Old theater in Clanton a landmark
By Scott Mims
Remember when an RC Cola cost 15 cents? How about a bag of popcorn for a dime? Or, perhaps a movie ticket for the same price?
Janie Wade Bates, 79, of Clanton remembers — her family lived in and operated the Wadesonian Theater on Second Avenue North. The building, most recently used by Fellowship Church of God, was where many saw their first film in Chilton County.
Bates remembers classics like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Yearling” and popular westerns starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. She even once met Autry and his sidekick, Champion the horse, in Birmingham.
“Daddy would go to Atlanta and buy the films, and the films were delivered to us by the company,” she said.
The Wadesonian dates back to circa 1920. In 1927, Charles William Wade Jr. and Minnie Fiquette were married, and the following year the family moved into the theater’s living quarters. Eventually living there were Janie, her parents and three siblings — Peggy, Elizabeth and Buddy (two younger siblings, Cecil Howard and Minnie, did not live at the theater).
One might assume that the children grew up seeing classic after classic, but this was not the case. The young children were not allowed to watch most of the movies.
“My daddy was very strict about that,” Bates said, adding that when she was about 5 years old, she and her sister, Peggy, used a kitchen knife to carve holes in a bathroom wall looking toward the movie screen. This once gave some moviegoers a fright, when Bates asked them to move over to let her see.
Bates said her father never knew of their “sneak previews.”
“We told mother some of the things before she got sick,” she said.
The Wadesonian would seat about 300, so cleaning up after the customers was no easy task. Janie and Peggy would fall asleep in bed on Saturday nights only to be awakened by their father to help clean up.
But there were more exciting jobs, such as collecting tickets and selling popcorn. Bates enjoyed both of these.
“I could eat all the popcorn I wanted,” she said. “I always put an extra squirt of butter in mine.”
A bag of popcorn could be purchased for a dime. Later, it would go up to 25 cents. Cola, which was about the same price, was served in paper cups instead of glass bottles because the bottles would inevitably break.
The price of movie tickets was also quite different from that of today.
“Most of those tickets were 10 to 15 cents at the old theater,” said Lally Bates, Janie’s husband.
Perhaps the most exciting job of all was running the projectors. There were two machines in the projection room, for two reasons — if a movie took up multiple reels, the operator would alternate between projectors; and, if the film broke and had to be spliced, having a second machine would save time.
“I broke a few,” Bates admitted. “(When the film broke) it would show up on the screen. It would look like it was running over and over and over.”
To splice two pieces of film together, the operator would thread the film through a splicer, which would hold the ends together in a compartment while the operator applied a special type of glue with a brush. Splicing the film would take three to four minutes, Bates estimated.
She remembers Raymond Cox running the projectors in the early ‘40s. She also remembers running “Gone With the Wind,” which originally took up eight reels and was condensed down to six reels.
“My daddy made us learn a little bit of everything,” Bates said.
The family opened a new theater on Seventh Street, which had about double the seating capacity of the old theater, and from then on the theater on Second Avenue was called the “Old Wadesonian” (the Old Wadesonian actually replaced an even older theater in Thorsby, operated by Bates’ grandfather, Charles William Wade Sr.).
Clanton resident Peggy Wyatt has vivid memories from both buildings. At the Old Wadesonian, she saw her first color film, “Bambi.”
“That was the first time for me to actually see a color movie,” she said. “I was with my Uncle Lamar (Powell). He had me seated next to the aisle so I could see better.”
Wyatt likened the experience to that of a modern moviegoer seeing a film in 3D for the first time.
“I felt like I was a part of the movie. I remember specifically the butterfly landing on Bambi’s nose, and it was like it made my nose twitch,” Wyatt said.
Her late husband, Billy, would save a quarter during the week so he could catch the latest western on Saturday night. The theater would show western serials that would last for 20 or more weeks.
At the new theater, Wyatt acted in high school plays presented by Chilton County High juniors and seniors. She knew the Wade family and recalls playing piano on stage while Bates twirled a baton in a recital.
“They were always fun,” Wyatt said. “You were always entertained.”
The new theater also hosted Chilton County’s Peach Pageants, which are now held at the CCHS auditorium. Bates remembers watching her sister, Peggy, in a pageant in 1947.
The Wade family business operated until the late ‘50s, around the same time Clanton’s drive-in theater opened. Bates said crowds had started to thin due to the popularity and convenience of the drive-in.
“That and television,” Lally Bates said.