For years Ed Abbott would stand outside the closed Capitol Theater and hear voices from the past.
This week the theater he considers an old friend once again “took my breath away.”
Abbott was an operations and sound engineer at the Capitol from 1935 until it closed in the late 1970s. After it closed, he says he would return to the theater to relive happy days.
“I’d come down and stand outside the front because I missed it so much,” he said. “I could stand outside in front of this building and hear the people.”
On Friday, the 91-year-old Abbott returned to the landmark to check out renovations Capitol owner Heath Claiborne has made in transforming it into a dinner theater/multi-use facility. Sitting in the lobby of the theater, Abbott shared his memories and reveled in the newness of his beloved Capitol.
“This bring back lot of memories,” said Abbott.
Abbott said Gerber and Gerber in Knoxville built the theater 1935 in the old W. A. Dunlap Building, which was built in 1923.
“They built 17 of them just like this, but this was the best one. We had better sound and seating than in the Tennessee (Theater, in Knoxville),” he said.
Abbott said the structure was first a funeral home, then a grocery store and then JC Penney department store before Crescent Theaters bought it. He remembers the special features that had to be put in. The projection room, for example, had special concrete reinforcement. “If it caught on fire, shutters came down. There was concrete all around. It had to be fireproof,” he said.
The projector’s room also had a bathroom because the projectionist couldn’t leave the room until the movie was over.
While the theater was beautiful in its prime, Abbott said it is also impressive now. “It was great then, and it will be a good theater now. This is something we’ve been needing around here,” he told Claiborne.
As for his career at The Capitol, Abbott said he was always happy doing what he did.
As operations and sound engineer, he also did all the maintenance and advertising. “I never wanted to be manager,” he said.
The theater had a lot of good stage shows and entertainment. “Everything was wonderful. It was the No. 1 theater that Crescent owned,” he said.
While people enjoyed the shows, life didn’t stop at the front doors. During World War II, Abbott served in the military. “When I went into the service, my brother and wife worked the theater while I was gone,” he said.
As society changed, so did the theater. When the theater first opened, it was segregated with African Americans sitting in the balcony. When the law changed, so did the theater.
Abbott said The Crescent company was a wonderful company to work. “They were independent and they had (theaters) all over Tennessee. Martin bought them, and then Carmike bought Martin,” he said. “But nothing takes the place of this one.”
Sitting in the present theater lobby/art gallery with Claiborne, Abbott pointed to where the fireplace is now and explained that a concession stand was there previously and an office was situated where the current box office is now.
Abbott recalls a fire that could have cost him his life. A fire broke out in the theater, he said, while he and the theater’s manager were in Knoxville.
“The manager had money in the office, and, when we drove up, there was a fire in the office. He had an old Chrysler that looked like a bolt. We drove up, and he threw on the brakes,” he said. “I ran in, and the office was burning. The money, he had laid it on a shelf, and it was burning. I ran downstairs and ran into a pole and knocked myself out. “We never did find out what caused the fire,” he said..
Abbott said his first movies were silent ones and, when Abbott started in 1935, tickets for the movie were 10 or 15 cents and then increased to 25 cents.
The 91-year-old Abbott grew up in Loudon County and didn’t come to Maryville until he was a teen. “When I lived in Lenoir City, my uncle owned a theater and he got me and my brother to come see silent movies and that’s how I got into theater,” he said.
“I was 15 when I came here. As soon as I got to Maryville, I started working in the theaters.”
“The beautiful part about it was I enjoyed working here, and I enjoyed the public,” he said.
Cars were scarce so most folks walked to the theater, Abbott remembers. “They would come to the show and be down in dumps and come out laughing. That tickled me. I felt I kept people entertained,” he said. “People only made 50 cents an hour, but we kept the theatre full all the time, day and night.”
The theater wasn’t air conditioned at first, but the company that built the theater created a cooling system. “Water sprayed, and we had a great big fan that brought air off the water through two vents. You could hear the noise and vibration of that fan, but it cooled it,” he said. “If you had a big crowd I’d go down and turn the fan up. You could feel the cool air. When we got air conditioning, we got rid of that noise.”
Abbott said that although he remembers the silent movies, “the talkies” were good for the Capitol because they built a great sound system. “It was perfect. It beat the Tennessee. We had people come from Knoxville because of it,” he said.
He also enjoyed the stage shows, which numbered around 10 a year, he said.
Abbott said his normal schedule was 1 to 8 p.m. when the movies showed. If there was a stage show, it ran after the movie from 8 to 9 p.m., then went back to movies until about 11 p.m.
“When we had a stage show, I worked the stage and then went up and started the movie again. I was the stage manager also, so I had to take care of that.”
Abbott said he also had to come to the theater in the mornings. “I had to check the film, run the previews, check the concession stand and everything. Then I went back home and came back at 1 p.m. and stayed until 11 p.m.,” he said. “If the popcorn machine went down, I had to fix it. If something broke, I had to stay all night because I didn’t have time in the day to fix it.”
Abbott said they sold fountain drinks but not ice cream or chewing gum. “We tried ice cream for a while. Someone got up one day and their shoes were stuck to the floor. She had to walk out barefooted,” he said.
Abbott said loved being in the theater business and seeing people entertained. “They were happy. They stayed happy until they closed the theater,” he said. “That television ruined us. That ruined theaters, but I loved theaters. I worked in theater 54 years.”
On Abbott’s visit to the theater, workers were scurrying to finish up for Claiborne’s Sept. 26 opening date. Even though the look is different, Abbott said he was happy with what he saw.
“Oh goodness gracious,” he said, as Claiborne took him around the theater. “It brings back a lot of memories. This place means a lot to me.”
Abbott couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for what Claiborne had done. “I’m proud of you,” he said the Claiborne. “You surprised me. I was shocked, and I was so surprised,” he said. “You’ve done wonders. It took my breath away.”