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Vince Staten: Not counting drive-ins, Frank Theatres city’s 10th movie house

VINCE STATEN • Aug 13, 2013 at 9:23 PM

The new Frank Theatres opened in the mall last Friday with the animated feature “Planes,” followed in quick succession by nine other films. (The theater has 10 screens.)

I guess you’d like a theater to open with a future classic. Maybe “Planes” will turn out that way. But none of our past movie houses opened with that sort of bang.

By my count, the Frank is something like the 10th movie theater to open in Kingsport in our 96-year history, and that doesn’t include the various drive-ins.

Our first movie theater was the original Strand, which was located on the corner of Main and Shelby (and later became the Gem Theater). It actually opened before this newspaper began publication so we don’t know, and will probably never know, what the first feature to play here was.

The first Strand ad was in the June 25, 1916, issue. It beckoned movie lovers to see “Excuse Me,” “a comedy in 5 parts — Orchestra Music. This Comedy ran two months in New York Theatres. Admission 10c and 20c.”

It starred George F. Marion, Geraldine O’Brien and Harrison Ford — not that Harrison Ford — and was based on a stage play by Rupert Hughes, who was Howard Hughes’ uncle.

The movie was set aboard a train, and although this newspaper didn’t write about it, I found this interesting tidbit from the Beatrice (Nebraska) Daily Sun of Feb. 13, 1916: “The producers have added a touch of realism by sawing a Pullman in two lengthwise and then mounting it on a flat freight car. The photographer risked his neck by taking the picture from the end of a long plank extending out from the open side of the car, thus getting the actual scenery as it flitted by the car windows.”

The Queen Theatre, which opened in 1917 on Broad in what is now the Parker building, was the second movie house in town. We don’t know the first feature at the Queen because issues of this newspaper are missing from late 1916 till 1919. The first feature we know about was advertised on June 6, 1919: “The Forbidden Room,” a tale of love and blackmail featuring Gladys Brockwell, a character actress who was featured four years later in the silent version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” During its years of operation, 1917-1925, the Queen changed its name to the Gaiety.

The Rialto opened in Five Points in early 1921. The first ad for a film was June 13, 1921, a double feature, Dorothy Gish starring in “Little Miss Rebellion” and Conway Tearle in “Marooned Hearts.” By the ’50s it was showing mostly cowboy movies.

On April 1, 1925, the Strand moved to Broad Street to what is still called the Strand building, changed its name briefly to the Nu Strand, and opened with the silent melodrama “A Thief in Paradise,” produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Ronald Colman. At that time the old Strand building was renamed the Gem Theatre.

The State opened at the corner of Broad and Market on March 6, 1936, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman in the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes.”

The Fox opened Aug. 22, 1940, in Highland, showing the comedy “Alias the Deacon” starring Bob Burns as a “hillbilly deacon who is actually a cardsharp in disguise” (according to the Internet Movie Database). The Fox was the first Kingsport movie theater to show movies on Sunday. So it also became first theater in the Kingsport to be raided for showing movies on Sunday.

The Center opened on Commerce Street on Jan. 26, 1948, with “Magic Town” starring Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman.

Then TV arrived in east Tennessee and it would be almost a quarter of a century before Kingsport got a new movie theater. And by then the Rialto, Gem, Fox and Center had all closed, leaving us with only two theaters, the State and the Strand.

The Terrace Theater opened April 2, 1971, in the Kings Giant Plaza with the Disney comedy “The Barefoot Executive” starring Kurt Russell.

On its heels, The Martin opened in the Kingsport Mall on Eastman Road on June 24, 1971, with the western “Big Jake” starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Richard Boone.

The era of the multiplex arrived in town on Aug. 27, 1976, with the opening of the Fort Henry Mall Five. Five films opened almost simultaneously: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” “Shadow of the Hawk,” “At the Earth’s Core” and “Drive In.”

So there you have it: 10 movie theaters in almost 100 years. All of them now closed. Then last Friday the opening of the new Frank Theatre, which alone can play 10 movies simultaneously.

Contact Vince Staten at [email protected] or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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