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Theatres of Glynn County, Georgia
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The Opera House and Silent Movie Days of Brunswick

By Tyler E. Bagwell

An early 1900s postcard of the Grand Opera House, now known as the Ritz Theatre, is viewed above. The brick design work or crenellation on the roof was removed during renovation of the building in the 1920s.
In the 1880s, as the population of Brunswick increased, places where members of the community could socialize and enjoy entertainment events were erected. One such venue built was the L'Arioso Hall, a wooden structure situated on the corner of Monck and Reynolds Streets. Today, this location is the SunTrust Bank parking lot.

L'Arioso Hall was a rectangular, multi-storied building that faced Reynolds. L'Arioso, an Italian word referring to a type of musical composition, suggests that the Hall offered at times performances involving music. The 1885 Sanborn Insurance Map of Brunswick states that the structure was "used as skating rink in winter."

In 1889 L'Arioso Hall was enlarged with the addition of stage and scenery space and renamed the L'Arioso Opera House. A classified ad in the 1890 Brunswick City Directory boasted that the L'Arioso Opera House could seat 800 people and that the facility was "The only first-class place of amusement in the city!"

Throughout the early 1890s traveling theatre companies and entertainers were engaged to give performances at the building. Shows booked included musicals, plays, singers, and lecturers. In September of 1895 the price to view a romantic play at the L'Arioso Opera House was $1.00 for a reserved seat near the stage, 50 cents for an admission seat, or 25 cents for entry into the gallery.

On one occasion a minstrel show promoted their appearance at the Opera House by staging a lunchtime parade through the city. The Brunswick-Times Advertiser in February of 1895 offers a glimpse of the happening. It announced, "Tomorrow will be Al G. Fields Day. His special train will arrive tonight. Tomorrow at noon the street-parade will start from L'Arioso and go through the principal streets of the city. At night L'Arioso will be crowded to its capacity to see the performance."

Newcastle Street, Looking South, Brunswick, Georgia.
Sometimes the L'Arioso Opera House had competition from other entertainment venues in the community. For instance, in a March 26, 1895 Brunswick-Times Advertiser article about L'Arioso, it is mentioned, "Every reserved seat was occupied, and, although a sparring match between Negro pugilists [boxers] was advertised for Dart's hall, the galleries were up to the usual standard."

By 1895 plans for the erection of a larger opera house in the city were made. Around 1896, according to the 2001 Historic Ritz Theatre re-opening program, L'Arioso Opera House was destroyed by a storm.

In 1899 the Grand Opera House, located on Newcastle Street and the corner of F Street, was constructed and in operation. The Grand Opera House, hosting the same type of functions and events once offered at L'Arioso, also included on the first floor rental space for stores and on the second and third floors the offices of the Brunswick and Birmingham Railroad.

By 1909 silent motion pictures were shown intermittently between live performances at the Grand Opera House and also by this time the Brunswick and Birmingham Railroad offices had moved from the structure. Emergency lights were also added over all of the exit doors inside the theatre. An October 1909 article in The Brunswick Daily News explains, "When you go to the Grand tonight or any night as for that, don't wonder what the red light means over each of the three exits... Throughout the evening the little sperm-oil red lanterns glow brightly, unaffected by any change in the electric lights."

Newcastle Street, Looking North, Brunswick, Georgia.
During the 1920s The Grand Opera House was remodeled and renamed the Ritz Theatre and a movie company, called the Bijou Theatre, opened on the south end of Newcastle Street. Arthur Lucas and William K. Jenkins, theatre administrators in towns throughout Georgia, owned both the Ritz and the Bijou. William K. Jenkins eventually became a resident of Sea Island and presently, his grandson Bill Stembler is proprietor of the Georgia Theatre Company II, the business that operates Island Cinemas on St. Simons and the Movies At Glynn Place in Brunswick.

While both the Ritz and the Bijou in the 1920s showed silent movies, complete with an organist or small orchestra, the Bijou Theatre advertised that Kinograms News Reels were presented along with their featured films. The Ritz Theatre still offered live performances on occasion.

Although citizens of African-descent during segregation were able to enter the Ritz Theatre through a back entrance and view movies or performances from the balcony, a theatre catering to members of the black community was desired. In the 1920s the Jackson Theatre began operating in the Seagull Hotel, a black-owned business originally located on the corner of Gloucester and Albany Streets.

Ritz / Bijou Playbill (courtesy of Dorothy Delevett)
Dr. R.N. Jackson, owner of the Seagull Hotel and the Jackson Theatre, was the only black medical doctor in Brunswick during the 1910s and early 1920s. Realizing that many of the African-descent families in the community were farmers, Dr. Jackson offered matinees where the admission fee could be paid with produce such as eggs. According to Ruth P. Williams, retired teacher and long-time Glynn County resident, during the showing of silent films Dr. Jackson's daughter Erma played the organ in accompaniment.

The Jackson Theatre closed in the 1930s and by the 1950s and throughout the early 1960s the black-owned Roxy Theatre, situated on Albany and F Streets, showed movies. Although the Bijou Theatre under the management of Alma W. King flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, it would shutdown in the 1950s. The Ritz Theatre, under the direction of Heather Heath and the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association, has once again become the premier location in Glynn County for cultural events.

Appreciation extends to Carl Baumgardner, Katie Cash, Heather Heath, Ann North, Bryan Thompson, Trisha Thompson, J. Wesley Wellman and Ruth P. Williams for their sharing of information regarding the theatres of Glynn County.

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