Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

THE BERTHA THEATER

       


         In the cool dry days of October1913 a century of autumns ago  when Dublin was at the zenith of its boom years, the Bertha Theater came to town, bringing with it big screen movies, Broadway plays, premier wrestling matches and a plethora of pontificating politicians.  In its all too short four-year run, the Bertha symbolized one of the crowning jewels of the Emerald City in the days before the first World War.

The Bertha Theater, constructed by Stephen J. Lord and T.B. Brantley, was designed to replace the Opera House, which had burned in 1911.  In the summer of 1913, the Bertha joined the First National Bank, The Burch Building and the Black Chivers Building in a major building boom.  Little did anyone know that within a few year, the explosive growth which had catapulted Dublin from a tiny, lawless forlorn town into one of the most populated cities of the state would come to a screeching halt with the coming of the boll weevil which singlehandedly destroyed the cotton crop.  

Lord planned to have an opera house, although it appears that few real operas were ever performed in the building.  The three-story building was located on the eastern corner of the Courthouse Square at the corner of South Jackson Street and South Franklin Street.  In his grand dreams, Lord, son-in-law of banking magnate and businessman, C.W. Brantley, hoped that the facility would host the best and biggest stage shows anywhere around this area of the state.



The large auditorium was designed to seat 1200 people on the main floor and 300 in the gallery above.  The ceiling was elaborately finished with pressed metal designs.  The acoustics were pronounced nearly perfect as a Courier Herald reporter stated,  “Persons speaking on the stage can be heard to every corner of the auditorium distinctly.”

Managers T.W. Hooks, H.P. Diggs, E.W. Carswell, W.G. Triplett and others were given the mission to seek out and sign the best and most affordable touring acts along the East Coast.  

Opening night was October 7, 1913.  On the play bill that evening was “The Rolling Stone.”  Headlining the show was singer/comedian Al H. Wilson, one of the best known singing stars of the early 20th Century,  and his comedy company.  At the time, it was the greatest play ever staged in Dublin. 

Between the first two acts, Peter S. Twitty, Jr. spoke to the audience welcoming the visitors to Dublin and saluting all of those who participated in the event.  Practically all of Dublin’s high society were present.  Mr. and Mrs. Lord sat in their special box along with family members including Dr. and Mrs. J.E. New and their daughter Marie.   A reporter described Mrs. Bertha Lord as “queenlike” in her beautiful pink chiffon dress.  

The following week marked the Dublin debut of “Edison’s Genuine Talking Pictures,” which were not the usual laughing, talking and singing pictures. The movie featured the Kinetiphone’s synchronization of sound and film at the afforable prices of 25 to 50 cents a ticket.  The first talkie was “Nursery Time Favorites.” 

Also on the bill in the theater’s second week was a play , “A Bachelor’s Congress,” staring local talent in a benefit for the Children of the Confederacy.  One of the more popular plays was “The Little Millionaire,” written by George “Yankee Doodle Dandy” Cohan, and starring Bert Leigh and Hazel Burgess. Other featured acts were the “The Norman Field Players, The Cambridge Players, Coburn’s Minstrels and the Mack Musical Comedy Company.

During those first few months, the Bertha had its competitors.  Gentry Brothers Dog and Pony Show and a troup of the American Pavillion Theatre Company were all in town.  Kit Carson’s Wild West Circus came to the fairgrounds  with its three ring Wild West Circus.  On November 5, the Courier Herald estimated that Dublin had 20,000 visitors in town, mostly to attend the 12th District Fair. 

Among the most popular movies at the Bertha were  “Quo Vadis”, George Kleine’s 8-reel, 135 minute masterpice and the first block buster film in history and D.W. Griffith’s epic Civil War film, “Birth of a Nation.”

Nearly from its beginning, the managers of the Bertha promoted  wrestling matches.  One of the first featured hometown favorite, Homer Scarborough against Chief Little Bird, who hailed from Minnesota.  One of the biggest was a grudge match between Jack Leon and Mort Henderson in April 1914. 

The fights at the Bertha didn’t last long for in the early summer of 1914, the citizens of Dublin voted to prohibit any matches in the theater. 

The Bertha was often used as a place for public meetings and gatherings. In March 1914, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce was reestablished. Those present were treated to a movie and a refreshing Chero Cola, bottled only a few blocks away. 

The 1914 session of the Chautaugua was held in the Bertha.  With the former Opera House gone and the courthouse and school auditoriums not being conducive to mass meetings which organizers hoped would occur, the Bertha was the perfect place to stage the big event, which featured musical, religious, scientific, educational, agricultural and political events.

When it came to political speeches, the best place in town, other than the courthouse steps, was the stage of the Bertha.  Two national politicians took to the stage to deliver their message to the voters of Laurens County. Just after Thanksgiving in 1915, Speaker of the National House of Representatives, Champ Clark of Missouri, (below) promoted the programs of the Wilson Administration, especially those important to farmers. 


                                                                     Champ Clark



                                                                      John Burke

In one of the last political gatherings at the Bertha, John Burke, the Treasurer of the United States (above) and a former Governor of North Dakota, spoke to an assembly of bankers and businessmen, who were concerned with the economic depression resulting from the coming of the boll weevil to the South.

The grand life of the Bertha Theater came to a fleeting and fatal end early on the morning of September 23, 1918.  A fire started in the 2nd floor auditorium and quickly spread to the stores on the first floor.  In just a matter of minutes $50,000.00 and a a grand dream went up in smoke.


















