Saturday, August 28, 2010

Picture Show Thompson's Theater

During my childhood, my friends and I would walk south on Jackson Street on our way to the magical display on the wide expanse of the green lawn in front of the home of Picture Show Thompson. It was indeed magical to our youthful eyes. It was the most decorated yard we had ever seen.
Unlike today when everyone seems to be able to decorate their homes and yards for the Christmas Season, people were either too poor or lacked the imagination to turn their home and property into fantasy. After we got there, the equivalent of four blocks from where we lived, we stood in awe at the manger scene, the wise men, the shepherds abiding their flocks and even Jolly Saint Nick in his sleigh following the reindeer—minus the now famous Rudolph who had not yet been created. I remember it passionately, wishing the characters could move around and greet all of us. In reality, they were cut-outs from wood—painted and decorated to celebrate the season—but all the wishing would not turn them into a live scene.
Just when we thought it could get no better, Picture Show Thompson did the same thing by bringing all the Joel Chandler Harris characters from “Song of the South” a wonderful movie about Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, Brer Fox and especially our beloved Uncle Remus to his lawn—probably in the Spring—while promoting the great movie. If he had never done anything other than to thrill the residents of the city by the muddy river with his wonderful lawn decorations, he would have put himself in the minds and hearts of many young people. But that wasn’t all he did for us. Through his movies, we learned how to go on adventures with the Durango Kid, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue and of course he taught us to laugh at the likes of the funny sidekicks, Smiley Burnette, Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy St. John. He brought us a weekly villain to teach us how to cheer for the good guys—cowboys with white hats—each week and to learn right from wrong by showing us that the bad guys might get away with evil deeds, for awhile, but not in the end.

Who was this man we called Picture Show Thompson and where did he come from to enter into our lives with his magic?
He was born on the cusp of the Twentieth Century, 1896, in a small village in Alabama named Detroit. He was educated in Amory, Mississippi and took his first job in Memphis, Tennessee as a messenger boy for Western Union before relocating to Dallas, Texas where he and the movie business got acquainted. He became an usher, and later a doorman, for the Old Mill Theater. That was in 1917-18.
Afterwards, he entered the selling business and his product was theater advertising, which he did for several years.
Later, he began to sell films for Fox Corporation in Atlanta.
His son-in-law, Guerry Boone Stribling, now deceased, who married Thompson’s first-born daughter, Sandra, remembers some of the humorous stories about the man who brought the merriment into our lives through the talking pictures. “During those days of selling films,” Stribling said, “Pappy, as our children lovingly called him, told of an incident which showed his ability to create a reason for people to purchase films from him. He drove a truck in those days loaded with films. He parked in front of the local theater, got out and put up a display telling about a film he had concerning a man named Floyd Collins who had become national news when he got stuck and lost in a cave in Kentucky. After putting up the display, Pappy walked down the street to have a cup of coffee. He told me when he returned there were at least a hundred people standing around the display clamoring for a way to see the film. The theater owner came out to him and pulled him aside to make a deal to get the film. He was a hustler and a showman. He really enjoyed dressing up in a cowboy outfit.”

His daughter, Sandra believes that he was a frustrated actor who would have loved being a movie star—probably a cowboy actor.
In 1931, he made a life altering move when he purchased a small theater in the tiny town of Hawkinsville. The theater was named the Princess, and his career kicked into overdrive when he later purchased the Princess in Eastman, the Princess in Baxley and the Auditorium Theater in Cochran. With the growing company, he decided to incorporate and named the business, All-Amusement, Inc. The early years—1931-1933 were not all business as he met and married a beauty named Ernestine Milam. The couple had their first child, Sandra Faith Thompson in 1934 and the next year he merged his business with a Columbus man named Roy E. Martin and the name of the corporation changed to Martin and Thompson Theaters, Inc. with Thompson serving as President in 1935.
The man we called Picture Show Thompson had the unlikely name of John Herman Thompson, but was known by associates and friends as Tommy Thompson. Although he was heavily involved in his chosen profession as Vice president of the Georgia Southeastern Theater Owners Association, Thompson never was shy about participating in civic affairs of his new community, having served for two years as president of the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, and as Vice-president of the Pulaski County Fair Association. Perhaps it was his high energy level that got him appointed as the Chairman of the one hundred year Centennial Celebration of Hawkinsville garnering headlines in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Newspaper for the successful festivities.
As a credit to his business sense and/or his desire to keep his adopted hometown in the loop with movies, he apparently took a deep breath and moved ahead with a plan after a tragic fire demolished the beloved Princess Theater in downtown Hawkinsville in the 1940s. This writer remembers seeing the theater after it was destroyed and wondering what our lives would be like without Roy and Dale, Gene Autry, Charles Starrett, Alan “Rocky” Lane, Lash LaRue and Sunset Carson.
Picture Show Thompson, the man we had come to depend on for our Saturday entertainment did not miss a beat. He immediately arranged for some temporary building changes to the old City Auditorium—now known as the Old Opera House—and suddenly we had movies again until the re-building of the new theater complete with a new name, The Thompson Theater became part of our lives.
In another move, during the 1950s, we were introduced to a new medium by Picture Show Thompson. Movies underneath the stars—the M&T Drive-in Theater! I remember clearly the opening movie being Ma & Pa Kettle, a hilarious couple with a large family, a bossy mother and a sedentary father who all made us laugh.
At the Thompson, he had on stage such cowboys as Lash LaRue and the bad guy, Jack O’Shea, Tex Ritter who sat on stage singing his hit song, “Rye Whiskey.”

Dan Duryea who played Black Bart in the film with the same name came to our town and paraded throughout the city in Thompson’s Cadillac while many of us chased the car on our bicycles.
But in the early 1950s even in the heyday of movies, a new phenomenon was lurking in the background that would change everything for the dynamic showman who brought many movie stars to our small community. It was something called television, but the great movie showman was not worried. He even rejected the offer from his partner Roy Martin to get into the television business, thinking it would not last.
“Pappy said that three things would save his movie business,” his son-in-law said. “They were Bill Haley’s movie “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis Presley and popcorn. He really didn’t believe TV would amount to anything.”
Today, the vacant shells of old theaters sit empty in small towns across America, a sad reminder of a great past and the great owners of local entertainment. The newspaper which prints this article stands now in the same location of the old Princess and later the Thomson Theater. A cemetery is now located in the spot where Ma & Pa Kettle made us laugh.
As the famous movie star, Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the Memories.” Picture Show Thompson will always be in our wonderful thoughts of what used to be.


Anonymous said...

Great article, brought many wonderful memories to my mind. Hawkinsville was a better place for having this family in our community. Sandra was my age and though we moved in different circles, she was always sweet and kind to me.

Billy Crenshaw

Anonymous said...

Good piece. Made me remember the good/bad old days. My buddies and I used to sit in the Strand Theater in Marietta all day on Saturdays just to keep cool. It was the only place in town with a cooling system

Corlyss said...

My great-grandmother Liggett owned the Princess Theaters before Mr. Thompson. My grandmother Liggett played the piano for the shows and my daddy Fred Liggett, Jr. worked there for his grandmother Liggett. She had several theaters and was one of the last hold-outs to sell to Mr. Thompson.