Just a few days ago, Augusta’s oldest entertainment building, the Modjeska in the 800 block of Broad Street, turned 100 years old with few people taking notice.
Mike Deas of Augusta Amusements Inc., who presents an annual arts series at the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center in Evans, was the only person who reminded me of the approaching anniversary.
He has a special interest since the original Augusta Amusements Inc. organization in the early 1900s owned the Modjeska along with several other theaters downtown including the Imperial and Miller.
Both the Imperial and Miller have been saved through concerned local citizens with the Miller now being renovated to become the home of Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
And if Ahmad zia Ahmadi is successful, the Modjeska will re-open early in 2017 with a nightclub and dance floor in the front and with the original stage and theater portion at the rear of the building drastically renovated for shows.
The former resident of Las Vegas bought the building a few months ago. It was built by Roswell O. Lombard, father-in-law of baseball legend Ty Cobb, and opened Nov. 30, 1916.
Although in recent years the front portion has been used as a night spot, the rear section hasn’t been used since June 1977 when it stopped showing movies.
Bill Stembler of Atlanta’s Georgia Theatre Co., which had owned the Modjeska for 30 years, told The Augusta Chronicle’s Bill Kirby of the Modjeska’s then closing, “It’s simple: just a lack of business.
“People used to go to the movies regularly,” Stembler told Kirby. “TV has changed all that, though. Movies have gotten a more specialized audience; not a general audience. They need something to appeal to a certain audience.”
It was Stembler who also told Kirby, “Over the past few years, so many new theaters have opened up in Augusta that nobody goes downtown anymore.”
Boy, was that guy wrong on so many counts. People do not just stay at home and watch TV but still do get out in large numbers to pay high prices to see movies.
And Stembler probably would be amazed to see how many thousands of people come downtown on weekday nights and weekends to see shows, eat at restaurants and have fun at nightclubs.
How amazing would it be if three of Augusta’s historic theaters – Miller, Modjeska and Imperial – are being used in 2017?
And actually, Augusta’s Rialto movie building, which dates to the early 20th century, also still is in use at 767 Broad St. as Casella Eye Center. Go inside the lobby and look at the old Rialto movie advertisements and building postcards that Dr. Tom Casella has had framed.
The “New Modjeska,” as it was known when it opened, and the original Modjeska theater directly across Broad Street were both named for Polish stage actress Helena Modjeska who had become a favorite with Augustans from local appearances. Both theaters operated for a short period at the same time.
The current Modjeska built by Augusta’s Palmer-Spivey Construction Co. opened with 1,200 seats and offered daily both movies and New York City-based Marcus Lowe Vaudeville acts along with the locally-popular, eight-piece Bearden’s Orchestra conducted by Walter Bearden.
Its manager was Frank Miller who in 1940 would construct Miller Theater.
Congratulatory advertisements published in The Chronicle at the time of the Modjeska’s opening in 1916 show that cooling was provided by The Typhoon Fan Co. of New York, heating came from GASTEAM Radiators, hardware and wiring was done respectively by Trowbridge Hardware Co. and Brill Electric Co. both of Augusta, projectors came from Lucas Theater Supply Co. in Atlanta, flooring was done by the Dixie Tile &Plaster Co. in Augusta, seats came from Clanton &Webb Co. in Atlanta, plumbing was done by Lee-Campbell of Augusta and decorative art work was done by R.G. Barinowski of Augusta.
The first time that Augusta-area residents heard movies “talk” came July 23-28, 1928, with the showing of The Tenderloin.
And the first, all-talking movie, The Lights of New York, was shown at the Modjeska from Sept. 10-15 of that same year.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many top draw country music and western movie stars appeared on the Modjeska’s stage, usually while movies featuring them were shown on the screen.
Grand Ole Opry legend Ernest Tubb with his band The Troubadours performed four shows a day Sept. 1-2, 1947, in between showings of a movie featuring him, Hollywood Barn Dance.
Among other celebrities to grace the Modjeska’s stage were Johnny Mack Brown, University of Alabama football hero and “All American Cowboy Star;” George “Gabby” Hayes, sidekick to western movie heroes Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers; Opry stars Cowboy Copas and Little Jimmy Dickens; the originator and “king” of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe with his Bluegrass Boys; other western movie stars such as Don “Red” Barry, Spade Cooley and Lash LaRue and also Augusta’s own radio stars who made it into western movies, Claude Casey and Ramblin’ Tommy Scott.
Augusta’s rich history of its existing theaters often is neglected and nearly forgotten. But 100 years ago, The Chronicle was telling its readers, “The opening of the new Modjeska Theater yesterday was an event of more than passing importance.”
And 100 years later, the fact that Augustans can still enjoy these historic treasures is just as important.