Wednesday, October 02, 2013

1888: A CITY RISES

It was the year 1888, one and one quarter centuries ago.  Out of the mire of stagnation, Dublin was merging from a cocoon of apathy, mediocrity and drunkenness.  As towns go, Dublin appeared to visitors as it had four decades prior -  a decaying, lifeless and lawless town.  As the righteous and forward minded seized control of city affairs, the shroud over the village by the Oconee was lifted. And order, progress, vibrancy and prosperity came forth, leading the town, which had doubled its population four times in the decade, to becoming Dublin, Georgia, "The only city in Georgia, which is doublin' all the time" and one of the foremost population and economic centers of the Empire State.

The greatest catalysts to Dublin's meteoric growth were the railroads.  With the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad's terminus across the Oconee in what would become known as East Dublin and revived river boat traffic up and down the river, a three-decade period of unfettered growth was just beginning.  Three railroads, the Macon and Dublin, the Savannah, Dublin and Western,  and the Empire Railroad, were making plans to complete their rail lines into the port city.  Other railroad entrepreneurs had their dreams on paper while they were awaiting financial backers to begin construction.  It took law suits to delay the completion for three more years.

The greatest need in the city was for a permanent river bridge. Judge of the Court of Ordinary, John T. Duncan, had been pushing the project for five years following the defeat of a bond issue.  Despite continued token opposition to a bridge, five thousand dollars in bonds were issued in 1888 to begin the process of building the only bridge over the Oconee south of Milledgeville.  The project obtained the requisite Federal approval in the summer and the emboldened bridge boosters never looked back.  

A fine brick true hotel was constructed on the north side of the courthouse square situated to accommodate prosperous guests.  Z.H. Broughton built the first brick store in the spring.  Five more were under construction by the fall.  Several of these buildings would be destroyed by a massive conflagration when a large part of the city burned in May 1889.

Agricultural exports began to fuel the local economy.  More than 10,000 bales of cotton were ginned.  The Dublin Brick Company proudly boasted that it produced a million bricks, mostly used in new brick structures going up in the city.

Major improvements in education in the city dominated the news in 1888.  The City of Dublin used funds from the newly enacted alcoholic beverage tax to increase funding.  A large, wooden, two-story school house was constructed under the direction of architect Alexander Blair of Macon.  The new building, in the rear of the current location of Club 604,  gave rise to the name of "The Academy" and consequently the name of the street upon which it faced, "Academy Avenue."

For the first time ever and in a rare expenditure for small cities around the state, the city council increased funding to Negro schools to a level of one-third of the entire education budget.  A new school for African-American students was constructed on the Telfair Road, near the present site of the National Guard Armory. 

The key to unleashing unprecedented growth in the city was the abolishment, or near abolishment of alcohol sales in the city.  The "wet" and the "dry" folks squared off in an election in April.  
One traveler reported to the Savannah Morning News, "The local option election in Laurens County was a disgraceful exhibition of demagoguery and corruption."  The visitor observed processions of drunken men wearing red badges inscribed "for sale," flaunting red tickets, yelling like fiends and boasting that they were "bosses of the ballot box."  The teetotalers and the city's coffers were the big winners.  To keep those criminals who drank too much, harmed others and stole things,  Judge Duncan ordered a fence built around the jail to prevent the many escapes so that desperate criminals would not need to be sent to Macon.

Later in the fall, the voters of the county decided to go wet by a scant majority of 41 votes.  The Prohibitionists protested, but after careful prayer, temporarily abandoned their mission of ridding demon rum from the county despite much evidence of illegal voting by the drinkers of the county. 

The saddest day of the year came on a Monday, November 5, 1888.  On the Sabbath evening the night before, for some unknown reason, W.M. Scarborough, in a stuporous state took offense to his arrest by Dublin Town Marshal N.K. Watson.  As Marshal Watson pronounced that Scarborough was to submit to arrest for being drunk and disorderly, Scarborough plunged a dagger into Watson's neck, severing his jugular vein, spewing blood everywhere.  For five agonizing minutes, the city marshal lay dying.  It was the first time in the recorded history of our county that a public safety officer was killed in the line of duty.  Nearly two years later, Scarborough was exonerated by a jury of his peers.

The town leaders were Dr. Robert Hightower, Dr. Charles Hicks, Rev. W.S. Ramsay, G.W. Maddox, attorneys Mercer Haynes, T.B. Felder, Jr., David Ware, Jr., T.L. Griner,  Judge John T. Duncan and Julius Burney.  

For those who kept up with such matters, one observant citizen pronounced Dublin as a "heavy weight town," due to the fact that of the 1507 people in the town, sixteen men weighed well more than 200 pounds.  It was estimated that there were about 27 more men who weighed in right at a tenth of a ton, leading the editor of the Dublin Gazette to proclaim, "Very few towns in Georgia can make a better show for weight, population taken into consideration."

In politics the year was not so extraordinary.  Among the shining new stars of the political world was Dublin's future mayor, Thomas B. Felder, Jr.  Felder, who went on to an illustrious and infamous legal and political career, was selected as a Presidential Elector for President Grover Cleveland in his unsuccessful campaign for reelection. 

In the area of trivial news, it was published that a Maltese cat, belonging to Wm. B. Jones, caught two rabbits and cared for them lovingly as if they were her very own kittens.  It was a big year for floods, old timers observed that the river was at its highest level since the Harrison Freshet of 1840.  Richard Niles, who was born at the turn of the 19th Century and was a slave for most of his life walked about the streets of town showing off his gourd dipper with a thirty-six-inch long handle.

The ninth year of the 1880s was important in the sense that it featured major advances in education, infrastructure and prohibition and accordingly marked the time when Dublin accelerated its rise to eminence in Georgia.