The town of Harlem, chartered Oct. 24, 1870, for years was the premier entertainment center of Columbia County.
With traveling performers from across the country arriving at the train depot on the old Georgia Railroad, and later by automobiles, the community presented acts to residents of Harlem and the surrounding countryside.
Through the association of the Lyceum circuit there were singers, minstrel acts, jugglers, lecturers, magicians and other vaudeville-type features.
The focal point of this was the old Columbia Opera House in downtown Harlem, on the upper floor of the Paschal Building under the management of Hugh S. Paschal.
For a few years, the locals were thrilled by the performers. For a small price of a ticket they were able to forget some of the harsh drudgeries of life on the farm.
That changed on a Sunday morning in August 1917, when the building caught fire and burned. The blaze - its cause unknown - almost destroyed the business section of downtown Harlem.
A spreading disaster was prevented with the help of volunteers who formed bucket brigades using water from nearby wells to wet down businesses.
The alarm went out by word of mouth, telegraph and what few telephones were available at that time. Help arrived from as far away as Augusta to fight the inferno. In addition to the opera house, a cotton warehouse, establishments on the lower floor of the building and nearby railroad freight cars were destroyed.
Many owners had little insurance. It was estimated the fire damage was more than $60,000, a huge amount at that time.
With the opera house gone, the entertainment soon moved to the wooden Star Theatre under ownership of Ernest Hatcher. For more than two decades, from silent films to "talkies," it was the mecca of local entertainment.
On Aug. 11, 1949, Harlem got a modern cinema with the Columbia Theatre. With its well-lighted outside marquee, it was an impressive structure on the main street of Harlem. In fact, it was Columbia County's only theater then.
The proprietor was Bill Griffin, who had operated a theater in Gibson, Ga. It was said to be fireproof at the time, and had a seating capacity of 500. Following accepted protocol of the time, black patrons were required to sit in the upstairs balcony in accordance with the Jim Crow laws of the old segregated South during most of the years of its tenure. The theater showed the best first-run films from 1949 until about 1963.
With the popularity of television and increased competition from new theaters in Martinez and the Augusta suburbs in later years, the Harlem theater closed its doors.
Many people today still have vivid memories of the movies shown on the silver screen at the long ago Columbia Theatre that brought a little Hollywood fantasy to Columbia County.
During the ensuing years, a number of businesses have occupied the old edifice.
Now, with the city of Harlem getting a $40,000 state grant, new life is about to be breathed back into the former theater for an arts performance venue in the town's revitalization program. Presently, a mural depicting former comedy duo Stan Laurel and Harlem's own Oliver Hardy adorns the side of the building.
(Charles Lord, of Grovetown, is a Columbia County historian.)
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