Montgomery County School Histories
HOW CLARKSVILLE ENTERTAINED ITSELF
by Eleanor Williams
Early on, Clarksville and Montgomery
County sought to socialize while engaging in productive endeavors. Take,
for example, log rollings, barn raisings, spinning parties and quilting bees.
This was evident also in their school and church activities; the fairs, the
camp meetings, the dinners on the ground.
In 1791 Samuel Stout was granted a license to keep an “ordinary”
in his home. He agreed that he would not allow any unlawful gaming
in his house nor would he on the Sabbath day let anyone drink more than was
The Clarksville Thespian Society
was one of the earliest cultural clubs in the area, perhaps taking to heart
Shakespeare’s belief that the key to life is the assertion of individuality.
In July 1819 this club performed the first exhibition of its kind when a
crowd of 80 witnessed an all male cast in the performance of SHE STOOPS TO
CONQUER, a comedy, and THE IRISHMAN IN LONDON, a farce. But such performances
were not limited to Clarksville alone. In November of that same year, the
Thespian Society of Port Royal performed the comedy, A CURE FOR THE HEARTACHE
by Morton, and the farce, MOCK DOCTOR. And in 1822, The Clarksville Theater
presented THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL and THE IRISHMAN IN LONDON.
Evidently, this was a popular play.
Organizations of these cultural clubs is noteworthy when you consider that
the white population of Clarksville in 1826 was 215, composed of 40 families
with 55 children, 65 unmarried men and 8 unmarried women.
As early as 1821, dancing school
was conducted by Mr. Suder, recently from Charleston, and in 1822, a grand
ball was held at the Washington Hotel. By 1858, music and dancing schools
flourished. Professor Goodman taught classic waltz with a cotillion party
every Friday night. All the fashionable cotillions of the day, among them
the Esmerilda, the Grand Dance and the Young Couples Polka, were taught at
a cost of $5.00 for 12 lessons.
In that same year, Robert L. Newman,
internationally known artist, advertised that he would give instruction in
drawing, but only for pupils advanced in art. He also stated if the faculty
of the college and other male schools of the city would establish drawing
classes, he would instruct the classes free of charge. He stated: “Having
studied in the best schools in Europe, I am well acquainted with the system
in favor there.”
During the Civil War, social activities
centered on teas, with an occasional for supper. Following the supper or
tea the evening was spent playing Enchre, Consequences. Criticism or some
other game not requiring young men partners. Also, an evening of music with
vocal accompaniment to the piano, violin or guitar was enjoyed. A. May Day
celebration was celebrated was held in 1863 and in that same year, Colonel
Bruce, the Federal commander, hosted a picnic at Dunbar Cave. Benefits for
the poor to include costumes and music were performed in 1864 at Fowlers
Hall. After the war, tableaux and festivals, dramatic productions and gymnastic
performances were held for many worthy causes.
Steamboat excursions continued
to provide recreation and entertainment into the 1880s with a 4th of July
excursion to Fort Donelson. Additional guests boarded at Trice’s Landing,
Palmyra and Corbandale. There was dancing, target practice and card playing
with an elaborate dinner. The twenty passengers on board reached Fort Donelson
at 1:30 with a return to Clarksville at 8:35 that evening. Parades and circuses
were always entertaining and Clarksville was a regular stop for traveling
circuses. “Sands and Renfro’s Enormous Railroad Show” exhibited
elephants, tigers, 20 circus acts and a Street parade in Clarksville in October
1893. Among the favorite circuses were Robinsons, Ringlings, Se11-Dough,
Cole Brothers, Sun Brothers and Gentrys. The first circus after World
War I was in 1919 when Robinsons visited Clarksville. Also the Victory Parade
after World War I was a big event in the community.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s,
the citizens of Clarksville and Montgomery enjoyed minstrels
and melodramas at Elder’s Opera House; Easter egg hunts on the Cobb
estate; searching for violets at Stewart’s Castle; roller-skating on
the sidewalks or on a portable rink; and ice skating in the winter.
