "had a partition run through the room [occupied by Mr. Patteson's store], making two business apartments." An August, 1916 edition of the News made reference to "Marvin Young's Cafe." Repeated searches in the News for the specific location of the building which housed the Paramount have yielded no results.)

At the time Mr. Reed removed his movie house to its new location, he renamed it the Paramount Theatre as a nod to his film supplier. However, that name didn't appear in newsprint until the June 21st edition and in the interim few weeks, the News still referred to it as the Parlor Circle.

A week later (June 7th, 1916) came the news that Reed & Young had purchased a new machine (projector) for the theatre, and that it would " reach here in time to be installed this Wednesday night, an expert coming with it."

(This was the only direct mention of "Reed & Young" found in the News through 1922, but an implication of partnership popped up again in the fall of 1917. Mr. Lawrence Marvin Young, mentioned previously as L.M. Young and Marvin Young, was a native of Cumberland County.) The June 7th issue of the paper also announced that the Paramount was going to have competition: Mr. Geo. H. Nell announces that he will start a gitney show in the hall formerly occupied by the "Parlor Circle Show," and that he is in Louisville this week for the purpose of buying the outfit.

(The term "gitney" as used here reflects the price of admission. Gitney, also spelled jitney, was East Coast slang for a five-cent piece. The Paramount also had to charge a nickel admission to remain competitive, even though the pictures being shown there almost certainly were of a higher quality.)

Shortly thereafter, the News informed readers that "Nell & Son, hope to open in the Parlor Circle Hall Thursday night of this week." The Nells operated their motion picture show under the name Columbia Amusement Company but the building still was known as the Parlor Circle Hall.

An article the following week (June 28th) paper noted that the show had opened the previous Friday (rather than Thursday night), with the Cane Valley Brass Band, "twelve of the best young men in that town," providing the music. Another short entry in the same edition stated the show opened on Thursday night to a "crowded house" and that "The machine was operated to perfection, and the picture and plays good."

The July 12, 1916 edition reported that John Erd, of Lexington, Ky., had made flying trip aboard a motorcycle from that city to Columbia "to inspect the Moving Picture Machine he recently installed for Mr. Nell...."

A somewhat bizarre crime perpetuated against the Nells' fledgling Amusement Company came to light in the same edition of the paper:

A thief, in a way that appears peculiar, got into Nell & Hill's grocery store last Friday night [July 7th], and the cash drawer and a paper sack containing the show money were tapped...Not a thing in the way of groceries was missed. The thief could not have entered through the basement window, as it was nailed on the inside. Evidently the robber got into the basement from the inside, while the show was in progress, and went out the basement window. No clue.

A late November copy of the News carried three ads, all testimonials, for a one-reeler quite removed from ordinary fare to be shown at "Nell's Theatre" (or Nell's Opera House, as it was called in another testimonial). The movie, The Little Girl Next Door, dealt with white slavery, "a nation-wide vice." One testimonial, from Virginia Brooks Washburn, a "well-known Chicago social worker," read thus:

This picture presents the problem of the girls adrift in a manner so striking and effective as to make it of estimable value in the campaign for morality.

Every father, every mother should see it in order that they may recognize the cunning pitfalls that are set for the feet of young girls in a great city. Only those of us who have been in the thick of the battle against white slavery can appreciate how great a service to the nation has been rendered by the production of this picture.


The next mention of the Columbia Amusement Company was also the next-to-last. In the latter part of January, 1917, Nell & Son (formerly Nell & Hill) sold their "gitney show" to the Paramount [Theatre] Company and purchased a one-third interest in the latter, with Mr. Reed to remain as the manager of the operation.

John Ed Murrell managed to slip in a short editorial comment along with the above announcement. Wrote he, "From now on there will be only one show house in town. Two running at an admission of 5 cents was a losing business. 10 cents is a cheap as one can be run."

