The Princess Theatre building, formerly known as the Imperial and the Palace, on Cedar Avenue in downtown South Pittsburg, Tennessee, has been a landmark within this community for more than 82 years. The theaters operated here over those years entertained the local population since the days of the silent movies. Those days have long since past with the last movie being shown here in the early 1980s.
The historic structure, with the exception of serving as a church for a short time, has, for the most part, sat vacant since that time with little or no maintenance. Decay set in once the roof started leaking, which took the once proud two-story structure to the brink of total collapse. Even the marquee over the front street entrance was not immune as time faded its paint while mischievous children and vandals broke out the neon lights surrounding it.
South Pittsburg was no stranger to motion pictures before the construction of the Princess Theatre building. In fact, the city not only had a theater operating here as early as 1908, but also had a direct connection with at least two of the big screen movie stars. Tom Mix, who starred in dozens of early westerns, once worked in security and management at the local Penn-Dixie cement plant before leaving here for Hollywood. Jobyna Ralston, a native of the city, played the leading lady in many early films with many having been shown in South Pittsburg. This connection with early films and the need of a suitable building to house a motion picture establishment would lead to the construction of the Imperial (Princess) Theatre building.
In February 1920, Mr. R. F. M. Kirkpatrick acquired two lots fronting Cedar Avenue in the downtown block #3 with each measuring 25 by 140-foot for the construction of a theater building. Construction began a short time later on a two story brick structure, which was designed and built by local architect, Mr. Reece B. Patton.
On or before Friday, July 29, 1921, the Imperial Theatre opened for business in the new building, under the management of Mr. O. C. Ogg. The opening film was the silent motion picture "Tank Town Follies," starring South Pittsburg native Ms. Jobyna Ralston. The new theater was an instant success and drew patronage from both, young and old alike.
The theater continued operations under the "Imperial" name and management of Mr. Ogg until he sold it to Mr. H. G. Jenkins in 1924. One of the first orders of business for the new owner was to give the theater a new identity by changing its name to the Palace Theatre. The theater opened under her new name the week commencing Friday, November 14, 1924 with the first feature movie being a serial titled "Beast of Paradise," chapter six.
In September 1929, the Palace Theatre along with the new Jackson Theater at Bridgeport, Alabama six miles away, merged and began to show the same movies on the same days. Both theaters continued operations under their original names. That same year the first movie with sound, "Carnation Kid", was shown at the Palace Theatre
In August 1931, the Palace Theatre, which was still under the management of Mr. Jenkins, was closed for a short time by its owner so that a new "Western Electric" sound system like that of Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theater could be installed. The Palace Theatre at South Pittsburg formally reopened on August 18, 1931 with its new sound system and new seats, which were installed during the shutdown.
In April 1934, the general manager of the Cumberland Amusement Company, Mr. R. T. Hill, announced that his company had recently acquired ownership of the Palace Theater and that it would be operated after that as part of that company’s chain of one dozen theaters located throughout middle and east Tennessee. The company closed the theater at South Pittsburg on June 1st for one month while conducting extensive repairs and remodeling. Other improvements included a modern sound system, new lighting system, new cushioned seats, new big screen along with many other changes.
The theater, under the management of Herman McDowell, formally reopened as the new Princess Theatre on Monday night, July 2, 1934 with a showing of "Sadie McKee" starring Joan Crawford. Also showing with this main feature was the "Pathe News" along with the cartoon, "Willie Whopper."
Around 1947, the theater building’s front was painted in Art-Deco colors and a neon-lighted marquee was added. Also, the interior walls were covered over with homosote wallboard and then were painted in an Art-Deco fashion.
After changing ownership a few times, the Princess Theatre continued operation until 1963 when management closed its doors for the last time. It is believed that a combination of factors lead to the steady decline in patronage, which ultimately forced the theater to close. The first of these was the opening of the South-Port Drive-In theater near Bridgeport a few years before, which was more popular with teenagers and young adults who comprised the majority of the movie viewer market. The second factor in the closing of the Princess Theatre was television. By 1963, most families in the local area owned at least one television set and with nearby Chattanooga being the home of three television stations, each being affiliated with a different network, a variety of viewing entertainment could be seen by the local population with minimal expense.
In 1976, Mr. Jim Trippe of Fort Payne, Alabama bought the old Princess Theatre and began conducting extensive equipment updating and began extensive repairs for reopening the historic landmark as a family theater. On Friday evening, October 29, 1976, the old theater was reopened after thirteen years of sitting idle as the new Valley Cinema. Its first feature film was "Ode To Billie Joe" starring Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Conner. The admission price was one dollar for children under the age of twelve and two dollars for everyone over the age of twelve.
This operation only lasted a few years before closing. The historic building from this point onward received no additional restorations and very little maintenance. It sat vacant until the 1990s when a church rented the structure for worship services. The use of the old theater building by the church only lasted a short time, before the church moved from the decaying structure.
By 1999, after sitting vacant for several more years, the two-story building had deteriorated to a point that the roof collapsed and a portion of the north wall was in danger of doing the same. This prompted officials to condemn the building, which would be razed if the local populace and officials did not mount an effort to save the historic theater building.
Was there any hope of salvation for this local piece of Americana? Could it be saved and a new use found? Would anyone step up to the challenge and prevent a gapping hole from being torn into the downtown business block if the structure was condemned and razed? The answer to all three questions is yes!
That same year, 1999, a group of concerned citizens began a drive to salvage the historic theater building for a community arts center. The City of South Pittsburg purchased the theater from its Alabama owners and then appointed a commission of local officials and citizens to develop and execute a plan for the building’s restoration. At the same time they were to formulate plans to acquire the necessary funds to achieve their goal.
Since that time the commission has evolved into an independent non-profit organization known today as the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society, Inc. This preservation group, through various fund-raisers, grants and donations, has stabilized the theater building.
Unfortunately, the damage to the building from several years of unchecked deterioration was so severe that restoration will take several years. The Society has expended thus far in excess of $100,000 in its efforts to restore the Princess. Included in these expenditures are: securing the site and cleanup of debris from roof collapse, rebuilding of north brick wall, installation of footings, supports, joist and decking for a new roof, acquisition of four hundred theater seats and two projectors along with the hiring of an architect to develop construction drawings. In 2003 and 2004, a new roof, repairs to the facade and marquee along with the rebuilding of the rear wall have all been completed or are in the process.
Funds are still needed to bring the building back to its former glory. Plans are to seek this funding, in part, through public and private grants, which will assist in the completion of the Princess restoration project. A partnership with Lodge Manufacturing Company has produced a cookbook, which includes recipes passed through generations of families. The Society’s commission from the sale of each cookbook, the monies raised from the sale of the 1899 South Pittsburg Hustler reprint, private donations, and other funds raised are used to underwrite the restoration in phases.
Once restoration is complete, a beautiful facility will be available to the public for generations to come. It will be a functioning community auditorium capable of housing awards ceremonies, concerts, country music performances, movie festivals, music/dance recitals, pageants, plays, school programs or business conferences just to name a few. The Princess will be, upon completion, once again a place of community pride and a testament to what a community can do when its citizens and businesses work together in teamwork for reaching a common goal.
December 12, 2004