Trolley car rides, Clarksville Gun Club (In 1899, members vied for the honor
of wearing the Gracey medal for marksmanship.); the Clarksville Book Club
(formed in 1877 to hold readings and discussions); Clarksville
Reading Club (1880); YMCA (1888); Clarksville Military Band (1896); and the
Clarksville City Guards (1880 - entertained with drills and contests); Clarksville
Boating Club (1888 held regatta); Young Ladies Card Club (1899); Embroidery
Club, the Chafing Dish Club and the Bo-Peep Society of Little Girls.
Dunbar Cave has long been an entertainment center for Clarksville. In 1858,
temporary cabins were built near Idaho Springs. These were a prelude
to the construction of a hotel there and development of a spa that was interrupted
by the Civil War; much later the hotel was built near the three mineral springs.
Later in the 1830s and 40s, during the big band era, Dunbar Cave featured
the orchestras of Jan Gerber, Kay Kayser, Blue Baron and the Dorsey brothers.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Clarksville had a volunteer group known
as the Little Theater. Ursula Smith (later Mrs. Oscar Beach) was one of the
organizers of this group and she led the staging of the city’s 1934
Sesquicentennial, a four day celebration, including a pageant with a cast
of over 500. Once in the 1930s in this Little Theater group, Mr. Thumma.
who was a local teacher and a volunteer, had a part in one of the plays where
he had to consume a meal as part of his role. He dutifully ate his meal at
the rehearsal without once saying he did not need to do that at each rehearsal.
Since this was during the depression and teacher’s salaries were small,
this was probably the best meal he had during the day, and may have been
his only meal during the day, according to Mrs. Beach.
Political figures and orators have always been a form of entertainment,
and in 1911, William Jennings Bryan spoke from a special train near the L&N
Depot. There have been several individuals who have exerted impressions upon
our community. Among them have been two distinguished African-Americans who
have contributed to the field of music on an international scope: Clarence
Cameron White, born and reared in Clarksville, won acclaim as a violinist
and composer; and Roland Hayes, renowned tenor, who gave his first concert
in Clarksville where he worked in a tobacco factory to supplement his tuition
at Fisk University.
In the literary field, those with
Clarksville ties, include Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Robert Penn Warren,
Evelyn Scott, Hallie Rives and Dorothy Dix. Local talent on the stage
and screen include Dorothy Jordan, Helen Wood, Charles Boillin Watts and
Frank Sutton, better known as TV’s Sergeant Carter. The Vitascope,
invented by Thomas Edison, was the forerunner of the true moving picture
and added atmosphere and realism to the performance. One of the first exhibitions
in Clarksville was on August 29, 1896, at MacCormac Studios on Franklin Street
where excited viewers saw the realistic turbulence of Niagra Falls. As a
free attraction, the vitascope drew crowds to Porter’s Bluff in July
As for early entertainment in downtown
Clarksville, Fowlers Hall, located on the south side of Franklin Street between
Second and Third Streets, was the scene of amateur and professional troupes
before the Civil War. It was here in 1859 that Herman Melville presented
the fifth of a series of lectures sponsored by the Literary Association.
His subject “Statues in Rome” seems an unusual choice for the
author of the great MOBY DICK. Nevertheless, he attracted much attention.
Franklin Hall and the Melodeon
hall, both located on the south side of Franklin between Second and Third
Streets, were sides for lectures and plays and both were destroyed in the
1878 fire of downtown Clarksville.
