Two Princesses in a Pandemic

Two Princesses in a Pandemic
Words by Melissa Ford Thornton

Kids kind of grin at your antiquity when you speak of the ‘days before television,’ as if you were talking about outhouses, kerosene lamps and feather beds.” – Bob Woodfin, South Pittsburg, TN resident & newsman in his weekly “Personal Quips” column in the 1960s.

Nothing reflects the nostalgic charm of a Southern town quite like an old theater—or as we say in the South—movie house. The historic Princess Theatre in Decatur, Alabama and the Princess Theater in South Pittsburg, Tennessee are separated by a state line, but are less than a hundred miles apart. And though they were never part of the same ownership, the two old movie houses are connected by more than proximity and a regal name. These Princesses share a storied past, serving early on as silent movie houses. Both theaters received an art deco facelift and modern sound systems when “talkies” arrived on the scene. Both fell on hard times when public consumption of entertainment moved from the big screen to television. Both were rescued when citizens rallied, raising funds and awareness of the cultural assets they are.

The theaters not only survived, but thrived—reigning as the undisputed gems of their respective downtowns.  As recently as February 2020, the Princesses’ marquees were filled with upcoming events: music, movies, live theater, comedy and more. Then the pandemic of 2020 hit . . . hard.

Today, the theaters find themselves in a particularly vulnerable situation as our world, nation, and region navigate the uncertainties of COVID-19. Public venues depend on sizable audiences for success. Months of mandated closures, and more recently cautious re-openings with limited capacity and social distancing, delivered a devastating financial left hook to our southern Princesses. But, a betting person would do well to glance back at their century-long track record before assuming either theater is down for the count.

A Test of Time

The building that houses Decatur’s Princess Theatre began life in 1887 as a livery stable. It briefly served as a roller-skating rink before the interior was completely remodeled as a silent movie house and Vaudeville stage. On December 30, 1919, the play “Tea for Three” was performed on The Princess stage with local orchestras providing music. The following night, the silent film “The Wolf” officially ushered in a new era of entertainment for Decatur.

By contrast, South Pittsburg’s Princess was born into her role as a theater, but with a different name. In 1921, the Imperial Theater opened with the silent film “Tank Town Follies,” starring Jobyna Ralston, a native of the Tennessee ‘burg. The theater changed ownership and names several times—from Imperial to Palace, before she was crowned Princess.

By the late 1920s “talkies” added new allure for film audiences. Both theaters invested in modern sound systems and enjoyed a steady rise in popularity. Even after the stock market crashed in 1929, these movie houses continued to draw crowds seeking a much-needed escape from daily life. In those days, a ticket cost mere pennies and Royal Cola bottle caps were sometimes accepted as payment.

Of course, movies weren’t the only show in town. Decatur’s Princess hosted Gene Autry and Champion: The Wonder Horse, orchestras, storytellers, plays, concerts, musicals and the “Miss Decatur” pageant took place at the Princess.

In 1934, George Washington Carver delivered the commencement address for Decatur’s all-black high school from the Princess Theatre’s stage. The most prominent black scientist of the 20th century, Carver was so beloved that everyone wanted to hear him speak. The high school didn’t have the capacity to hold an overflowing crowd, and a larger public venue was found in the Princess.

1934 was also remarkable for South Pittsburg’s Princess. The City held a special election to determine if moving pictures should be shown on Sundays. The motion passed, and weekend movies extended to Sunday matinees. That same year, the functional but rather plain Princess briefly closed for remodeling and upgrades. An art deco marquee was added, and her doors re-opened revealing an interior that more closely reflected Hollywood’s glamour.

Herman McDowell, who managed South Pittsburg’s Princess Theatre in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, scheduled live entertainment “direct from WSM’s Grand Ole Opry” at the Princess. The likes of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and more, stepped into the Princess Theatre’s spotlight.

Decatur’s Princess Theatre underwent her art deco refresh in early 1941, re-emerging that same year as a classic example of the style. Art deco elements include the brilliant neon marquee that is an icon for the North Alabama region and the historic lobby’s terrazzo tile floor, the same type of stone used in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

For decades, the theaters’ future shined as brightly as their marquees. Throngs of Decatur and South Pittsburg school kids raced their bicycles to be the first in line for matinees.

“I remember Mom dropping us off on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and then the movie,” South Pittsburg resident Nancy Humphreys recently recalled. “To me, that was part of a small town in the ‘60s—perfection,” she added.

