The sun was beating down on Main Street, on an abnormally hot December day, as I peered into the darkened storefront that has been the face of The Nickelodeon Theatre for nearly three decades. I was there to meet Bruce Bahr, Director of Marketing and Membership of “The Nick”, where we would begin our tour and the film house’s future home would be revealed to us.
The Nickelodeon Theater is South Carolina’s only non-profit Theatre, and a celebrated, integral part of the community’s liberal arts scene. The facility is managed and operated by the Columbia Film Society, under leadership of Executive Director Larry Hembree, and serves as a hub for this non-profit community arts organization, established in 1979 to “stimulate discussion and enhance appreciation of media arts in the community by presenting a wide variety of alternative films and sponsoring media arts events and educational programs.” The CFS recently embarked on a capital campaign, beginning with the purchase of another downtown building in which to take permanent residence. This major project is ready to start with the restoration of the circa 1939 Fox Theatre building.
Having lived in Columbia for over a year, it shamed me to have to admit that I had never physically been inside The Nickelodeon’s 937 Main Street residence. Despite being repeatedly impressed by an unequivocal variety of cultural and artistic films and documentaries the theater consistently offers, and despite being persistently tempted by the exceptional schedule of classic, foreign, and independent films, I have yet to actually make it to a show!
I often hear the organization acclaimed in conversations, and pay attention to “The Nick’s” involvement with numerous and wide-ranging events and happenings around town. I have even been fortunate to meet the CFS’s charming and witty Larry Hembree, socially and at parties, which makes disclosing my lack of presence difficult to explain.
After hearing so many remarkable things relating to this South Carolina aberration, I suppose I had envisioned the building it occupies to be equally grand. As I stared into the tiny, shadowy store-front before me, I wondered if I had arrived at the wrong address. It wasn’t until Bruce Bahr’s image appeared in the darkened window glass, to warmly invite me inside, that I realized I had in-fact been waiting correctly outside the illustrious theatre’s front entrance
Bruce Bahr was a delightful and engaging host; animatedly describing the capital project and the old State/Fox Theater restoration plans currently underway. A walk to the project site took approximately 5 minutes from The Nickelodeon’s current dwelling, where we arrived at 1637 Main Street – soon to be The Nickelodeon’s second Main Street address.
I was quite taken aback on arrival, when Bahr directed our attention to a filthy, dungeon-like wooden door wedged between Lourie’s Clothing store and Kings Jewelry Store, a block down from The Columbia Museum of Art. “I had wanted a sign out here to say: ‘The Future Home of The Nick”, but every time I have put one out, it gets stolen!” Bahr reported. I stared at the cracked white paint, peeling off the door at hand, while wondering if Bahr had honestly brought us to the entrance to their fêted new location and if in fact it was – why on earth you would want to publicize it.
“You know when we purchased this building there had been no power for the lighting in years,” Bahr further explained, forcing the horrid old door to creak open, revealing a tall, decaying staircase that was even more revolting. “We had only toured the interior with a flash-light before the decision was made to purchase the building”. He continued smiling broadly, quite honestly leading me to question his sanity! How could a seemingly knowledgeable and intelligent businessman encourage the use of public funding to purchase this ramshackle building?
The spirited heart of Columbia’s downtown was, at this time, bustling with office-workers finishing lunch-time sandwiches and executives leaving their expense-account lunches, many of them breaking the flow of pedestrians to pause and stare at our group as we stood congregated and peering into a Main Street abyss. Nervously following close behind Bahr as he ascended the unsightly staircase, I tried not to imagine what awful surprises lurked ahead until Larry Hembree appeared and began descending towards street-level to greet us. “We are going to be living like rock stars in here!” Hembree exclaimed with characteristic enthusiasm and energy, sharing with us his animated delight for the hovel.
I concluded that it must be common amongst CFS members to lose touch with reality from watching too many films, since I could not muster a better explanation for all the merriment that this dump was causing, nor find other ways of understanding how this eyesore had been purchased under the glow of a flashlight.
