FOLKSTON’S THREE MOVIE THEATERS
Jack R. Mays, County Historian
Charlton County Herald
February 9, 2000
Many small towns boasted of only one movie house in the golden days of the movies. Folkston had only one “modern” movie house for most of those years. The Ritz Theater, located today where Chesser Sales and Service is located on the south side of Main Street, was opened in 1932. It was in a building owned by Folkston Chevrolet dealer, Charlie Passieu. Joe Hackel of Jacksonville, who also owned the Ritz on Davis Street in Jacksonville, owned the business.
In the 1920s, Folkston had a silent movie house. The Paxton Theater, located where today Hopkins Gowen Oil Company has its offices, on West Main Street. A locally-played piano accompanied the flickering images on the screen, but Charlton County folks were proud of that Paxton Theater. It brought a little entertainment into the small town. The Paxton eventually closed when talking movies came along. The owners could not afford to bring in the modern equipment necessary for sound movies.
The Paxton’s successor, The Ritz, opened amid cheers from Main Street business owners. It would provide a catalyst to bring people into town to do their shopping and sit through whatever movie was showing.
The Ritz had only been open for around a year when a tragic fire erupted in the movie house. No one was hurt, but the evacuation was less than smooth. A front page editorial in the following week’s Charlton County Herald castigated the owners for not having better fire escapes. Only the front door afforded a way out for those trapped inside. Hackle soon had the building owner build back doors with lighted Exit signs glowing brightly.
That old Ritz Theater became the focus for trade on Folkston’s Main Street. The Saturday night ritual was for families to come into town, visit with their neighbors, also in town, and send the young to the “picture show” while they bought the week’s supply of groceries.
The Saturday show, usually a western, ran continually from 4 o’clock in the afternoon to near midnight. Many youngsters sat through all the showings until the house lights were turned on around midnight.
The Ritz sat atop the entertainment throne in Folkston from its opening until around 1946. Joe Hackle hired a Jacksonville man to manage the theater, Cecil Cohen, and brought in another Jacksonville man and his wife to be projectionist and ticket seller, Bob and Cynthia Mullis. It was not long before Mullis had taught several local youngsters how to operate the two Simplex projectors. Fred Askew, Jr. became Mullis’ backup.
Things went well for the Ritz for years. The movie house showed high-tone feature films on Monday through Wednesday, but on weekends it always showed a western. That was what he people wanted.
During the years of World War Two, the Ritz continued to operate, showing one war picture after another, always showing the Americans winning at every battle. Getting the film on to the next customer caused hardships. Benton Brother Express hauled most of the movie canisters, and often Mullis would have to drive the film into Jacksonville to the Benton center to get it to the next movie house on time. Wartime blackouts in Jacksonville often caused Mullis to park for hours along U.S. One north of Jacksonville.
Gone With the Wind was such a film. It was in such demand that it was marked with a red label. It absolutely, positively had to be to the next movie house on the day after the Folkston showing.
Sadly, the old Ritz began to deteriorate. Rats began running across the bottom of the screen while patrons screamed. Finally it became known as the “rat house”. The owners began to re-book movies that had previously been shown in Folkston. Many became disenchanted with the once-prized Ritz.
Enter Theodore Dinkins, progressive Folkston business leader, who always had his ears tuned to the wishes of the people of the county.
Just as soon as World War Two ended and equipment became available, Dinkins built the third Folkston movie house. He would name it “The Topper Theatre”, apparently referring to topping the old Ritz. Both theaters ran for a year, competing head to head.
But Dinkins’ Topper Theater booked the more modern movies while the Ritz continued to book older movies. They were cheaper. Soon ticket sales at the Ratz nose-dived, while the Topper took on all the trappings of a downtown Jacksonville movie house. The Ritz finally closed its doors in the face of the competition from the new Topper.
Dinkins gave the people of the area what they wanted. He brought in live stage entertainers directly from the Palace Theater in Jacksonville. On the Topper’s stage dancers kicked their heels high to the strains of “There’s no business like show business.” The crowd loved it and the ticket sales skyrocketed.
Dinkins took personal pride in his Topper Theater. His wife, Lois, sold tickets while his sister, Iva Dinkins Mizell, sold popcorn and Coca-Cola in the concession room, just off the main lobby.
