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The Franklin Theatre: Living Memorial To Hollywood's Golden Age

Updated on February 21, 2013

Across America, and In Franklin, Tennessee...

Unlike many of the early movie theatres-which were built for live performances such a plays and Vaudeville shows and then converted-The Franklin Theatre was to be a state-of-the-art movie house from its conception. The timing was perfect. The era of silent film had past, and it was the Golden Age of Hollywood. Studios were allocating massive budgets to shoot epic films that would have audiences lined up for blocks. Each was reaching to awe the eye of the public with never-before-seen stunts and special effects.

There was no digital editing or "green screen" here. This was when teams of highly skilled visionaries, driven by a demanding director, put their passion, heart and art in every film can. "Making a picture" meant telling a complete story, with carefully crafted dialogue. If the final product was three-hours plus in length, then that's what it was. There were no demands to create for TV as television was still years in the future. Even today, movies made during the '30s and '40s remain on the list of the greatest films of all-time.

Related: The Great Dance Songs From Hollywood's Golden Age are "Stayin' Alive"

"This was when teams of highly skilled visionaries, driven by a demanding director, put their passion, heart and art in every film can."

Local gals in from of the Franklin Theatre. Circa 1939
Local gals in from of the Franklin Theatre. Circa 1939

What? Just One Screen?

The Franklin Theatre, on Main Street in Franklin, opened its doors in the summer of 1937. In the late 1930s, movie stars and movie makers ruled the entertainment industry. Whether it was drama, the latest action flick or one of the endless stream of slap-stick comedies, every cinematic release was a masterpiece all it's own. The list of top stars included Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), and Gene Autry: The Singing Cowboy.

Comedians who got their start in Vaudeville and silent films, such as The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy, also made the transition to "Talkies." The big screen was the perfect medium for "Horror" with stars like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff happily scaring the livin' daylights out of folks. Shirley Temple's career as a long-remembered child star was nearing it's peak followed closely by Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper. For adults, Jean Harlow and Mae West made those hot summer nights even hotter.

Less than two years after the Franklin Theatre first lit the marque, The Wizard Of Oz starring Judy Garland was released followed by Disney's Snow White. "Oz" was unquestionably one of Hollywood's greatest accomplishments at the time, and one of the first films to be shot (at least partially) in color.

Most theatres, including The Franklin, had just one screen and would book a feature for a week or two at a time. If business was good, they would "Hold Over" the show for additional viewings before screening the next big release. In the '30s, '40s and even into the late '60s, going to the movies was an all-day affair. The feature film was typically accompanied by several "shorts" such as cartoons, newsreels and travelogues. And, if you wanted to see the movie more than once, you just stayed in your seat munching popcorn until the projectionist rewound the film and started the next showing. Admission at the time was 10 cents for kids, and 25 cents for adults.

In 1938, The Franklin achieved another marketing milestone by adding air conditioning and public restrooms and in 1940 won the approval of the town's board of alderman to show movies on sunday-just not during the times when people should be in church.

Rex Theatre in Leland, MS. June 1937. (New World Encyclopedia)
Rex Theatre in Leland, MS. June 1937. (New World Encyclopedia)

Black, White and Colored

1937 was also the year the German Airship "Hindenburg" exploded in flames while docking in Lakehurst, NJ. And it was the year Amelia Earhart disappeared while attempting to fly around the world. Franklin Roosevelt was president, unemployment was at 14.4%, a postage stamp was 3 cents and (no surprise) the NY Yankees one the World Series.

In most parts of the American south, racial segregation was still the law and races were kept apart. There were separate schools, bars, hospitals, toilets, parks, and even separate sections in libraries, restaurants and cinemas. So, just as African-Americans were expected to "move to the back of the bus" the Franklin Theatre had a "Colored" section up in the crowded, often-stifling balcony, where the seats were little more than benches. By the late 1950s, with the fight for African-American Civil Rights well underway, the color barriers began breaking down and facilities such as the Franklin became integrated.

The Franklin Theatre prior to restoration.
The Franklin Theatre prior to restoration.

Let's Make It A Day At The Mall

In the 1970s, the place to be was no longer the local single-screen movie house, it was the shopping mall, and most malls featured multi-screen cinemas. Making it a day at the mall became the new great American past-time. A little shopping, lunch and take in a movie. Meanwhile, all across America, local movie houses, including The Franklin, began sliding into non existence.

At one point in the '70s, the owners tried "a new look" by replacing the beautiful neon marque with what appeared to be cedar shingles-anything was worth a try. For a time the aging theatre enjoyed a brief resurgence showing indie films. A few years later, the shingles were replaced with an awning and the name changed to "The Franklin Cinema." But it was no use. As time went on, competition from the bigger chains took its toll. Trying to keep The Franklin going on a shoestring was a losing proposition. In 2007 The Franklin closed.

Our Heroes

The Grand Reopening Of The Franklin Theatre, June 2011
The Grand Reopening Of The Franklin Theatre, June 2011

If it were not for the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, the Franklin would probably have been reduced to rubble. Thanks to this nonprofit preservation group, the Franklin's story took an unexpected twist. Three years and $8 million dollars after the doors were locked, the Franklin re-emerged, and today looks better than it did even at the height of it's glorious past.

I had an opportunity to visit The Franklin recently, and can only describe the restoration as stunning. Great care was taken to bring everything up to date without losing any of the 1930s "vibe". The sound and lighting systems are state-of-the-art all the way and, along with movies, The Franklin now features live music. A "Green Room," complete with a collection of vintage guitars, has been added to give performers a comfortable place relax before taking the stage. With it's close proximity to Nashville, Franklin, TN, is home to many top stars so it's common to see a big name take to the the stage in this relatively small venue.

So, 75 years after it first opened its doors, The Franklin Theatre is once again "the happening" place in the community-standing as a memorial to simpler times and proud beacon of what can be accomplished when a community decides something needs to be done-and gets it done!

The 2 Minute Tour Of The Restored Franklin Theatre

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    • profile image

      serpsite 5 years ago

      Great lens, can you review mine please

    • profile image

      mamoro42 5 years ago

      Significant, is that countless stories that form around the Franklin Theatre

      are strongly tied into a sense of nostalgia and cliched though it sounds, with the eyes of a child again.

    • montanatravel52 profile image

      montanatravel52 5 years ago

      Really enjoyed your lens about the evolution of a really unique American attraction, thanks! I've been to Tennessee, but never knew about this. It is definitely on the roster for the next trip!

    • profile image

      CapnFatz 5 years ago

      It never occurred to me that traveling to Tennessee would be worth the money. You just made me want to go.

    • profile image

      anooptu 5 years ago

      lovely information.... classic to the modern .

      enjoyed a lot.....

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 5 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      It's wonderful when a community works together to save history like this. The end result was beautiful. Thanks for the story.

    • fugeecat lm profile image

      fugeecat lm 5 years ago

      I love the old theatres! They just had a little more class.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      What a wonderful story of a great renovation! Looks like it was first established the year my Mom was born. A lovely article. Blessings! :)