“My brother Bob and I practically grew up at the Princess Theatre,” Decatur business owner Cathy Duncan Wahl said. Her father, Jim Duncan, managed the Decatur Princess Theatre from 1963 to the late ‘70s. Though Cathy and her brother both had jobs as teens, working concessions, cleaning the auditorium and changing the marquee signs, their favorite Princess memory is discovering all the “secret” cubbyholes, stairways, nooks and crannies in the old three-story building. 

Sadly, by the mid-1970s, historic theatres had lost some of their shine. The rise of suburban malls and multi-plex cinemas drew business away from downtowns. And the advent of home movie channels created a perfect storm for aging theaters.

In 1978, The Princess Theatre in Decatur turned off her marquee for what most thought would be the last time.

“Our Princess Theater experienced decline as early as the 1960s,” said Carolyn Millhiser, member of South Pittsburg’s Historic Preservation Society. “Drive-in Theaters attracted young folks, and television provided inexpensive entertainment for just about everyone else,” she explained.

Community Spirit and Cornbread

The theaters’ fate was all but sealed. But fate didn’t count on community spirit, tenacity, and sometimes downright stubbornness inherent in the southern DNA. Decatur citizens rose to the defense of The Princess and put their money where their hearts were. Individual and corporate donations came in. The City of Decatur purchased the building and designated the Princess Theatre as nonprofit. In the early 1980s, the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts began her new chapter as a multi-function resource for live performances and arts education.

Across the state line, a similar rallying cry went up on behalf of another Princess. But, years of disuse left South Pittsburg’s theater in a partially collapsed state. The city purchased the building, and the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society headed the community effort to restore the Princess. With a fraction of the population of Decatur, and the severity of damage to the structure, finding the funds to save the beloved theater seemed daunting.

One of the largest employers in the area, Lodge Cast Iron, published a cookbook and donated a portion of proceeds to the Princess Theater project. It took 14 years and additional fundraisers for restoration to be completed—but never underestimate southerners’ ingenuity or love of cornbread.

The South Pittsburg Princess re-opened in 2013, but took a few years to gain traction. The turning point came a couple of years later when residents filled the 350-seat theater for a symphonic performance. Rob Woodfin recalled the emotions of that night. “Here among faces from a lifetime of memories, we were listening to symphonic music—live—at the pinnacle of the Princess’ rebirth,” Woodfin said. “It was nothing less than the concerted effort by so many people in this community to create a venue suitable for [nationally touring] classical performers. . . we were feasting on the fruit of collaborative effort,” he added.

Momentum or Memory

For the past five years, both theaters rapidly gained momentum in programming and popularity. Mary McDonald, executive director for Decatur’s Princess Theatre created a singer/songwriter series in 2018 that was an instant hit. These more intimate acoustic shows regularly sold out, making it possible to book acts for the larger stage. Larkin-Poe, Drive-by Truckers, Secret Sisters, a Rolling Stones Tribute and more filled the 677-seat main auditorium. The marquee became a barometer of the economic health of the Decatur and Morgan County area. “Our shows draw tourism and that increases business for our downtown merchants and restaurants,” she said.

“Things were really humming along until the COVID-19 lockdown devastated our Spring/Summer season,” McDonald said. The staff created a virtual listening room showcasing local talent which helped with visibility when so many venues went dark. McDonald began a summer movie series as soon as re-openings were allowed. But limits on audience size and the cost associated with sanitizing and safety protocols casts a shadow of uncertainty on larger shows.

In South Pittsburg, things were humming along as well. Ron Hudson stepped up as a volunteer manager of the Princess Theater and booked popular acts. Songwriter nights and a Jimmy Buffet tribute were sell-outs. But with the “new normal,” only two events have taken place on the Princess Theater’s stage since March: a high school performance of “Grease” and a student theater camp. Both events limited attendance to comply with social distancing.

It’s clear, the Princess theaters in Decatur and South Pittsburg are repositories of hundreds of thousands of memories, from a first kiss stolen in the balcony to a first job making popcorn. Beyond sentimentality, the cultural, social and economic value to their respective communities is inestimable; their historic significance irreplaceable.

The performing arts have always provided a common thread between people of every age and demographic, as audiences come together for a shared experience—be it music, stories, theater or film.  And nothing is more at risk than the venues that have long provided a gathering space for this vital human interaction. As the pandemic stretches on, time will tell whether or not these historic Princesses can rise Phoenix-like. If the love and loyalty of two Southern towns in Alabama and Tennessee have demonstrated for their Princesses is any indication, they will.