The Topper premiered a locally produced movie, Swamp Girl, with country singer, Ferlin Husky. A lowboy trailer was pulled up in front of the theater for Husky to sing “On the Wings of a Dove”, while several beautiful young actresses danced across the trailer bed. The hundreds nearby screamed with delight. The movie, however, was a complete flop.
Theo Dinkins continued to promote his Topper Theater until other business interests began to consume more of his time. The Okefenokee Motel, Dinkins and McKendree Logging. He leased the theater to State Senator Nolan Wells from Camden County. Wells also owned the Kingsland Theater. Wells eventually turned over his lease to another party and business at the once-mighty Topper began to slide.
The Topper had fallen victim to more modern movie houses in Jacksonville and Waycross. Soon Folkston had no movie houses at all. The Paxton, The Ritz and The Topper had been swept up in the winds of change.
But each had its own history. Its own followers. The Ritz gave the people of Charlton County a place to relax during the trying war years of World War Two. The Topper moved in and brought locals the finest movies available.
Now, no movie houses are on Folkston’s Main Street, but memories of those past “picture shows” linger with the older residents. There’s no business like show business!
Notes on the Paxton and Topper Theaters
From conversation with Pearce Stapleton and Lois Barefoot Mays, 10-20-1995:
[I had asked him to describe the theater.]
Re: the Paxton Theater
Pearce: It was a big tin building. You remember that big old tin building the garage was in, on the corner? [northwest corner of Main and Okefenokee Drive] That was the theater. They moved it from the corner [southwest corner of Love and Okefenokee Drive] to up there. [to where Billy Clark’s office is] They had a garage in it. The [theater] had regular theater seats. It reminds me of the ones in the Masonic Lodge. I bet that theater would hold fifty people.
Miss Helen told me:
At the Paxton Theater on El Terrace Mrs. Marshall Paxton played piano for silent movies. About the only piece she knew was “Ain’t Going to Rain no More” and she played this fast and slow according to the action on the screen.
Miss Helen’s daddy liked to see horses gallop across the screen and Miss Helen drove him in the car on Saturdays to see the show, even when she had a date and didn’t want to go.
November 1956 cardboard calendar of Topper Theatre listed each movie, four a week, and had matinees on Saturday at 4:30 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM.
Notes on the Ritz Theater
Items from Charlton County Herald:
The work of remodeling the building next door to the Passieu Chevrolet Co. for occupancy by a moving picture show is progressing rapidly and will be ready for the picture show to begin operations within the next week or so. The front of the structure is being attractively arranged with marquee and spacious entrance lobby and seats are being placed in the building. It is understood that the picture show will be operated by Jacksonville interests.
The Ritz Theater, a moving picture show, Folkston’s newest business enterprise, located next door to Passieu Chevrolet Co., will be formerly opened to the public February 23rd. The building has been remodeled and comfortably fitted up for that purpose and the most modern equipment will be used. It will be operated four nights each week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, with two shows each evening.
The Ritz Theater, Folkston’s new moving picture show, was formally opened to the public Tuesday night with a splendid program greeted by capacity audiences at both performances.
The Ritz Theater will suspend operations for the next several weeks while construction is in progress in the work of enlarging the building. Additional seating capacity will be provided by construction of a balcony for use of Negro patrons. The roof of the building is to be raised several feet and a balcony with a seating capacity of 150 will be added. The roof has been torn off and the remodeling is underway under direction of E.D. Shivar and C.J. Passieu, owner of the building.
The Ritz Theater opened in the remodeled building last Monday but suffered an accident when a film caught fire in the closing moments of the program, resulting in considerable damage to the equipment and building. The projection machine was completely destroyed. The fire resulted from temporary wiring, not having been properly connected. There was no panic or confusion and the building was vacated in an orderly manner, with no one injured. The Volunteer Fire Department was called into action and soon had the flames under control.
On February 23, 1937, Charlie Passieu opened up the Ritz Theatre in a building adjoining his Chevrolet agency on Main Street with the Jack Benny movie, Big Broadcast of 1937. The Ritz operated until September 1948; the last fifteen months with competition from Folkston’s second movie house, The Topper Theatre.
2-9-2000 Jack Mays, County Historian wrote that the Ritz continued to be a source of good entertainment, especially on Saturdays until about 1946. The building deteriorated and rats ran across the screen frightening patrons. It was closed when the new Topper Theater was built and most people went to the new movie house.
--Lois B. Mays