Originally created 11/30/06

Before Modjeska was nightclub, theater had history in film, music



Most patrons of the Modjeska in the 800 block of Broad Street have no clue that the building - which celebrates its 90th birthday today - has played host to some of America's most famous country and western stars.

The Modjeska's stage has featured Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens, Uncle Dave Macon (regarded as the Grand Ole Opry's first "star"), Bill Monroe, and Cowboy Copas.

Several Western movie heroes made guest appearances at the Modjeska, including George "Gabby" Hayes (Roy Rogers' sidekick), Lash LaRue, Johnny Mack Brown and former Augusta resident Dub "Cannonball" Taylor.

Taylor appeared at Modjeska for three days (May 16-18) in 1946 with his "country cousins." He is the subject of a documentary film that will debut at 7 p.m. April 14 at the Morris Museum of Art.

Film producer Mark Stokes, who teaches cinematography courses at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga., has been in Augusta several times recently working on the film, including doing interviews with Western movie historians Clyde Lester and "Cowboy Mike" Searles.

The Modjeska Theater was built after the Great Augusta Fire of March 1916 by Roswell O. Lombard, the father-in-law of baseball player Ty Cobb. The theater opened Nov. 30.

Contrary to what the metal sign says on the front of the Modjeska, the theater did not replace the original Modjeska Theater, which did not burn in the 1916 fire. The original theater was across Broad Street (which the fire had not touched), and the two theaters operated at the same time for several months.

Advertisements for Lombard's building referred to it as the "New Modjeska" and often were printed next to advertisements for shows in the original Modjeska. Both were named after Helena Modjeska, a Polish-born Shakespearean actress of the late 1800s, who was known for her high artistic standards and positive influence on American theater.

When the contract was let for the New Modjeska, The Augusta Chronicle reported that the construction would cost about $85,000, and the furnishings and equipment, $10,000 to $15,000.

It opened with a seating capacity of 1,200. The opening manager was Frank Miller, who in 1940 would open the Miller Theater in the next block on Broad Street.

Several Augusta theaters of that time doubled as both vaudeville entertainment houses and movie theaters in that transitional period before film killed off vaudeville.

The Modjeska is where Augustans heard movies "talk" for the first time with the showing of The Tenderloin in July 1928. Only 15 of the movie's 88 minutes contained spoken dialogue.

That same year in September, the Modjeska was where Augustans saw the first all-talking movie, The Lights of New York.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Modjeska had many celebrities who came to town to promote their movies.

Opry star Ernest Tubb performed four shows a day Sept. 1-2, 1947, in between screenings of his film Hollywood Barn Dance.

The Modjeska closed in June 1977 but found new life when it reopened as a nightclub.

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 36 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at don.rhodes@morris.com.