I remember the experience, but not the movie. On movie night, our family would pile into my father’s hot station wagon for a trip to downtown Charlotte, where the closest theater was located. I remember the rolling flashes of the marquee lights, along with neon highlights on the theater’s exterior. After paying cash to the ticket clerk in the outside booth, we entered an air-conditioned wonderland. The smell of popcorn, a lower yet exciting light level, and the thought of an oversized Coke and candy box was a delight for my siblings and me. Gigantic movie posters advertised upcoming features, and our imaginations took us places about which we knew nothing. I always sat closest to my father, knowing my popcorn would be shared after his ran out. While I don’t remember which movies we saw, the theater experience was the reward.
Today, media and entertainment companies deliver the latest and greatest movies and entertainment to the marketplace, with an immediacy serving our on-demand lifestyle without leaving our homes. We live in wonderful times, but yet another family tradition and memories are fading away.
It doesn’t have to be that way — we can again experience the thrill of going to the movies, over-snacking on the goodies, and being with family in theaters with the lore of yesterday. Let’s visit three theaters for this feature, each with unique aspects to the theater/movie experience: the Saluda Theatre, The Big Mo, and the Nickelodeon Theatre.
When standing on the Saluda town square at twilight, the Saluda Theatre commands your attention — brilliant, glowing neon highlights the art deco structure of the theater, built in 1936. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater displays, as you enter the door, a sign denoting air conditioning inside. It’s believed the Saluda Theatre was the first theater in South Carolina to be air-conditioned. However, before air conditioning, the theater used an ingenious method to cool moviegoers — chilled water was sprayed from a mister and filled the theater while the movie played. Within the theater, art deco influences abound. Walls, ceilings, lamps, and structural elements have a clean, sophisticated, and streamlined look that was popular in many movie theaters during the 1930s. Sleek yet heavy steel supported chairs still beckon a patron to sit for a movie. A stage has replaced the movie screen, but when you view the theater’s expanse from the stage vantage point, the art deco features excite the experience. You imagine a filled theater in days past with small town folk ready to explore and visit a world beyond their town limits.
The balcony region of the theater houses one of the rarest projection rooms in the state. Twin industrial projectors, still in place, command your attention as you enter the projection space. Carbon rods were used as the projectors’ light source. Looking like a giant sparkler, two carbon rods were rubbed together, sparking a burn with the bright intensity beyond any lightbulb at the time. Some rods lasted 20 minutes for cartoons and upcoming feature clips, but projectionists had to be correct in their choice of using longer lasting carbon rods for longer features. Projection lenses weighing several pounds lie dormant on a worktable. Projectionists were also the jack-of-all-trades when it came to rewinding, splicing film, replacing carbon sticks, and projecting multiple reels in the correct sequence. The projection room has remained untouched for years, so visitors can get the actual experience a projectionist went through in showing films. Today, the Saluda Theatre remains protected under the umbrella of the Saluda County Historical Society. Renovations have been made to many parts of the theater, and the society members hope that one day soon, movies will once again be shown here. Pay a visit to this timeless gem, preserved for new memories — a small town movie theater.
The Big Mo
If you want to view a movie at The Big Mo, you should plan on arriving earlier than sunset. In the warmer months, travel on US-1 outside Monetta, and you’ll see a line of cars in both directions an hour before movie time. Once on the theater grounds, cars form another line at a ticket booth, bathed in neon, as owner Richard Boaz hands out tickets after a cash transaction is exchanged the old fashioned way — person to person. Named for the nearby community of Monetta, The Big Mo offers the full experience of attending a drive-in with your family. Well before twilight’s arrival, the area in front of the screens fills with children tossing footballs, playing tag, sitting on blankets with their buddies, or swinging on playground equipment. The grown-ups can be seen seated in chairs in the bed of pickup trucks, backed towards the screen. Talking and eating with friends, it’s an adventure, similar to tailgating at football games. Young couples on a date also find a reason to attend the movie — they’ll get the chance to be entertained and enjoy being close to each other in a tradition we perhaps experienced years ago.