The Masonic Hall located on Franklin
was also the site for presentation as early as 1837. A lecture entitled
THE INFLUENCE OF KNOWLEDGE UPON THE SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF MAN was held here
in 1842. Season tickets for the Masonic Hall were $2.00 for families
and $1.00 for singles. A single lecture cost 12 1/2 cents. One
lecturer left town without paying his hotel bill and the CHRONICLE asked
other newspapers in the area to copy their notice of this fact “to
assist his memory.” In 1851, Dr. Perry’s Lecture on Electrical
Psychology was held here and according to the local newspaper, the young
gentleman upon whom Dr. Perry performed his experiments were wonderful and
laughable; the young man was completely subject to the doctor’s mind
and the doctor had but to will it and the young man believed anything. In
1876, the Hall was located on the corner of First and Franklin Streets and
this Hall was destroyed in the fire of 1878. Later, in 1895, another hall
by that name was located at 100-1/2 Franklin Street (next door to the present
Elders Opera House was the successor
to the Meoldeon Hall and the Franklin Hall, both, as stated earlier, having
been destroyed in the fire of 1878. This three story brick building extended
the full block from Franklin Street to Legion Street. It was 135 feet long
and 80 feet across the front of Franklin Street. The architect, John Andrewatha
of Louisville, also designed the Trinity Episcopal Church as well as other
structures in Clarksville. Elders Opera House became the center of culture
in the town and in 1887 was renovated to seat 800 people and to add private
boxes. The first floor of the building was occupied by the post office and
several businesses. The stage at Elders was large and when POLLY OF THE CIRCUS
was presented, the graceful barebacked rider circled the stage on the back
of a large white horse. Elders also served as a skating rink. There was an
orchestra pit below stage level and the main floor. Music was provided by
local orchestras. The Bates Orchestra was in much demand as was the orchestra
of Vincent Nigro. The main floor sloped for better viewing and all seats
were acceptable. A sign was always displayed here (as in all movie houses
in Clarksville) requesting the ladies to remove their hats. School exhibitions,
graduations and talent shows were also held here. As you can imagine, after
the great fire of 1878 fear of fire was ever present. Mrs. R. C. Wilcox only
allowed here two children to attend performances at Elders if her son wore
a length of rope wound around his waist so that if fire broke out while they
were inside, he could tie one end of the rope to a chair frame and drop it
from a window, thus becoming an escape route for him and his sister.
So great was the competition from
moving picture theaters, that on May 26, 1907, movies were shown at the opera
house by the Nickel Amusement Company. An hour and 25 minutes performance,
with latest reviews, was offered for 10 cents admission with refreshment
being served at the matinee.
In 1909, when Booker T. Washington arrived in Clarksville for a speaking
engagement at Elders he was escorted by Clarksville’s leading citizens.
Following the two.o’clock program for which half of the downstairs
was reserved for white citizens, he was entertained at lunch in the Masonic
Hall. He then departed aboard a special L&N train. Years later, in 1918,
his nephew, Roscoe Conkling Simpson, a leading orator, spoke at the Majestic
Theater and attracted a large audience.
In the latter part of December
1914, a new up-to-date steam heating plant was installed at the opera house.
This new furnace was given a trial run on Tuesday, December 29th, in anticipating
of the performance on Thursday. This was to be an appearance of the Honey
Boy Minstrels with George Evans. This was the most famous minstrel troupe
in the world with a troup of 50 men, including some of the most famous burnt
cork artists on the American stage. George Evans was conceded to be the greatest
black face comedian in the world. This performance never took place as the
opera house burned on Tuesday December 29th; cause of the fire said to be
an overheated furnace. The entire block of buildings from Public Square to
First Street burned including the Lillian Theater across the street. The
movie showing at the theater that night was entitled “Playing with
Fire,” a moral drama on the penalty of flirtation. The Electrical Theater
was located on the south side of Franklin Street between Second and Third
Streets (about where McNeal and Edwards was once located, next to the Sites
Jewelers location). In April 1907, this theater attracted afternoon, and
evening .,audiences who willingly paid five cents to view the latest moving
pictures. However, the current news pictures of the Harry K. Thaw murder
trial were judged too sensational and were withdrawn by popular request.
The Lyric Theater was located on
the south side of Franklin Street and west of First Street at 66 Franklin
Street. It opened in April 1909. Two attractions and the lyrics
of a song entertained at the matinee and evening sessions. Typical of the
offerings were the first two days: “Wanted a Wife” and “Lunch
Time" and the unit “Prof. Bric Brac’s Inventions” and “The
Real Man’s Way” with “I Guess I’ll Take the
Train Back Home.” Piano accompaniment was rendered by a local pianist
to provide atmospheric background and melody for audience singing of the
lyrics. The Lyric was renovated in 1910.
