As people would watch movies in the 1920s era of silent movies, one star of the shows – at least locally – was Emmett Rogers, an early Tivoli Theatre manager and promoter extraordinaire.
While Hollywood was putting together blockbusters and quality movies in those early days of the silver screen, he was making the Tivoli the scene of a first-class production as well through several innovative and impressive steps.
For starters, both there and at other affiliated theaters like the Rialto on Market Street, he was a pioneer industrywide at giving the theaters a premiere-like feel at every showing by using his art talent to create movie promotional posters and lobby decorations.
He also did the local newspaper advertising design for the movies, had vaudeville-like entertainment before a show, had a theater pit orchestra led by Alex Keese, made use of a theater organ, and had trained and uniformed ushers.
Longtime former Tivoli manager Clyde Hawkins, who died in Florida in 2017, remarked in a 2007 interview with chattanoogan.com that Mr. Rogers knew how to promote. “Emmett Rogers was really a first-class showman. Everything was first class,” he said, recalling working under him in the early 1950s close to the end of Mr. Rogers’ career.
Through all his work, Mr. Rogers even got his name in lights like the stars in Hollywood by having the Rogers Theatre in downtown Chattanooga named after him when it opened in 1951.
As 2021 marks the Tivoli’s 100th anniversary – despite celebrations being put on hold due to the lingering pandemic and some planned renovation work on the Tivoli and adjacent former Fowler’s building – a look at Mr. Rogers’ life shows a unique man.
And even more light has been shed on his life due to some scrapbooks donated to the Chattanooga Public Library in 2008 by his daughter, Gwen Rogers.
Born in Chattanooga in the early 1890s, Emmett Raymond Rogers developed an interest in and passion for art at an early age. He had a piece of art appear on the front page of the Chattanooga Times at the age of only 14.
His father, Thomas Avery Rogers, went on to become city editor of the Times after starting his career as a young compositor at the age of 16 at another paper. This man nicknamed “the Kid” due to his early start in the business rose through the ranks to become an editor after showing a gift for careful proofreading.
His family lineage included being the son of a Confederate veteran and grandson of a soldier involved in the removal of the Cherokees.
T.A. Rogers also served as a state legislator at the time the General Assembly approved Chattanooga converting to a city commission form of government from the old board of aldermen. Known as a fair man in his dealings with the public as editor and in life, he was also closely acquainted with longtime Chattanooga mayor Ed Bass.
Following retirement, Mr. Rogers died in 1941 at the Alexian Brothers facility on Signal Mountain after suffering a heart attack several days earlier.
Emmett Rogers’ mother, Martha Marie Pechman Rogers, had died in 1937. Born in Germany, she came to Chattanooga with her parents as a small child, and as a teenager moved into a nice home at 603 Boynton Terrace on Cameron Hill.
This was evidently the childhood residence for Emmett, who, like his daughter, was an only child.
The home was known for its showplace garden, which might have reflected an art and design skill passed down to Emmett, while his father’s people skills might have also taken root in the youngster.
Mrs. Rogers was also known for showing off a bright tint in her personality, as she was described in her obituary as being charitable to a fault and someone who had helped and made friends with hundreds of less fortunate white and black people.
Following this upbringing, Emmett Rogers graduated from Chattanooga High and completed four-year course work at the famed Chicago Art Institute in only two years.
His early jobs including being an assistant/secretary to Chattanooga Mayor T.C. Thompson and working as a fuel administrator under Judge W.E. Wilkerson. He was also a reporter for such publications as the Times and the old Chattanooga News.
He became a first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps after the outbreak of World War I, but was unable to serve due to an eye injury occurred while playing basketball.
Among his World War I era stories as a reporter included covering the return of Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Alvin C. York from Tennessee and the case involving Baroness Von Zollner. She had been questioned and tried as a possible German spy after being found with an American solider at the Hotel Patten.
He also went to work about this time for the local Signal Amusement Co., which operated theaters in the area. Mr. Rogers did art and promotional work for them, drawing on both his talents and experience as a newsman.
That was his role when the Signal Amusement Co. under such people as Frank Dowler and Judge Wilkerson, who likely helped him get the job, announced plans for a theater that was going to be by far the finest in Chattanooga and maybe even the South.
That theater was, of course, the Tivoli, which opened on March 19, 1921.
Further digging would be required to see if Mr. Rogers was initially considered a manager when the theater opened or if the Signal firm collectively managed it, but he took to his work with impressive ambition and used the innovative ideas previously mentioned.
And all this came at a time when theaters like the Tivoli would only show a movie for three days and then move on to the next one.
The scrapbooks – which were also highlighted in a 2019 historical story in the Times Free Press by Chattanooga Public Library local history staff member Suzette Raney – feature pages of photographs taken by the Stokes Studio of promotional posters and lobby decorations.
Some are at the Tivoli and some are at the Rialto and possibly elsewhere. The Rialto was at 527 Market St. and had opened at the turn of the 20th century as the Majestic Theatre live show house.
It was closed in 1948, and the site was scheduled to be incorporated into the McLellan dime store and Hamilton National Bank building (now First Horizon), but the theater reopened and was still operating shortly before a 1952 fire.
The promotional scrapbook photos inside the Tivoli show such elaborate decorations as balloons in the lobby ceiling promoting “Carnival,” and a car in the lobby highlighting the movie, “Dangerous Curve Ahead.”