At present, three drive-in theaters are active in South Carolina, with The Big Mo as the only drive-in theater in the Midlands. Richard Boaz is a master of multitasking. Richard works full time at his law clerk position during the day and manages the drive-in on nights when movies are playing. A history buff, Richard still gets excited when he describes the experiences his customers receive at the drive-in. In an office located close to each screen, Richard has amassed a collection of drink cups, puzzles, posters, and newspaper features promoting The Big Mo. It’s easy to see that Richard wants to provide a family experience from days past. Other screen offices contain rolls of 35 mm film, which Richard intends to catalog when he has more time. Richard has owned The Big Mo for more than 20 years and has expanded the facility from one screen to now three. A huge financial investment has transitioned the drive-in from analog projectors to digital projectors, additional screens, and grounds improvements. Such improvements, across the board, ensure a quality experience for your family.
When you experience The Big Mo firsthand, you can easily see this venue of entertainment is rare and is threatened by mega entertainment conglomerates. Today, it is not unusual for a highly anticipated movie to be released in a pay-per-view version the same day as the premiere of the movie in theaters across the country. Richard feels the movie customer has too many conveniences today for viewing movies. He might be right. Perhaps we ought to consider the differences between convenience and the experience of gathering the family, traveling to the drive-in, and gaining a precious moment in time. Under the stars with the screen overhead, you’ll find good times, friends, family, the outdoors … and don’t forget the popcorn and candy.
Started in 1979 by two students, the Nick provides the local community both an array of independent films and a community outreach. Films are used to explore life and tell stories the community might not see elsewhere. Located in downtown Columbia, the Nickelodeon, or the “Nick” has been at its current location on Main Street since 2012. The Nick, a two-screen venue, is “home” to local independent filmmakers and the Columbia Film Society, led by Anita Floyd. Filmmakers get an opportunity to learn about film through internships, artist-in-residence programs, after-school programs, and workshops. In essence, the Nick provides Columbia, and the surrounding communities, a creative group of filmmakers for the future. Once films are completed, the films are shown, and the local community can discuss and interpret the films. Taking action towards implementing change works best at the community level. One recent topic of filmmaking and interpretations was homelessness in the local community.
A creative outlet for the theater and the Columbia Film Society is the Indie Grits Film Festival, started in 2007. The four-day festival encourages regional artists to contribute their talents and visions of Southern culture through film, art, dance, and music. This past year, more than 400 artists submitted their projects to this juried festival. Past participants have gone on to larger film festivals after experiencing success through Indie Grits. Indie Grits recently was voted by MovieMaker Magazine to be one of the “25 Coolest Film Festivals.”
In a way, films are like books: the “authors” view the world through their lenses and tell their story. Films can entertain yet still make us think. Thanks to the Nick, our community is exposed to and focused on a broader view of our current circumstances. Where and how we choose to take action from this exposure is up to us. Let’s be encouraged by the work and mission of the Nickelodeon Theatre — our community is worth the effort.
A Look Back
If we went back in time 70 or 80 years ago, almost every small town in South Carolina had a movie theater. Small town residents got the chance to see the world through movies and experience a wonderful family memory. Today, traveling through our small towns, we’ll see the remnant neon facades or art deco building, most likely once a theater. Some theater locations lived a second life by becoming a local arts venue, a community outreach center, or a town theater, where a local theater group could act out plays or musical performances. Most, however, lie vacant, and you wonder what would be said “if the walls could talk.” All the more important that today we should take the opportunity to visit and support a drive-in or existing local movie theater to enjoy experiences from years ago. You can participate in the development of local community filmmakers as they express the concepts of film. You’ll get experiences you’ll cherish when you see your kids playing below a movie screen at the drive-in or sharing a box of popcorn or sweets. Let’s put down the remote for a while, pack the kids in the SUV, and get to your local theater or drive-in. I guarantee you will cherish the memories, support your community, and enjoy the adventures.