The Majestic Theater was located
at 103 S. Third Street with a five cent admission (next to what was Willoughby
Drugs now law offices). The theater had a balcony for blacks and that address
was 103-1/2 S. Third Street. The theater, which would seat 600, was built
by Joe Goldberg, who also built the Lillian Theater. Shows traveling from
Louisville to Memphis stopped and performed on the Majestic stage. Among
them were the magician Blackstone and the A. J. Field Minstrel Show. Later
three elephants were to appear on stage, but it was feared that would be
too much so only one elephant appeared to everyone’s relief. In 1917,
“The Birth of a Nation” was shown for two days beginning on April
16th. It was presented exactly as it thrilled capacity audiences in the leading
theaters of Memphis, Louisville, Nashville and other large cities. The Company
carried its own symphony orchestra of 25 New York artists and a carload of
electrical and scenic equipment and the performances given were no different
from those seen in the larger cities. The coming of Birth of a Nation marked
the culmination of two years of determined effort on the part of the local
management to book the attraction. Producer Griffith had stated repeatedly
that he would never allow his film masterpiece to be presented except in
the leading houses of the principal cities and to date he had kept his promise.
Very few engagements had been booked in towns the size of Clarksville. But
Mr. Griffith at last yielded to the pleas of a few small town managers in
Tennessee and Kentucky and contracts were issued for a limited number of
brief engagements. Each presentation required two hours and 45 minutes and
employed the services of nearly 50 individuals. The theater closed in 1930.
The Lillian Theater located on
the southeast corner of Franklin and First Streets, opened on 29 July 1913.
It was built by Joseph Goldberg and named for his daughter. It would seat
500 people with the balcony reserved for African- Americans. In 1914, admission
was 35 cents. The Lillian was rebuilt and reopened on 3 October 1915 after
burning on 29 December 1914. It closed in 1932 due to the depression, but
it was remodeled in 1941 as the Roxy Theater. The Roxy burned four years
later and was remodeled in the art moderne style, enlarged and reopened in
March 1947. The Roxy ceased operations in 1981.
The Elite Theater located on Franklin
Street a few doors from the Lillian Theater closed in 1911 and the Star Theater
located next to the Elite Theater also closed in 1911. The Dixie Theater
was located at 125 Franklin Street, across from the Elite and Star Theaters,
The Capitol Theater opened in 1928
on the south side of Franklin Street (former location of Park-Belks; present
location of County Court Clerk’s office); It would seat 900 people
with admission 10 cents for children, 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for
the balcony. This theater burned in 1935 and the Crescent Amusement Company,
who also owned the Lillian Theater building, rebuilt and renovated the Capitol
and operated it until 1936 when a new Capitol Theater was built across the
street from the old building. This theater was the first theater to be air
conditioned and it had a concession stand; popcorn and a candy bar 5 cents
each and later ice cream was sold. During the depression gimmicks were used
to increase attendance; cars would drive out to surrounding communities advertising
the movie; a strong man stood in front of the theater and demonstrated his
strength; a Wheel of Fortune was conducted and if you were in the winning
seat number you could win $25.00 or even $100.00. Needless to say, attendance
was great on those nights. Sunday movies were legalized on a local option
basis by Tennessee legislature in 1934; however, Clarksville did not exercise
the option until 1942 after a local battle between ministers and the city
council. The Capitol Theater was razed circa 1985.
Drive-in movies came to Clarksville
in the 1950s. The Sunset Theater opened in 1950 about the same time the Moon--Lit
Theater opened. The Sunset was located On Madison Street (where Tradewinds
South is now located) and the Moon-Lit was on Highway 41-A near where the
National Guard Armory is now located.
Submitted by Sandra Stacey
Return to the Montgomery County Home Page