As the evening shadows fell on the town of Harlem on Aug. 11, 1949, excitement filled the air. There was an influx of people from all over the county and the surrounding areas.
Something special was about to take place: It was the grand opening of the new Columbia Theater, the only theater in Columbia County.
The doors opened at 7 p.m., and there was a rush to get a ticket and the best seat in the house. Admission for adults was 40 cents, and the little folks under 12 got in for 15 cents.
Popcorn and other snacks were sold, as well as something to drink. No movie would be complete without the smell of popcorn.
At exactly 7:45 the house lights were lowered, the curtain rolled back and the movie began. Previews of coming attractions were shown and then a cartoon. Children of all ages filled the air with laughter.
The main feature was Take Me Out to the Ball Game, in Technicolor, starring Frank Sinatra, Ester Williams and Gene Kelly. The movie was tops at the box office, and the stars were very popular. The moving was entertaining and refreshing to see.
Sinatra made the girls swoon, just as Elvis did with the next generation. Williams great swimming ability enabled her to perform beautiful acts in the underwater scenes. And no one can forget the dancing of Kelly.
The theater was erected in 1949 by William H. Griffin of Gibson, Ga., at a cost of $60,000. It was constructed of brick, cinderblock and cement, which made it virtually fireproof. The theater in Harlem had a seating capacity of 500, and had two nurseries for the mothers and babies.
Griffin and his wife, Nan, were married about this same time and moved to Harlem.
For more than a decade the theater thrived. Top box-office movies were shown several days a week and seats were filled. As time went by and business declined, however, the theater was closed.
The building was rented to various businesses. Mrs. Griffin owned a florist shop that she moved into the building. There was a beauty parlor, haberdashery and gas company housed there, too. In later years the building served as an antique shop.
The Columbia Theater remains silent these days, but as one of those who was there on that night of Aug. 11, 1949, I can still hear the laughter within those walls and remember the joy those movies brought to the community throughout those memorable years.
(Betty Sargent is a Harlem historian.)
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