Based on the scrapbook, Mr. Rogers also wrote Hollywood movie distributors and others and told them of his promotional ideas, and they were apparently impressed.
There are also letters about other matters, including directions regarding silent screen actress Mae Murray when she was to be the guest of honor at the opening of the Tivoli in 1921.
Some of his artwork for other movie-related promotions can also be found in the scrapbooks.
Mr. Rogers later worked for the subsequent companies that bought Signal Amusement or merged into them. He evidently had to travel plenty and spend time in other cities in his work. For example, his third scrapbook is full of ads for the Strand Theater, the location of which could not be determined at a quick look.
A note in his scrapbook hinted that some other scrapbooks were in the family’s collection, but they were given to Clyde Hawkins, the later manager who became acquainted with Mr. Rogers as a young man.
Mr. Hawkins was also manager of Memorial Auditorium when some local racial disturbance broke out in 1971 following the cancellation of a Wilson Pickett concert there.
When the Tivoli opened in 1921, Mr. Rogers was living at 221 W. 6th St. in a now-razed facility just down the hill from the current downtown YMCA named for Dr. James Fowle.
The theater manager had married the former Sadie Hall, and they would also live at such addresses as 358 Glenwood Drive by the 1930s, and by the 1940s at 1101 Fleetwood Drive on Lookout Mountain. While at the later address, they became active with Church of the Good Shepherd, an Episcopal church, on the mountain.
Mr. Rogers’ mother had been a member of Second Presbyterian Church near the family’s Cameron Hill residence.
Mr. Rogers would continue to serve as a district manager of the movie theater chain that eventually became Wilby-Kincey, while also being involved in such civic groups as the Rotary Club of Chattanooga, the Red Cross, the Community Chest (forerunner of United Way) and the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau.
In the early 1950s, it was announced that the first new downtown movie theater since the Tivoli had opened 30 years earlier would be built in the 1000 block of Market Street, where the newer Electric Power Board building sits today.
It would be called the Rogers Theatre after, yes, Emmett Rogers. It was quite a tribute, and an unusual one at that. In fact, all the factors that went into the naming are likely lost.
But theater chain executive R.B. Wilby of Atlanta hinted at the motivation when he said prior to the Rogers Theatre’s opening, “I think it entirely fitting that we name this theater, ‘the Rogers.’ It is, I think, a fine theater and one befitting the name given it.
“But it is also a means by which we can pay tribute to Emmett Rogers. He has had a very great part in the development of the motion picture theater from the day of the ‘store show’ to the present standards.”
He went on to say that Mr. Rogers might have primarily lived in Chattanooga, but his influence on the industry had been countrywide.
The new theater was designed by Erle Stillwell of Hendersonville, N.C., who had gained quite a reputation for designing fine homes and commercial buildings primarily in the Asheville area, including some at Biltmore Forest. He had become affiliated with the Wilby-Kincey chain during the Great Depression, when work for architects was somewhat scarce.
But he was not the only person of an artistic bent to be involved with the Rogers Theatre, as Mr. Rogers designed the murals that were on the side walls inside the theater.
The Rogers Theatre opened on Friday, March 2, 1951, with a Chicago woman visiting town the first to buy a ticket to a mid-day showing of “Three Guys Named Mike.” Hundreds also bought tickets to watch that movie – and, of course, glance admiringly at the new theater.
Mr. Rogers also received congratulatory telegrams from such stars as Ginger Rogers, Alan Ladd, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Ray Milland, Cecil B. DeMille, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour and Charlton Heston.
Ms. Rogers, who had performed at the Tivoli years earlier as a young woman at the invitation of Mr. Rogers, said jokingly in her note, “Hurray for the Rogers tribe. Thought at first your new show palace was being named for an actress. You’re too clever for me, Emmett. But I heartily congratulate you.”
By the late 1950s, Mr. Rogers was continuing to work in the theater industry, but primarily serving as an adviser.
He died on April 26, 1960, at his home on Lookout Mountain at the age of 69 and was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery. His wife, meanwhile, lived until 1976.
A modest online search could not locate his daughter, Gwendolyn Virginia, who would be at least in her 90s now. She was married at least twice and was not believed to have had any children. She was living in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the time of her mother’s passing.
She had used her father’s artistic talents to become a photographer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press during and shortly after World War II, when women could secure certain jobs easier while many of the men were off serving in the military.
Mr. Rogers’ beloved Tivoli closed as a movie theater only about a year after his death, but the building would have a happy ending, as the city of Chattanooga helped save it.
His Rogers Theater, on the other hand, closed in March 1976 after changes began coming for that stretch of downtown due to the relocation of the railyard yards and after people began going to indoor movies in the suburbs of Brainerd, Hixson and East Ridge. The Rogers was finally torn down in 1980.
But the memories remain of the heyday of downtown movie theaters through the AMC Classic Majestic 12 facility on Broad Street – and the old scrapbooks and news clippings of Mr. Rogers at the library.
Downtown had definitely been Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood during his years in the theater business.
He especially gave the Tivoli a first-class promotion in a manner that perfectly complemented the building’s elegance and the top-of-the-line movies shown there.
* * * * *
To see an overview story on the Tivoli’s history written in March right before the actual 100th anniversary of the theater’s opening, read here.
* * * * *