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

(Part 5 of 6): An Unscheduled Intermission: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

By "Jim"

An Unscheduled Intermission: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

The second wave of the deadly influenza pandemic started in the northeast in August, 1918, and spread rapidly, greatly exacerbated by the never-ceasing flow of soldiers going from base to base and traveling on furloughs. There were weekly mentions of the comings and goings of Adair County boys stationed at Camp Taylor in Jefferson County and the then-fledgling army camp at Stithton (now known as Fort Knox).

Toward the middle to latter part of October, 1918, all public meetings, including church services, were banned in Columbia. The December 25th News noted in passing that "It has been two and a half months since religious services were held in the churches of town," and at the Lindsey-Wilson Training School, day students were forbidden to attend classes. Lindsey Wilson began the winter term as usual (just after New Year's) but on Monday, January 19th, influenza reappeared and the principal, Rev. R.V. Bennett, closed the school down on the 20th and didn't fully reopen it until Mid-February, nearly six weeks later than usual.) Even the post office had severely curtailed hours, open but briefly each day to allow patrons access to their incoming mail.

Feature presentation (6th reel, continued)

Even though the January 15th edition ad had stated the Paramount would open soon, not until the March 12, 1919 was a program announced. A front page ad read thus:

Sat. night [March 15th] Oliver Morosco presents the famous Irish actor George Bebon in The Cooks of Campaign Canyon. Don't miss this Paramount picture at Paramount Theatre.

Another film gracing the canvas of the Paramount in the spring of 1919 was Mickey, "the adorable little tomboy you will never forget in the greatest photo-play of its kind ever produced." The ad also promised the film contained "comedy, pathos, suspension, in fact, everything that makes a good comedy-melodrama." This movie, released in 1918, featured 26-year-old Mabel Normand and co-starred her husband-to-be, Lew Cody.

In the spring of 1919, Columbia began to liven up as the specter of influenza began to recede and Adair's soldier boys started coming home, but the Paramount ho-hummed its way through most of that spring and into the summer, although an announcement in the July 9 paper intimated that somewhere along the line the theatre had switched film suppliers, as the News commented that "The show-going people of Columbia and those who live near town, would be glad to hear that the show people had arranged to put on Paramount pictures." That lament notwithstanding, a mid-summer screening surely created quite the sensation. The August 6th News had two brief ads, one stating that the "Renfax Film Company will present the talking, singing and dancing pictures" on August 14th, and the other noting that Renfax "presents a big negro (sic) comedy at the Paramount on the night of the 14th."

The following week, a much larger ad billed the movies as "the greatest wonder of the world," and that a Mr. Johnson of the Renfax Company would be running the equipment. The movies were to be shown on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday--a different show each night--for the admission price of 15 and 25 cents.

This was followed on the first day of September by Queen of the Sea, with well-known swimmer and somewhat well-known actress Annette Kellerman in the lead role as a mermaid. It's quite amazing that Queen appeared on the screen in Columbia, as some years earlier Ms. Kellerman had been arrested for appearing on a public beach wearing a one-piece bathing suit. And too, in1916's A Daughter of the Gods, she had appeared in one scene quite au naturel.

At about this same time (mid-August, 1919), the News announced Nell & Cheatham had branched out by opening a moving picture show in Russell Springs, Messrs. Geo. H. Nell & Payne Garvin, the projectionist, having gone there Monday of the previous to get the operation started. The report stated that "The first show was last Saturday night and it was largely attended." The fate of this venture is unknown, as this was the only mention found of it.

A brief intermission: Payne Garvin; a patron desaddled; and a ring contest

Payne Garvin, then but a lad, removed from Cumberland County to Columbia with his family around 1905 or a bit later. His World War One draft card, signed in mid-September, 1918, gave his occupation as "motion picture operator" and stated he was employed by Nell & Son.

