Many hope downtown theater coming soon

January 17, 2014

The Greenville News

By Lyn Riddle

Georgetta Ivester was 7 the first time she got on a bus a block or so from her Cleveland Forest home to go to the Saturday matinee at the Fox Theater on Main Street.

Ivester, who is 71, doesn’t remember what she saw on that long-ago day, but she does remember what it cost. Six Coca-Cola bottle caps.

“Everybody drank Coke back then — or sweet tea,” she said.

And everybody had something to choose from when it came to movies. At one time, Greenville had six movie theaters on Main Street, four of them clustered together on the blocks between Coffee and East North streets.

By the late 1970s, all the theaters had closed, victims of downtown’s decline and the construction of retail centers in the rapidly growing eastside area of Greenville County.

Now, if Daryn Zongrone has her way, downtown will once again have a movie theater.

It will be what’s called an art house, a place that is part movie theater, part gathering spot, part film education. Independent films and classic movies that might not normally make it to Greenville will be shown.

Asheville has The Fine Arts Theatre, Columbia the Nickelodeon, Charleston the Terrace.

It’s one of the missing pieces in a downtown booming with pedestrians, women’s clothing stores, bars and restaurants.

“The cinema is just one of the things you’d expect to be in a downtown,” said Greenville Mayor Knox White.

There have been many starts and stops by entrepreneurs looking to open a movie theater since White started talking about the need in the late 1990s. And for as many reasons, they didn’t open or were short-lived.

Bill West, the president of the Upstate Film Society, said Greenville is ready.

“We’d love to see it happen,” he said.

The pastJudy Bainbridge, a retired Furman University English professor who writes a column for The Greenville News about Greenville history, said the first movie shown in Greenville was at the courthouse on Main Street. It was 1904 and the movie was “The Great Train Robbery,” produced by Thomas Edison and considered the first movie that told a story. It’s a 12-minute Western.

The first actual theater, Bainbridge said, was the Unique, located at the corner of Coffee and Main where Ristorante Bergamo is now. The Unique would soon enough be renamed the Bijou.

The succeeding decades brought the Casino, the Rivoli, the Liberty, the Carolina, the Paris.

“Most of these were built for both stage and screen; they had slanted floors to provide better sight lines, and they specialized in glamor,” Bainbridge wrote in a 2006 column for The News.

White said the Liberty specialized in bringing in performers, including Peg Leg Bates, the dancer.

Ivester said by the time she got to Greenville High, the Carolina was the place every girl hoped her date would take her. She would dress up in her poodle skirt, bobby socks, penny loafers and a light blue cashmere sweater that tied at the neck with strings that held a furry ball at each end.

“It was the most glamorous thing I ever owned,” she said.

She said her boyfriend would pick her up early enough for them to walk through the elegant lobby of the Ottaray Hotel, next door to the theater and the current location of the Hyatt. They would get their pennies shined, she said.

“The Carolina was the glamor theater,” Ivester posted on The Greenville News Facebook page.

“Great velvet draperies and gold silk cords, spacious aisles, and, in my view, beautiful carpets. Old Hollywood stars and the freshest ingénues graced the walls in larger-than-life posters. Subtle, mysterious lighting bounced from the elegant wall sconces and brightened from the chandeliers when the credits rolled.”

She said in a telephone interview that she remembers being seated by a flashlight-holding usher after entering from the back of the theater.

Bainbridge said the Carolina had 1,400 seats, ventilation, tinted lights and a $20,000 Wurlitzer organ.

Fire closed the Bijou in 1947, she said. Two years later, the Rivoli closed and became the Fox. The 1950s saw the closing of the Majestic and Casino and the Carolina in the 1960s, Bainbridge said.

Greenville News reader Jennie Beam-Batte said when she was a teenager, she and her friend would tell their parents they were going to the Fox or Carolina and then sneak into the Paris for the adult movies.

“So funny now as these same films are on regular TV,” she said in a Facebook post.

In 1978, the last Main Street theater standing, the Fox, closed.

“It was the end of an era,” Bainbridge wrote in her column.

The attemptsFifteen years ago, White broached the idea of downtown Greenville having a first-run theater, something along the lines of Cherrydale or Hollywood 20.

“We’ve had several close opportunities,” he said.

In 2004, Greenville developer Mark Kent proposed a theater built underground on the plot where Kimbrell’s Furniture Store was located, now Carolina Ale House. Kent wanted to tear the store building down.

The Design and Preservation Commission said no.

A chain considered Greenville for a dinner movie theater, White said, but the rules of film distributors regarding distance from existing movie theaters would prevent downtown Greenville from having a first-run theater.