My lungs grew heavy with a dark, dank, musty scent that cast images in my mind from the depths of the 1940s air-raid shelter I had visited when I was six. However, the staircase did not lead to a bombsite, and by the time we reached the Mezzanine level I too was filled with excitement. Despite my brash initial judgment, Columbia’s new acquisition turned out to be a 9000 square-foot time capsule, in which the very essence of Golden-Age Motion Pictures had been captured and frozen in time. The old Main Street Movie Theater, forgotten by most, had been run-down and left to decay, it’s Marquee removed, waiting to be re-discovered on Columbia’s Main Street.
The building (originally known as the State Theater) is a maze-like construction – continually shifting to present you with new surprises, each conjuring up different eras past. Each of the building’s rooms are steeped in history, and could have been purposefully planned by a museum curator aiming to linearly trace the history of Columbia’s Main Street, parallel to the progression of movie-going culture. Images of the past are fervently conveyed through objects and decoration dating back to the theater’s 1939 opening. Although the building foundation itself dates back to the nineteenth century, its first incarnation as a theater was during Columbia’s Main Street heyday. In the 1930s and 40s, the State Theater blossomed as the only independently owned theater in the area. Bahr described the Main Street of this period as a “Downtown Theater District” of sorts. After the depression-era neglect and damage, the theatre was renovated and reborn in the 1970s as “The Fox Theater” before falling victim to the 1980s when Main Street became a run-down and sleazy haunt.
“We call them mystery spaces,” explained Bahr, pointing at a large cavity cut out of the building’s many artificial, unexplainable walls. “We found full sized, original “Guys and Dolls” promotional posters here, pristine and rolled up inside.” These gems hidden under the balcony provided a fitting introduction to all the other delights this construction had in-store.
C.F.S Members and friends of the Nickelodeon Theater have been hard at work for the last year unpeeling, as one might an onion, the layers upon layers of decorations and adornments which had built up inside the theater over several stylistic eras and life-times for the theater – daily getting closer to their aim of restoring what would have been the State Theatre’s original 1930s charm, and its stylistic features designed at the height of the Art-Deco Design Period.
Inside the main-theater, the auditorium stretches upwards into impressive cathedral ceilings. While in ruins, rows of exhausted velvet chairs stretch as far as the eye can see. An enormous viewing screen framed by tattered drapes, still dimly lit by original 1930s frosted glass sconces. The curved glass sconces and matching overhead-lighting features original to the 1936 theater.
Images of the Theatre’s glamorous past now shine through from the auditorium’s décor. Tacky leopard-print fabric is currently being removed from the auditorium walls that it had previously enveloped; revealing magnificent and virtually flawless silver leafed pilasters topped by gilded Sunburst Patterns. Similarly, in the mezzanine lobby the hideous patchwork of both 70s retro-printed and Faux-Persian carpet has been upturned to reveal luxurious hardwood flooring begging for further restoration. All this gaudy decoration added during the 1970s has ironically aided current restoration. Instead of removing the original decoration, they had been covered over – leaving the beauty of the original, delicate 1930s features protected and preserved, to be re-discovered and brought back to life in our generation.
Physical aspects of the theatre’s structure and interior are not the only attributes that the building has preserved. The entire theatre is sprinkled with fascinating relics left behind by past occupants and visitors that serve to reveal interesting tid-bits from the past. I was drawn to an empty, half-crushed retro-designed Coke can that had been discarded on the main auditorium floor.
The Projection Room was riddled with treasures. Bahr directed our attention to a hole in the ceiling that continued upwards for over 9 feet. As we stared into this mysterious cavity, he redirected our attention to a huge stack of “DOG WORLD” Magazines, circa 1945, piled on the floor that had been uncovered from the hole in the false ceiling in which they had been absurdly buried. One metal cabinet in particular seemed set up like a curio, filled with a wealth of antiques including Western Electric Light Bulb packaging, discarded RCA Radio Tubes, and old film reels.
Small details like this discarded “junk” serve to provide unique insight into the recent past and help to retain records of trends in material and popular culture. The entire building has held onto many long-forgotten secrets and stories from past times. Through the restoration process, its wealth of knowledge can be uncovered, utilized, and teach us about the past.
