Movie theaters of today are more complex than those of yesteryear. Chattanoogans have witnessed the rise of new cinema houses that feature numerous screens, digital projection, and stadium seating. Even the popcorn-making is high-tech, with the kernels being popped above the concession stand and then sent down a chute to waiting customers.
There was a time in the early 1970’s, however, when some theater investors were thinking of a simpler approach. With comedian Jerry Lewis as its spokesman, the Network Cinema Corporation promoted a concept where that a theater could be operated with as few as two people.
The company ran an advertisement in the October 8, 1972 local newspapers for its “Jerry Lewis Cinemas” idea. Prospective investors were invited to a meeting to be held at the Read House. There were already 162 cinemas in operation, and 71 more being built.
Automation provided for lower overhead and greater profit. “It is superbly engineered for automatic, push-button operation” said the advertisement, which also noted that “Jerry Lewis Cinemas are comfortable, intimate and luxurious mini-theaters seating from 200 to 350 people.” Shopping centers were listed as prime spots for a Jerry Lewis Cinema.
In June, 1973 – the same month that saw the opening of Riverfront Parkway from Broad Street to Citico Creek, a concert by the Carpenters at Memorial Auditorium, and the intense Watergate hearings on live television – the Jerry Lewis Cinema opened in the new Plaza 58 shopping center. Tennessee State Senator Ray Albright, Hamilton County Councilman Frank Newell, and Plaza 58 developer Jerry Pickle helped the Randles family to open their new theater. A caricature of Jerry Lewis adorned the sign of the cinema.
The first film screened at the local Jerry Lewis Cinema was Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” The movie was in keeping with the theater chain’s desire to show only family-oriented movies. With X-rated films causing controversy at other local theaters, the owners committed to having none on the projector at the Jerry Lewis Cinema.
The next feature on the Highway 58 screen was “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” starring Alec Guiness. Other films shown in the summer of ’73 were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “Pete ‘n Tillie,” “Snowball Express,” and “White Lightning.” I recall that the theater was indeed automated enough to be operated by two people – one at the ticket window, and a concession stand operator who took a brief break to start the projector.
However, within a few years, the theater became part of the Storey chain. The Jerry Lewis Cinema was renamed the Plaza 58, and continued operating for several years. My wife and I remember seeing “The Muppet Movie” with another couple, though none of us had children at the time. We always looked forward to seeing the re-releases of classic Disney animation at the Plaza 58, too, with our children eventually joining us.
The Plaza 58 evolved into showing only second-run movies at a bargain price of 99 cents. Hence, my family referred to it as “the bargain theater” when we were choosing what to see on a Friday or Saturday night. Among many other films, I recall seeing “Batman Forever” there.
Sadly, the projector was soon turned off for a final time at the Plaza 58. The building where so many took their first date or their first child to see a movie is now a furniture and appliance rental store.
If you have memories of any of the theaters which operated at the Jerry Lewis Cinema site, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.