The Crystal Theater

The Crystal Theater

It was in the month of September, a century ago, when Dublin's first truly permanent movie theater opened.  Mrs. Eugenia "Miss Gennie"  Hightower, the widow of the late Dr. Robert H. Hightower of Dublin, opened her Crystal Theater in the building now occupied by the highly heralded Italian restaurant Deano's on West Jackson Street in Dublin.  For the first time, Dubliners could attend a movie in a theater which was specially and solely designed to be a theater, and not just an empty hall where movie goers sat in temporary seating and watched  on a makeshift screen.

The first theater in Dublin, known as "The Theatorium,"  opened about 1905.  The next theater was the Amusu,  which was located in the old section of the Courier Herald Building next to the Hicks Building.  The Amusu's movies were supplemented with live singing by touring professionals. The manager also sought business by announcing baseball scores and election results received through special telegraph wires.

      As the popularity of silent movies began to rise, many new theaters sprang up.  The Gem, The Lyric, The Star, and The Bijou theaters featured movies with local singers and musicians accompanying the films.  The Lyric Theater was located in the Brantley Building or the Lovett and Tharpe Building on the corner of West Jackson and North Lawrence Streets.  The Star and The Bijou were located in the Opera House on the corner of South Monroe and West Madison Streets.  The first talking picture was shown in Dublin in 1914 at the old Bertha Theater.  The sound came from a record player played in synchronization with the film.  The Bertha Theater originally started out as the store building of Stephen Lord and C.W. Brantley.  Mayor E.R. Orr asked the gentlemen to add another story and to convert it into a theater and auditorium to replace the Chautauqua Auditorium which burned in 1911.

 In March 1913, Mrs. Hightower and her son, Bob Hightower, Sr.
(left) , opened their motion picture house under the new banner of the Crystal Palace or later, simply as the  Crystal Theater. The new building featured a common lobby with an arched ceiling separating the ice cream parlor on the left side of the complex.  Movie goers could walk through an arched entrance and consume the most delicious and thirst quenching refreshments.  The 40-foot deep lobby was located in front of the enlarged auditorium, which was 205-feet deep. New projectors and a plate glass screen were installed. The 30-foot ceiling provided ample ventilation.  A $2500.00 piano and pipe organ were purchased. Later two new projectors were purchased to insure continuous viewing of the movies. Mrs. Hightower always searched Savannah, Atlanta and Macon for new ideas to improve the Crystal, which she did in a major way in September 1915.

"My dad operated the first movie theater in town next door to where the Peppercorn Sandwich Shop (now Stone Horse Tavern) is now located long before 'talking pictures.' A large organ stretched all the way across the theater in front of the screen," Robert Hightower, Jr.  told Dr. John Belcher in a January 1989 interview.

"The organist would look up and watch the movie. If a horse was galloping, she pushed the right key and there was the sound of a horse galloping. Another key and one could hear several horses running at breakneck speed.  My father beat his desk to demonstrate these sounds. The organ was a truly remarkable instrument which could duplicate the noise of thunder, rain, bombs of war, the bubble of a brook, crowing roosters, the patter of children's feet plus martial, classical or any other kind of music," the junior Hightower recalled.

In an interview with the Courier Herald, some thirty years earlier in 1959, master movie man, Bob Hightower, Sr.  proclaimed, "Not all the silent movies were shown in movie houses. With a live electrical connection, a "picture show" could be held any place. Quite a few men made the rounds with a projector and screen showing the marvel of "moving" pictures. Speakers were not necessary. The proprietor could supplement the printed subscripts for those who could not read. I personally recall seeing one movie at school where a phonograph record was played simultaneously with the exhibition of the film. I do not remember if this was strictly background or a crude attempt at a "talkie."

Although he was just a young child at the time, Hightower recalled that his mother had a piano and music store on the site. "She became interested in those new fangled moving pictures, so she moved the pianos, installed a screen in the rear and put on a five- ten cents theater.  She named' It "The Picture Show," the affable manager recalled.

"The town's electric lights  didn't come on until sundown, so Mother couldn't open up until dark. She had a phonograph beamed out  of a window in the operating room and we'd play that to ballyhoo the show." "There was no accompanying music for the picture, which was run on a one-picture  Edison machine, a "one-pin," Hightower said.

Mrs. Hightower rented the films from  Dan Holt of Macon, who operated the Theatorium in that city, the first such theater in Macon.  Bob Hightower, Sr. recalled that  Holt obtained his films from Chicago by freight, getting a month's supply at a time, which he rented to Mrs. Hightower for $1.00 per reel.  During those early days,  Mrs. Hightower  ran the first multiple reel picture ever made, The Great Train Robbery by Biograph.

"We kept a barrel of water under the operating room, to which a cable which was run from the rheostat, ending in a crow's foot grounded in the water," he continued. "Every time the picture dimmed, we'd throw in a handful of table salt which charged the water and the light would clear," Hightower remembered.

Hightower was recognized far and wide as a master of promotion.  Sometimes he was known as the master of commotion as well.

In the spring of 1921, manager Hightower offered a free movie ticket to a "Tin Can Matinee" for any kid bringing in five tin cans in an effort to alleviate the shortage of fishing bait cans and cleaning up the city in the process.  Five thousand cans were collected.

In 1922, a fantastic fight card was held at the Crystal matching up Dublin's Bill McGowan, a somewhat successful boxer and future Hollywood stuntman, against a Chicago fighter and another bout featuring "Baby" Stribling, younger brother of the great boxer, Young Stribling of Macon.

In 1920, Hightower was arrested and fined $25.00 by Dublin police for painting bear tracks on the sidewalks leading to the Crystal, which was showing "Back to God's Country."

When Hightower went into the service during World War I stationed at Hampton Roads, Va. with the U.S. Navy, his mother operated the Crystal. In her son's absence, she was assisted by Pickette Bush Clark, who worked with Hightower for at least four decades.

As the only movie theater in town, business was great for many years.   Bob Hightower, Jr. firmly believed  that after Al Jolson appeared in the first "talkie" in 1927, his grandmother and father decided that their movie business was doomed and closed the  Crystal, which was replaced by the Rose Theater, the city's first talking movie theater.  Bob Hightower remained in the movie business until 1959 as the manager of the Ritz and lastly, the Martin Theater.  The Crystal's organ was removed and placed in the alley.  After several months of exposure to the elements, curiosity seekers and vandals, the magnificent instrument was beyond repair.

So as you dine at Deano's, close your eyes and travel back in time to the days of yesteryear when movies were silent, short and simple  and swashbuckling swordsmen, violent villains  and handsome heroes of the Old West thrilled movie goers, young and old.  And, I might add, remember all of the neat, wonderful  and handy things you could find in the three decade home of Cater's five and dime store, Dublin's last mom and pop variety store.

For more information on this subject, visit the Dublin-Laurens Museum's exhibit on our local theaters and  movie and television stars opening this weekend at the museum at 702 Bellevue Avenue in Dublin.