Canton Theatre

Kristin Gauthier is bringing new light to the theater with new programs, more accessibility for citizens and visitors alike as well as preserve the rich history of the Historic Canton Theatre.

Bigger-than-life memories of going to the movies with my parents at the Canton Theatre flashed on my mental screen recently.

The memories were spurred by some clips of movies from the 1960s I saw on television in a new series. I had seen almost every movie featured from Disney to Clint Eastwood in his early Westerns to James Bond. And most of those movie memories happened in the darkened interior of the Canton Theatre.

For those of you who have not been inside the Canton Theatre in recent years, you should make the trip. These days, thanks to the city of Canton, the theater offers a wide assortment of live stage events and movies, not really unlike the offerings when I was a child.

In those days, the theater packed the kids in on Saturday afternoon for matinees that often also featured pre-movie live entertainment such as magicians, cowboys with ropes and musical entertainers.

We were allowed to walk or ride our bicycles downtown to catch the latest feature and munch on popcorn and candy from the concession stand.

Canton Theatre has a long, storied history that is not without times of hardship.

The theater opened in the brick building fronting Main Street in 1911 with silent movies and magic lantern slide shows offered to the eager public.

In the 1920s the theater was under new ownership and called the Bonita, but by the 1930s it was renamed the Haven Theatre. First run movies were offered to the residents of Canton at the theater, including the original talking movie, “Singing Fool” starring Al Jolson.

During the 1930s the movie house was elaborately redecorated in the Art Deco style with rich velvet curtains by new owners The Martin-Thompson Theatre Co., and at some point was air conditioned.

Newspaper advertisements and articles from that time tell of red and blue uniformed staff who welcomed moviegoers and the Candy Bar concession stand. By then the marquee was lit up with neon lights telling of the latest movies on the screen.

By the time I was a small child about 30 years later, the theater was probably a bit rundown at the seams, but it still seemed glamourous to me. I vividly remember my mother taking me there to see my first movie at around the age of 4. It was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

I recall how frightened I was by both the movie and the exit sign above a door at the side of the theater where the red velvet curtains fluttered. I was not sure what was back there and I did not want to know.

I believe that over the next few years the theater saw a bit of a decline, but in the 1960s local businessmen in the community bought the old movie house and revived it. I remember it being all gold and lovely inside, with new seats and a shiny lobby that reflected the newer modern era.

All during elementary school days and high school, that is the theater where I sat to watch the Elvis and Beatles movies, the Tammy movies starring Debbie Reynolds and a slew of musicals. I even saw “2001, a Space Odyssey” there.

That is where I first held hands with my husband, and probably with a few other guys who I will let remain anonymous. There was even a double seat for dating couples in the back of the theater and I am surprised we tweens didn’t break our necks trying to look back there to see who was making out.

A sad note of the history is that the upstairs balcony had a separate entry and that is where our African American neighbors were relegated, until they took a stand against that during the Civil Rights movement in the summer of 1964 and were successful in earning equal rights.

In the next decade our society became more mobile, making it easier to get to Marietta and Atlanta to see movies sooner after they were released.

By the late 1970s the Canton movie theater was closed, the lights and sounds silenced. The building began to deteriorate.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the building was a horrible eyesore in downtown Canton, the roof had fallen in and it was a place where the pigeons lived.

It was filthy, tarnished and sad, its earlier glamor days gone and almost forgotten.

I was reporting at the Tribune at the time, and I went in to look around for a story about a man who had bought the building and planned to refurbish it. The project proved too difficult for him.

Pools of rainwater covered the floors, pigeons sat on the rafters and it was honestly just awful.

That is when the city stepped in and restored it to the beauty of the 1930s.

How lucky we are to have so many of our oldest buildings restored. How lucky I am to have such fond memories of sitting with my mother and watching movies like “Bambi” and “Dumbo,” or packing into a row with my best girlfriends to watch Paul and John and George and Ringo.

Those were good times.

Rebecca Johnston is a native of Cherokee County and a retired managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune.

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