Apr 19

You Ought To Be in Pictures

Posted on April 19, 2022 at 1:32 PM by Ken Kocher

In April of 1920, M.A. Richardson announced that his Grocery Business would be moving from E. Washington to W. Washington. The reason: “The building I now occupy will be torn down and rebuilt.”1909 and 1921 Fire Insurance Maps showing movie theater location The term “rebuilt” was an understatement. The current building was wood framed, albeit with a brick front and a brick nogged back (look that one up!), one-story, and 20’ wide. The 16’ wide, one-story, brick building next door was to go as well. As a replacement, Messrs. T.M. Wood, Q.L. Williford, and K.S. Anderson planned to build a two-story, brick building with offices above and a moving picture theatre below. The American Architect had reported in January of that year that William Irwin of Savannah had completed plans for the moving picture house which was to cost $10,000.

 While Madison had had picture shows prior to this, set in existing buildings or sometimes out-of-doors, this enterprise was a step up. As noted in the newspaper, “There are few theatres in the entire South in towns even twice the size of Madison that can boast of a complete and attractive theatre as this one.” By November the building was well underway. The Madisonian gave this description of the “handsome new brick building”: “The first floor – one large room – has been rented to Mr. Lightman for a moving picture theatre. This will be nicely fitted and a great pleasure to all. The second story will have office suites,” two with three rooms and three with two rooms. Unmentioned in the news article was the balcony which had its own entrance and ticket booth. This was the segregated South where African American patrons were relegated to a separate space. A half century would pass before patrons of both races would share the main floor.

 Even before the theater opened the Madisonian issued a plea. Well, more of a warning. Lamenting “the extent to which the latter day movies have become a menace to clean thinking and good morals,” the paper pledged to support the enterprise “provided the pictures are clean and wholesome.” Otherwise, the owners could expect to hear more from the Madisonian. They stated, “So many of the movie films are keyed to impurity, so much sex stuff, jazz music, jazz decorations, jazz pictures – so much jazz until the patrons think in jazz and act in jazz.”

Poster for 1920 movie EarthboundThe Strand Theatre opened Thursday, May 26, 1920, managed by Messrs. Nisbett and Lightman who had several theaters in other parts of the country. At opening they had contracts with Goldwyn, Realart, and Selert studios and were negotiating with Paramount and First National. Showings included short subjects and news reels rounding out the entertainment to about two hours. All for 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children – which included the war tax. The initial showing was Basil King’s Earthbound directed by T. Hays Hunter.

 The first couple of years appeared to go well for The Strand aside from a small fire, always a danger with the cellulose nitrate film of the era. Fortunately, the operating booth was a fire-proof structure and disaster was averted. Manager S.T. Nisbet left for Little Rock and C.J. Ross took his place. Even the newspaper seemed pleased with the movie selections declaring them clean and wholesome. However, by 1922 the success of the operation was unsure. The Madisonian noted, “The Strand deserves better support than it is now receiving. Let’s patronize it better until conditions improve when its future will be assured.” That future did not come and the theater was closed by year end.

 Six months later Gilbert Genesta reopened the moving picture house, but this is a gentleman whose story deserves a blog of its own.

Apr 13

The Wizard of Wonders

Posted on April 13, 2022 at 10:11 AM by Ken Kocher

Gilbert and Roma Genesta with their motorhome“With the coming of good weather our picture show should be re-opened. The town needs a good picture show.” Thus was the lament thrown into the ether by the Madisonian in February of 1923. Little did they know that a man well attuned to the ether would answer that call a few short months later. By his own account, Gilbert Genesta and his family were making a third trip to Florida “via a neat little home on wheels” when he changed their route by jumping across from Augusta with the intention of going through Atlanta southward. Genesta claimed that one look at Madison caused him to feel there was no use going farther – a story not unfamiliar to present-day Madisonians. He pronounced himself “The Wizard of Wonders.” Locals soon came to learn that this was not only a stage name, but more like Genesta’s approach to life.

 opening ad Genestra Strand TheatreMr. Genesta, an experienced moving picture man and vaudeville actor, promised to bring good pictures to Madison noting that during his recent trip to New York he “took in all the newest pictures and got a line on the best and most popular ones.” He reopened the Genestra Strand Theatre, later just the Genestra Theatre, (currently Jim Boyd and Associates) Friday, April 6, 1923 with the Universal Picture, “Wolf Law.” Two weeks later he performed his vaudeville routine of magic tricks and mental telepathy culminating with his escape from a barrel of water where he had been handcuffed (provided by Chief Elder) and padlocked with locks provided by locals. This feat of escape closely mirrored Houdini’s Milk Can Escape. Chief Elder stated that they didn’t want anyone to drown and cautioned Genesta not to start anything he couldn’t finish, but Genesta assured them that his life had been devoted to taking chances.

Genesta in barrelThe act and the night were a success. The months that followed saw equal success. The denizens of Madison and Morgan County were pleased with the films Gilbert showed and he catered to his clientele expanding to six nights a week, reserving seats for out-of-town guests who wrote or called ahead, and accepting a challenge to perform the barrel escape again. He was also generous in sharing his place of business for fundraising, religious events, and lectures. In fact, by April of 1924 the library was showing a movie once a week at the Genesta Theatre to raise funds. Then in May the Madison Library rented the building for their fundraising signaling Gilbert Genesta’s departure from the business one year after reopening the theater. However, this was not a departure from Morgan County.