“We’re right on the edge between Cherrydale and Hollywood, and then there’s the Camelot,” White said.

In the mid-2000s, Taylor and Christina Vandiver considered opening a theater much like Zongrone is planning.

The Vandivers frequently went to Asheville’s Fine Arts Theatre to see the movies not available in Greenville and thought Greenville needed something similar. They wanted a place where people could gather, talk about film, learn about film. They’d have professors in to give talks about the movies, to set them in a specific time or place. They’d have beer and wine and inventive snacks.

“A real casual hangout atmosphere,” Taylor Vandiver said.

Mrs. Vandiver quit her job as an account executive for Fuel Creative to work full-time on the concept. They worked on it for two years.

The Upstate Film Society worked closely with them to develop a business plan, he said.

They chose a building on McBee Avenue known as the Keys Building, once the home for Keys Printing. It is as close to the Church Street bridge as a building can be. In fact, an attached building had to be cut off when the bridge was built in the 1960s.

“The real challenge wasn’t the real estate — it was the upfit cost,” Vandiver said.

They estimated the cost at $750,000. Or everything they had and more.

Then the economy soured and Vandiver said, “We really can’t do this.”

A short-lived attempt at a theater came to the West End in 2009. It showed classic movies, cartoons, documentaries and newsreels in a storefront near Falls Park. The owners couldn’t be reached for comment on their experience.

West said many of the proposals were unrealistic as far as their financials and the number of customers they might attract.

“Some had narrow business plans and their locations were too expensive,” he said. “The market wasn’t ready for them. This is a very different town than it was then.”

A number of series such as the International Film Festival and a biannual series by the Upstate Film Society have been held through the years. The Upstate Film Society was established in 1998 and since 2003 has held film festivals each spring and fall. The group started at Coffee Underground, moved to Carmike (now Camelot) and now work with Cherrydale.

The Peace Center, too, sponsored indie films in 2010-11. Eric Kershner, the programming associate for the series, said it was well attended and, in fact, sometimes had to change the location from a meeting room to the Gunter Theatre. He regularly brought in lecturers to talk about the films, including professors to talk about the Holocaust and a Bob Jones professor to talk about religious art.

The ideaZongrone grew up in Spartanburg. Her father is local jazz musician Daniel Z, her mother a massage therapist whose passion is painting. Zongrone, 23, studied psychology at the University of South Carolina Upstate and manages O-Cha tea bar in Greenville.

Her youth and inexperience might make people wonder whether she could actually pull off an undertaking as big as a $1 million art house. But those who have worked with her, including Vandiver and West, say she is a quick study who has done the research she needs to do.

West said she has a sound business plan.

“She is incredibly hardworking and is not looking at it from 40,000 feet,” West said. “She’s building a following.”

Christina Vandiver has given Zongrone her research and business plan and has worked with her closely. They got together because Vandiver worked at O-Cha during the time she was planning the theater. Then when Zongrone went to work there, the O-Cha owner put her in touch with Vandiver.

Andy Smith, executive director at the Nickelodeon in Columbia, also has been working with Zongrone.

He said his theater has moved into a $3 million renovated movie theater on Main Street and is planning to add another screen. It has succeeded, he said, because they have brought together a community of people who love film.

It’s about the experience, the feeling of sitting in a darkened theater with other people enjoying the laughs, the tears, and talking about it afterwards.

The key is listening to what the community wants and providing all sorts of additional programming to bring in revenue, he said. A movie house, unlike a symphony or museum, can offer several kinds of movies in a single day, kids movies in the morning, adult fare in the evening and late night for younger people, he said.

Zongrone has identified the Keys Building, at 307 E. McBee, as her first choice. It is a large brick building with a vaulted ceiling that would accommodate three theaters, each with 100 seats, and a bar at the front.

Ben Geer Keys, the fourth generation of his family to be in the printing business, said the business started in 1869 and the building on McBee was built in 1940. The business moved to Congaree Road, now named Keys Drive, in 1973, and the building has been empty since.

Doug Harper, one of the owners of the building, said several people are looking at the building now, so it’s not certain it will be available by the time Zongrone gets her financing together. She is doing an initial crowdsourcing fundraiser through and afterward will pursue investors for the largest amount she needs to reach $1 million.

West said he has asked Zongrone to speak to the Upstate Film Society board, which can help find several locations as well as investors.

Harper said a number of people have proposed uses for the building in recent years and he and Steven Navarro, the other owner, have turned them down.

A bar and an office have been proposed, he said.

But the office would have covered up the brick walls in a building he considers a hidden gem.

“We are patient local investors,” Harper said. “We want something cool.”


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