(Several decades later, in issue 18 of the print version of Columbia magazine, Ed Waggener, in writing of life in Columbia in the 1950s, spoke thus of Mr. Garvin, who early in life found his calling and stuck with it (retrieved from ColumbiaMagazine online; used with permission):
>"Everybody has heroes."I had a lot of them, growing up in Columbia."One was Payne Garvin. He lived in the back of the library which was in the big brick house at the corner of Burkesville and Fortune Streets, where the First National Branch Bank is now. I thought that he had the neatest life in the world..."[H]e held a most important position in town. He was a projectionist. And he lived just steps from his job. It was no telling what he made at that job. We had conjectured a good deal at the poolroom and at the service station about the upper limits of income he enjoyed, and our conclusion was that it was a lot."I thought how wonderful it would be to be like Payne Garvin...")
In November, 1919, John Hutchison, a patron of the Paramount, fell victim to crime. A front page notice that month advised readers of the News that

While my son John was attending the picture show, last Saturday night, his saddle was stolen from his horse. I will pay a reward if the saddle should be left at the News office. /s/ R.A. Hutchison.

Come January, 1920, the News carried the results of the Paramount's ring contest, the winners having been announced Christmas week. Mrs. Gordon Cheatham won the ladies' ring with over 100,000 votes and her young son, Robert, won the child's ring. By today's standards, the results were perhaps dubious, as the winners were the daughter-in-law and grandson, respectively, of Paramount co-owner Ezra E. Cheatham.

Feature presentation (6th reel, continued, again)

News of the Paramount was scarce over the next several months, but the Kentucky legislature passed a host of special taxes in the spring of 1920, including one which impacted Columbia's movie theatre: "On each theatre, 20 cents per seat per annum, minimum charge to be $10.00. This includes moving picture show houses."

Some of the films shown in the late summer of 1919 through the spring of 1920 included Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage and its darker sequel, The Rainbow Trail; The Unpardonable Sin, with Blanche Sweet (the News credited this film with "creating such a furor in the larger cities for the past few months"); Her Code of Honor, starring Florence Reed; and The Eyes of the World, based on a Harold Bell Wright novel. Billing for the latter promised "9 reels of love, adventure, comedy, pathos, daring, intrigue." The admission for this film was 25 cents for children, 50 cents for adults.

The whys and wherefores are lost in the ensuing decades, but August 1920 brought an abrupt change in ownership of the Paramount, and the News dated the 18th of that month carried two notices to that effect. The first was a rather terse statement from Mr. George H. Nell:

I have sold my interest in the Columbia Amusement Company, to G.C. Cheatham and I am not now and will not in the future in any way be interested in the Moving Picture Show in Columbia or Cane Valley or in any show exhibition or entertainment, given in the Halls of said Amusement Co. Mr. Cheatham has purchased the entire assets of said Co. and assumes all outstanding indebtedness and liabilities of said Co.

This Aug. 11th, 1920. /s/ G.H. Nell.

The second entry came in the form of a straight news item:

Mr. Gordon Cheatham is the sole proprietor of the Paramount Theatre, having purchased Mr. Nell's equipment. He expects to contract for the best of pictures and to give first-class service in other respects.

(Gordon Carlisle Cheatham was the son of Mr. Nell's business partner, Mr. Ezra E. Cheatham.) By the middle of 1920, the Paramount ran few ads. However, in the late winter of 1921, the Tom Mix hit, Prairie Trail, a tale of the conflict between ranchers and sheep herders, entertained the theatre goers as did Bits of Broadway. The latter featured sound "by Mr. Edison's new phonograph," and patrons were encouraged to "Come out and enjoy a good show and a real treat in music."

Other activities connected to theatre hall included an Eastern Star "home talent program" consisting of readings, solos, and the like (it wasn't well attended "owing, perhaps, to the extreme hot weather"); and a contest started in May, 1921, in which "a beautiful green gold watch bracelet" was to be given to Columbia's most popular young lady, said popularity determined by 50 votes per ticket purchased. Miss Vera Taylor carried the day with 61,000 votes.

An ad in the June 7, 1921 paper stated that the Paramount was showing three movies that week: Buck Jones starring in The Big Punch, a western, on Tuesday night; Greased Lightning, the saga of a would-be race car driver whose ambitions were complicated by robbers, on Thursday night; and A Cheater Reformed, starring William Russell, on Saturday. (This movie is conspicuously absent from Mr. Russell's online filmographies.)

Copyright February, 2011

This story was posted on 2011-05-21 10:40:59
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