Chester Martin Remembers The Park Theater

Sunday, January 24, 2016
Park Theater
Park Theater

It was actually inspiring for me to see the recent picture posted here on Chattanoogan.com of the former Park Theater. It was on the SE corner of  McCallie and Willow Street, and could classify easily as being one of Chattanooga's first "Art" theaters. I think there was another such theater in Riverview, but it was outside of my territory as I had no car at the time. The "Park" theater took its name from Highland Park, probably the first Chattanooga suburb after St. Elmo. There were no published ratings for film in those days, so it could be assumed that all performances were for "General" audiences. After the Park and Riverview theaters, I think the Brainerd (Cinerama) Theater came next, which was on the northeast corner of Brainerd Road and Germantown.

About 1950 while I was still in high school, the Park Theater offered a "Finer Films Festival" that lasted for many weeks. My art teacher at Kirkman Vocational HS reviewed all the titles and urged all his students to go, if at all possible.

They were some of the most interesting films I had ever seen, and introduced such actors as Alec Guinness to Chattanooga audiences. There were many titles I still find available on Netflix, such as "Bicycle Thief", "Quartet", "Macbeth", (played by a young Sir Laurence Olivier), "Tight Little Island", Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, "The Mikado" etc. Alec Guinness was already an acclaimed actor in his native England at the time, but virtually unknown in the U.S. The Park Theater showed a number of his earliest films such as, "The Captain's Paradise", and "Lavender Hill Mob". Another memorable film from that series was, "The Red Shoes." I can still recommend any of those films to this day, even though a bit "dated". One of Charlie Chaplin's last films before he left the U.S. was also in that line-up, titled, "Limelight." I think he wrote both the screenplay and the music.

Until about 1950 Disney had dominated the field of Animation - in the entire world, actually. It was said that if you asked someone in a remote African village to name a well-known American, they would not say "Truman" or "Eisenhower", but "Walt Disney". So it was a great surprise for Chattanoogans when the Park Theater started presenting some "foreign" animated films. I only saw one such French film, which depicted human robots whose every movement was accompanied by an appropriate mechanical sound, and there was no dialogue. Very different from Disney! Like it or not, it was probably good for helping us Chattanoogans get out of a comfortable rut and showing us some new avenues for Film Art, and Animation in general.

As you waited in line to buy your ticket at the Park, you ran the good chance of meeting up with some of your favorite people, giving you the opportunity for sitting together and enjoying the film all the more.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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