Genesta family, friend, and nannyGilbert Genesta bought a farm on Bethany Road. The next November he came to town driving his mule with a large bale of cotton, the first of several. On a visit to the farm, one would find a flock of White Leghorns, a good cow, a white mule (Genesta’s pride), a good-sized barn chuck full of home-grown feed for the stock, and a happy little family of three. It may have seemed that he had found his calling, but then he surprised everyone when they learned that “besides his many talents Genesta prides himself with being an expert tonsorial artist.” That’s a barber to you and me. Gilbert joined Roy Miller at the Ideal Barber Shop on W. Jefferson. Over a year’s time he moved among several shops until August of 1925 when he bought the Basement Barber Shop renaming it Genesta La Barberia.

During this time Gilbert Genesta was performing. He had a show at the Dixie Theatre in Eatonton, entertained the Kiwanis Club, and was a central attraction all three nights at the 1925 Morgan County Fair. Genesta was still bitten by the showbiz bug. He sold the barber shop in 1927 and immediately began touring starting with Athens and the Madison Square Theatre – the very theater that drew Gilbert to Madison. The show added a levitation act featuring his daughter Yvonne who would float in mid-air as her father passed a ring over her. The Genesta family was on the road again.

But there is a fuller story to be told about Gilbert Genesta. Stay tuned.

Jan 20

Perkins Place

Posted on January 20, 2022 at 1:55 PM by Ken Kocher

I1941 Sanborn mapn our earlier blog, Fill ‘er Up, we followed the evolution of gasoline sales in Madison from the turn-of-the-20th century to the 1920s. Curbside pumps were certainly an improvement over the early days practice of dipping gas from an open barrel. Nonetheless, gassing-up autos parked at the side of the street could be at best a nuisance and at worst a hazard. The 1920s would change all that with a transition to drive-in stations generally dedicated to a specific oil company.

Madison’s early forays into drive-in station maintained a traditional view of where business should occur – downtown. Corner properties on Main Street drew the most interest due to their dual access and high traffic. Of course, these properties were already built out, so to accommodate pumps and auto lanes, some demolition would need to occur. Madison’s first drive-thru gas station would be on the corner of Main and Washington, the location of the Broughton Building, which was a two-story building. Although later on Americans were willing to sacrifice substantial buildings to the automobile, the owner of this property, who was leasing the property for a gas station, was not willing to entertain complete demolition. The solution? Remove most of the first floor.

1920s Gulf LogoThe June 29, 1923, issue of the Madisonian reported that W.D. Cavin had secured the contract to tear away the lower floor of the corner store recently vacated by W.E. Shepherd. W.A. Perkins (Ab), who ran a tire and battery business in the adjoining building, was having the work done. The result, which included a ladies’ restroom on the second floor (the plumbing done by Charles Cavin), was “a modern and up to date station in every respect.” He named it Perkins Place and sold “that Good Gulf Gas.” Perkins painted the first floor yellow, and it was referred to in ads and articles as “the Yellow Front” or “the Yellow Corner.” This color choice may seem odd to those of us who remember the primarily orange Gulf Logo, however the 1920s logo, while still orange, was much lighter and would have worked well with a yellow.

 Ab and his wife took an apartment over the filling station in January of 1924 putting him “in a position to provide quick, efficient, and continual service.” The station became “one of the most popular resorts in town for the radio fans” when Perkins purchased a $300 radio through an Atlanta concern, supposedly the first to be shipped to that city. It was fully described in the Madisonian, “A loop antenna takes the place of the aerial, and the instrument is a six-tube supper-heterodyne, made by the Radio Corporation of America. It is equipped with a second harmonic and radiola loud speaker. Such distant points as Portland, San Francisco, points in Canada and Cuba, can be heard distinctly.”Perkins Place gas station c.1926

Ab Perkins appeared to thrive on the extremely competitive nature of the gasoline business. He placed a newspaper ad in September 1924 to correct the report that he was interested in the Texas Filling Station. “I am running my own business and am not trying to buy any place that will cut competition.” The Madisonian noted, “Ab’s the cat’s derby when it comes to telling the public what’s what and why.” Perkin’s called out the newspaper in 1926 for “giving him a black eye” by incorrectly reporting that no local dealer had met the last cut in gas made by Pan-Am Oil Co. The paper admitted that it had failed by being misinformed by a presumed reliable source.

Pan-American Oil Co. and Perkins Place were again mentioned in the same article six months later when Pan-Am purchased the lease of the building from Ab. Consequently, the this came to be known as the Pan-Am corner in the ensuing years. W. A. Perkins was not out of the gas game though. He had already built a new station at the intersection of Augusta and Athens roads (441 & 278) where he continued to sell Gulf gasoline. Those locating gas stations had already begun to think outside the downtown box.

 We’ll continue with the history of the Pan-Am corner in a future blog.