The Liberty Then and Now
I’ve mentioned the Liberty Theatre a number of times since Greenbriar Picture Shows opened Dec. 27, 2005. It was a small town venue for many a great show, and remains today as our last surviving local showplace. Others came and went through the years. There was the Rose, which closed its doors when talkies arrived --- then the Orpheum, which became the Allen in 1941. That one burned in the early sixties. My best friend growing up saw Brides Of Dracula there shortly before the fire. The Liberty and the Allen had a product split. By the end of the war, they were the only houses left, so Hollywood’s bounty was divided between them. The Allen took all of Warner Bros., Columbia, Universal, RKO, and 20th Century Fox, while the Liberty was exclusive with Paramount, United Artists, MGM, and Republic (in a market like ours, the Republic concession was perhaps the most valuable of them all). In the summer of 1948, merchants and town officials got together and arranged for a documentary to be made about our community. It is the purpose of this film to bring to mind the vast opportunities existing in this area and to help interest its inhabitants in its future progress, said the producer, whose staff included a photographer from Fox’s March Of Time series and a narrator formerly with radio’s Theatre Guild Of The Air. The finished product was shot in 35mm and ran forty minutes. One nitrate print was furnished to the Liberty and shown on sporadic occasions over the next forty years. I saw it at a Chamber Of Commerce event around 1987. A video master was eventually made from the original, and that’s how I came by the DVD from which these frames were captured.
Dating the Liberty footage was a simple matter of checking the show on the marquee against ads in 1948 newspapers. The images shown here were made on either Monday or Tuesday, July 26 or 27. The program featured Tarzan’s New York Adventure, a 1942 feature which was revived by Metro in 1948. This was a time when you still had heavy pedestrian sidewalk traffic. Kids and teen-agers were up and down that Main Street all day and into the evenings. The Liberty routinely decorated their front with one-sheets on either side, two complete lobby card sets, and generally a three-sheet between the two entrance doors. The "comedy feature" was another oldie from 1942 --- About Face, a Hal Roach streamliner with Joe Sawyer and William Tracy. The Liberty maintained a policy of three changes a week and double features on Saturday right up into the seventies. Management duties were in the capable hands of Colonel Roy Forehand, who more than lived up to his rank with first-class showmanship and staff discipline, which he maintained in very much the military manner. As suggested in previous Greenbriar postings, Col. Forehand would brook no disruptive behavior in his theatre. Here he is with cigarette and a particularly arresting tie posing with other smartly dressed locals on that summer afternoon. The Colonel would manage the Liberty until 1973. The last show he played was Don’t Look Now. Go HERE and HERE for two other stories in which he’s prominent.
3-D and Cinemascope temporarily gave the Allen an edge over the otherwise dominant Liberty. As luck would have it, their exclusive Warners access provided them the best of Naturalvision shows --- House Of Wax, The Charge At Feather River, and Hondo, while the Liberty had to make do with things like Metro’s Arena and Paramount’s Sangaree. I remember coming across a Viewmaster display up in the Liberty’s storage attic one time in the mid-eighties. The slides for Kiss Me Kate were still in place, and you could check out scenes from the movie in 3-D. The Allen also got Cinemascope first by virtue of its relationship with Fox and a booking of The Robe. Unfortunately, they only had a twenty-five foot wide auditorium and the screen was a resolutely standard ratio frame. Several of those who attended told me years later that the anamorphic image was simply aimed toward the center of the flat screen, the right and left sides spilling off onto opposite walls. Patrons were obliged to view Cinemascope much in the same way they eventually would on television later during the sixties. The Liberty had essentially the same problem, which they solved by installing a new lens which would create a letterboxed image for all their wide programs.
These last sad photos are the Liberty as it looks today. Like so many single screen houses, it was bisected and made unrecognizable by a retrofitting process that jerry-rigged a pair of shoebox screening closets out of what used to be an auditorium and balcony that seated 700. It is, however, one of the few remaining independently owned downtown theatres in North Carolina. There’s no problem getting all the biggest shows because there’s no competition within twenty miles. How else could we be so lucky as to have both Snakes On A Plane and Talladega Nights?