Now, we move back – to revisit the current home of The Nickelodeon. The small 77 seat store-fronted Theater, with its tiny foyer hardly bigger than a New York studio apartment kitchen, welcomes 23,000 visitors a year – yet the minute projection room allows barely enough crawl space for a single person to squeeze through. This is the place that I had never been to before, but yet seemed so inviting and familiar. It was here that I was reminded of the overt importance the media arts, and the art form’s historical impact on culture and society as a whole.
The Nickelodeon, as it currently exists, is a living incarnation John Sloan’s 1907 painting “Movies, 5 Cents”. Sloan, a member of the Ashcan School of Art, was known for painting realistic views of popular entertainment and public audiences in New York at the turn of the 20th Century, when early motion pictures were an exciting new form of mass communication and described as the “Theater of the working man”. By the time Sloan painted “Movie’s, 5 Cents” in 1907, nearly every American city had at least one “nickelodeon”, which was the name that was given to movie theatres where short silent films were shown and people sang along to projected slides-all for a nickel, the price at the time for a beer.
Bahr articulately summed up The Nickelodeon Theatre’s vision and purpose in Columbia, “getting people out of the habit of sitting at home alone in the dark to watch movies, and out to the Nick – where they can share the emotions involved in seeing a film with others.” He said, “It’s more what seeing movies is meant to be about.” The wish of The Nickelodeon – to invite audiences into the liberating public sphere of popular culture – is an aim that is profoundly in-tune with the message that artists such as John Sloan had wished to impress upon their art audience 100 years prior.
In “Movie’s, 5 Cents” Sloan visually displayed the power that came from exposing people to the freedom of a physical arena where mixed classes and genders could meet, mingle, and have a good time. It is interesting that the important role that cinema has historically played – in encouraging people to open their eyes to new points of view, to experience real life and to broaden their cultural and social horizons – is still so relevant today.
A century after John Sloan’s painting and the era of renaissance in American art, Bahr describes “the intimate space of movie theatres” and how this space is so important to their audience as it creates a sort of club that everyone is welcome to join. This parallels 1900s theorizing that led cinema to be labeled as the first Democratic art – for the ways that these darkened spaces, created by films, allowed encounters between men and women and crossings of race and class lines that had been impossible a generation before.
The creation of Movies, and moviegoers, at the start of the 20th century embodied the more inclusive and integrative aspects involved in new art. The Nickelodeon is allowing our generation to understand and benefit from the importance of motion pictures, a century later, in Columbia. The Nickelodeon’s move will get the Columbia Film Society closer to their goal: allowing them to screen their films to a much larger audience, attracting greater attention, therefore encouraging more people to attend shows – and in turn more people will gain benefits offered by the unique art form. “Columbia is going from a good city to a GREAT city”, said Bahr, unafraid to get his hands dirty for The Nickelodeon Theater and the greater good of this city for which he is so hopeful for and so passionate about.
The Nickelodeon’s clean-up, restoration, expansion, and relocation project, and decision to renovate the old theatre in lieu of building new one, falls in line with city-wide trends to preserve what remains of historical Columbia and a current widespread climate of hope for revitalizing the city’s downtown areas. The Nickelodeon project is playing a significant role in proving the capital’s historical and cultural value to the rest of the state, as well as contributing to spreading awareness for the importance of the arts in the community.
The Nickelodeon project has the potential to change the nature of Columbia’s entire downtown in revealing more of the city’s valuable history. This will hopefully continue to encourage other projects to follow and benefit our economy by attracting many more residents to move inside the old downtown. Here is added potential to aid and increase cultural tourism in Columbia, attracting more visitors to the city that are interested in art and experiencing Southern history. Many outsiders believe Charleston is the only South Carolina city that displays tangible history, yet his project could dramatically upgrade Columbia’s profile as a tourist destination.
Bahr predicts that when this project is complete, the last of the architecturally untouched buildings on Main Street that have so far managed to escape modernization attempts could potentially transform this charming section of downtown. Restoration of the buildings surrounding the theatre’s new location could potentially re-enrich the stretch of street from The Columbia Museum of Art and the cluster of already-established vibrant music and art’s venues into a salubrious cultural enclave. Bruce Bahr pondered one last thought before our parting: “Now if only Workshop could move in across the street from us…”