by Susan Cohen
Before the Riviera Theatre and American Theater were rented out by parent companies as event spaces, they played a big part in the state’s movie-going history — a topic covered by John Coles and Mark Tiedje in their new book, Movie Theaters of South Carolina. It’s filled with personal stories, photographs, and more on the various kinds of theaters, plus movie marketing, forgotten local films, and more.
The authors’ interest in the history of the venues began in 1986, when there was a threat that the Riviera would be torn down. After joining a “Save the Riveria” group, they began studying the history of that theater and others in the Holy City, which led to the publication of their first book, Movie Theaters of Charleston, in 1992.
“We realized there was an interesting story that had not been written down,” Tiedje says. “We wanted to record that history while there were still people around who remembered the time when every small town in South Carolina had a movie theater. We wanted to capture those personal memories before it was too late.” For example, early on in the 20th century, the silent movies were far from silent. Some theaters had organs or pianos, while others had full orchestras.
At the same time, it isn’t all glitz and glamour: Segregation into sections for whites and blacks plays a huge part in this history. “It was a constant theme throughout the state,” he says. “It wasn’t fair and everyone knew it. But it was the law. We didn’t dwell on that in the book, but we certainly couldn’t ignore it.”
You can find Movie Theaters of South Carolina online at amazon.com