By the middle of 1917, the former home of the Parlor Circle over Nell & Son's store had been relegated to "demonstrations in canning, preserving and evaporating fruits and vegetables." The last mention found of the late theatre appeared in March, 1918 in this strange announcement: "Ice cream, Frappe, Fancy-work, Candy and Cabbage-heads at the Parlor Circle, March 30th, Saturday."

Very shortly after the Paramount Theatre opened, the NewsThe Battle Cry of Peace, a movie coming to the Paramount on July 1, 1916. According to this article, "Preparedness is the basis of the story, a question on which the greatest men of our nation agree," while a later one stated it was an "educational production, showing the great need of preparedness in this country against a foreign foe."

One of the actresses mentioned was Thais Lawton, of Louisville, and notable public figures appearing included Admiral Dewey and former President Theodore Roosevelt. The cost of admission was 25 cents for the matinee and 35 cents for the evening show, substantially higher than usual, but an ad the following week proclaimed that audiences in New York and Chicago had gladly paid $2.00 to see the film.

This movie was, in retrospect, a propaganda film in which spies and infiltrators of an unnamed European nation--but obviously Germany--lurked in every household and behind every picket fence. It also foreshadowed a number of films screened in 1918. In a sign of the times, however, Battle Cry was quite well received in Columbia, as a later edition of the News informed readers that every seat in the theatre was taken for both showings. (A brief ad in the June 28th paper had advised patrons "Seats are now on sale for the 'Battle Cry of Peace' at L.M. Young's. Get them while there is a choice.")

November, 1916--Thanksgiving Day, to be exact--found Pauline Frederick lighting up the screen in Columbia in Zaza, a movie of superior quality. According to the News, Ms. Frederick was "the foremost emotional actress of the screen." It was farther noted that "On account of the high character of this production the price of admission will be ten cents."

(Ms. Frederick was an accomplished Broadway actress who just the previous year had turned her attention and talents to Hollywood: Zaza was one her first films. One source states that "in Paramount's early days she was the most glamorous woman in pictures.")

Little else of note directly concerning the Paramount or the Columbia picture show scene occurred through the rest of 1916 and well into 1917, but E.W. Reed passed the examination for the officers reserve corps in early May, about 10 days before the selective service act was passed.

One ad noted that the Paramount featured "Fine music every show night, piano, cornet and violin." (The band consisted of Messrs. Geo. W. Lowe and Walter Sullivan and Miss Frona Faulkner). Other ads proclaimed that "The greatest stars on earth are in Paramount Pictures;" that Paramount movies featured "The Most Talked about Plays and Players in the Motion Picture World;" and--in a great catchphrase--that "the Paramount is the Show Place of Columbia."

Some of the movies shown in this era include Puppet Clown (Carlyle Blackwell); The Secret Orchard (Blanche Sweet, the Famous Star); Nearly a Lady, "filled with action of a new kind" with Elsie Janis, the International Star, in the lead role); and Helene of the North (loveable little Marguerite Clark).

One moving picture deserves a bit of special attention. In the early summer of 1917, Mr. Reed brought to town the 1914 blockbuster, The Spoilers--and it was the "deluxe" edition, at that! This film was billed as "12 Smashing reels of life, romance, and liberty" and ran for an incredible two and a half hours. It starred William Farnum, Kathlyn Williams, Thomas Santschi, Wheeler Oakman, Bessie Eyton, "and 500 others" and featured (among other things) a fight between the characters played by Farnum and Santschi that lasted for a full reel, a bit over 10 minutes. The ad also stated that the movie "played for a solid year at Liberty Theatre, New York, and 6 months at Studebaker Theatre, Chicago." And if all that weren't enough inducement, the ad asserted that this was "positively the Greatest Film ever brought to this town." Admission to the matinee was one thin dime, while the evening screening lightened one's wallet by the fourth part of a dollar.

Copyright February, 2011


This story was posted on 2011-05-08 09:04:10
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