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Moving picture shows can now talk

February 3, 2019

It was nothing short of a revolution. Splashed across the front pages of the Rome News-Tribune on Aug. 4, 1929, was the announcement…

“THE DESOTO THEATER DRAWS ASIDE THE CURTAIN ON A WORLD OF SOUND!”

The newspaper preempted columns and dominated the edition with a rare, eight-page supplement devoted entirely to the great event.

Floods and earthquakes, wars, presidential elections and World Series baseball games have drawn less attention than the announcement made by theater owner O.C. Lam Sr.

With the appearance of Broadway singer Eddie Dowling in “The Rainbow Man,” Rome entered the era of “talking motion pictures.” As the supplement continued, the Tribune offered a forecast of future programs ranging from concerts to western serials.

The paper invited theater-goers to recall their first visit to the old silent movies: “Remember the thrills of ‘The Great Train Robbery’?...The one-reel romances? The lips of lovers lips moving soundlessly, of William S. Hart’s pistols flashing pantomime in the back room of a frontier bar? (Hart could hold a bad guy at bay with his pistol in his left hand, while he rolled and lit a cigarette with his right). And remember later ‘The Birth of a Nation’? Tomorrow in Rome’s great DeSoto Theater you will sit enthralled while Eddie Dowling’s voice mingles with the minstrel band … Eddie woos Mary, and you will thrill as each soft-spoken word is wafted from the screen. The screen that LIVES AT LAST!”

Whole pages of the supplement were filled by congratulations of Rome merchants. “We are in the ‘talkie block,’” one well-wishing business advertisement declared. “We are glad to have our place of business in the same block with the magnificent new DeSoto Theater,” read another. “Here’s our Bouquet to the DeSoto,” read another. There were bouquets from 14 local Broad Street merchants. It was a big day. It was a huge event.

The new theater was built for Lam at a cost of $110,000 by John Graham, Fred Johnson Sr. and W.B. Broach, and was fitted with the finest sound equipment available. The DeSoto was fireproof, cooled by five American Blower fans and heated with Rotoblast tubular blowers. It had “Frigidaire” water coolers in restrooms and tiers of Hayward-Watfield coil-spring seats capable of seating 1,200 patrons. The theater could be emptied in two minutes through 11 exits. Its electrical equipment was the same as used in New York City’s famed Roxy Theatre and the building itself was the first in the South designed for acoustic fidelity. In other words, it was not an existing theater that had sound added. It was designed during construction to acoustically be a theater that would feature “talking movies.”

The opening ceremony at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 5, featured addresses by Rome Chamber of Commerce President C.O. Walden and Chairman T.B. Owens of the city commission, followed by businessman Walter S. Cothran, who spoke on behalf of the theater’s builders and management. At eight o’clock the lights dimmed and the screen lighted. Sound rose in the hushed theatre. Eddie Dowling, Marian Nixon and child star Frankie Darrow came singing into the lives of Rome’s theater-goers.

Proof that the talkies had come to stay was demonstrated by the immediate closing of one of Lam’s three theaters, The Broadway, and limiting the Strand’s programming to Saturday movies only. The Strand was at that time operated at 237 Broad St., in quarters later incorporated into the J.C. Penney building.

The Broadway stood at 405 Broad St., just above the Fourth Avenue intersection. The more modern Rivoli Theatre, at 225 Broad St., was renovated and fitted with sound projection equipment soon after the opening of the DeSoto.

With the easing of the Depression, Lam opened the Gordon Theater, long known now as the location of the Partridge Restaurant. The Gordon was equipped with the first “flying scenery” used by a Rome theater, and also brought Vaudeville acts to its stage. Live performances by many traveling singing groups walked The Gordon’s stage, such as

the “Franklin Brothers” with Delmus Franklin, one of the brothers, the Peruchi Players and notables like Rod Brasfield.

Lam’s First Avenue Theater opened on May 16, 1949. Then the trend of suburbs rising and the decentralization of urban construction, along with the rise in the number of automobiles, prompted the opening of the Cedar Valley Drive-in in 1948, the West Rome in 1950 and the North 53 in 1955. With interests also in Tallapoosa and at Fort Payne, Alabama, Lam’s company at one time operated 18 to 20 theaters.

Interviewed by the Tribune in 1971, Mr. Lam stated, “I had six sons in the service during World War II, five of them overseas. About seven years ago I retired and turned the business over to them and my two daughters. Two years later we sold out to the Chris McGuire people and went out of the theater business.” But within a few years the Lam family resumed operation of the theater chain, acquiring in addition a three-theater unit built in West Rome at 5 Coosawattee Ave.

As I have used up my word count and haven’t touched on the history of Rome’s Theater’s as I want to, once again I’ll ask you to bear with me and hang for a week and we’ll pick up on Rome’s theaters again.

Some of it is rather interesting. I can’t believe I actually went to movies at the Rivoli and Gordon, and was at the First Avenue when JFK got shot. I walked out to the lobby to get a Coke and they were crowded around a small transistor radio. I don’t remember what was playing or the drive home.

I was home on leave, and the telegram I was expecting almost beat me to Lindale. I was on my way to Key West and left the next day. I figured I was Gitmo-bound, and I was right.

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Lucy and the Ghost Train.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.