Remembering The Rogers Theater

Sunday, January 25, 2004 - by Harmon Jolley
Rogers Theater. Click to enlarge.
Rogers Theater. Click to enlarge.

The block bounded by Market, Broad, M. L. King (previously called Ninth Street), and Tenth Streets is an historic spot in downtown Chattanooga. Prior to the Civil War, Chattanooga’s first permanent train depot was constructed on that site. The State of Georgia, which owned the Western and Atlantic Railroad, also owned the block where the depot stood. After its days as a rail facility ended, the building served as the home of the Chattanooga Steak House. It was torn down in the late 1950’s when Ninth Street was widened. In a more recent era, the block was the address of the Rogers Theater, proclaimed as the “Pride of Chattanooga.”

In 1948, Eastenn Theaters announced plans for a new 1,250-seat cinema in the 900 block of Market Street. The land would be leased from the State of Georgia. At the time, Eastenn also operated the State (later called Martin) and Tivoli theaters. The new theater would be 60 feet wide, and would extended 200 feet to Broad Street. The main entrance would be on Market, but marquees announcing the current movie would be along both Market and Broad. In a departure from other downtown theaters, the movie house would have no balcony. The Wilby-Kincey Service Co. guided the construction, with Verhey Construction as general contractor, and J. W. Brooks providing the heat/air. Volunteer Neon Sign was in charge of the glowing signage.

Prior to the theater’s opening, it was announced that it would be named for Emmett R. Rogers, city manager for the Eastenn Theaters. Following his education at Chattanooga High School and the Art Institute of Chicago, and a brief stint as a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, Rogers began a career in the theater business in 1918. In 1921, he became the first manager of the Tivoli. He brought several innovations to theaters in the South, including lobby art, uniformed ushers, and pipe organs. In announcing that the theater would be named for Rogers, R. B. Wilby said, “While most of the time his residence has been in Chattanooga, his actual influence upon the industry has been country-wide.” Soon after the announcement of the theater’s name, a large crane arrived to lift its sign, with “ROGERS” in vertical letters, into place.

On March 2, 1951, the doors of the Rogers Theater swung open to welcome its first audience. Lured by newspaper ads that described the Rogers as “The South’s finest, ultra-modern motion picture theater,” customers had formed a line at the box office that wrapped around the block. Ushers handed out programs that included the Rogers’ mission statement: “To serve you is our intent; to please you our delight.” Chamber of Commerce president Alf Law, Mayor Hugh Wasson, and mayoral candidate Luther Masingill presided over the opening ceremony. A note on Luther’s political venture: 1951 was an election year in the city, and Luther was running as a candidate against Wasson and P. R. Olgiati, with Olgiati later winning. Actually, Luther’s candidacy was part of a radio promotion at WDEF.

The first movie screened at the Rogers was “Three Guys Named Mike,” starring Jane Wyman, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, and Barry Sullivan. Preceding the main feature were a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the Rogers newsreel. George Overend operated the projector and water-cooled lamps that illuminated the 24 by 18 foot screen. Mr. Overend’s career began in 1909, when the projector’s wheels had to be turned by hand. Manager Dunlap Henry helped to operate the popcorn machine, noting that the narrow margins on ticket prices made the concession stand very important from a profit perspective.

The businesses that were neighbors of the Rogers included the Chattanooga Steak House, the Krystal, Lawrence Furniture, and Broad Street Tire. Competing for the entertainment dollar with the Rogers were the Capitol, Dixie, Rialto, State, and Tivoli theaters. At the Capitol was “American Guerilla in the Philippines” with Tyrone Power. The Dixie had Granny Clampett’s favorite movie cowboy, Hoot Gibson, on the screen in “Outlaw Trail,” along with “Back to Bataan” with John Wayne. At the Rialto was “Streets of Ghost Town.” The State hosted a stage version of the Mickey Mouse Club each Saturday morning. James Cagney in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” was the feature at the Tivoli. Another entertainment venue in March, 1951 was the Memorial Auditorium, where Spike Jones and his City Slickers would perform in his new Musical Depreciation Revue of 1951. If you’re familiar with his “music,” you know that Spike Jones records are measured by the number of “gulk gulk’s.”

Over the years, the Rogers screened many of the major box office hits. It became a popular theater in the community through radio contests, children’s matinees, and the Loveman’s Fashion ‘n’ Fun parties. However, as customers moved their weekly shopping from downtown to new suburban centers, downtown theaters began to decline in popularity. Hoping to reverse this, the Rogers was remodeled in 1969, adding new rocking-chair seats and draped walls in the 60’s-era fashion colors of orange, brown, green, and yellow stripes. The theater reopened with a showing of “Midnight Cowboy.”

The remodeling failed to stem the tide of movie-goers to the suburbs. Several downtown theaters fell to the wrecking ball, including the Capitol, Dixie, Rialto, and Martin (State). The Tivoli almost joined the list, but was saved by the City of Chattanooga. On March 4, 1976, the Rogers Theater showed its last film. The building remained standing for a few years, but in 1980, the Chattanooga Housing Authority acquired the 900 block from the State of Georgia in hopes of selling the property for development. Twenty-nine years after a crane had lifted the Rogers marquee into place, another crane from the Fisher Wrecking Company lifted the sign down from its mounting in preparation for demolition.

A new chapter of history for the 900 block seemed to be on the horizon when it was announced in the early 1980’s that it would become the address of a new bank office building. However, those hopes were dashed with the collapse of the Butcher family’s banking empire. For over twenty years, the property was known as the “Butcher Block,” and was used as a parking lot. Today, a new office building for the Electric Power Board is rising on the 900 block, helping to continue the revitalization of downtown.

If you have memories of the Rogers Theater, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@signaldata.net.



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