Set in historic downtown Canton, The Canton Theatre sits center stage at the heart of the city. Through the years, it has undergone many costume and makeup changes, playing various roles. Its acting parts cast and recast, The Canton Theatre remains a classic, a perennial treasure that has withstood the test of time.
Initially created around 1911, the theater was first called The Bonita in the early 1920s. Hand-cranked movies played, with a wait between the first and second parts as reels were exchanged. Often lasting 30 minutes or so, spectators had enough time to go home and see about the children, come back by the drugstore and get a drink, visit the neighbors and still be back in plenty of time to see the second part.
The Bonita was later updated and renamed The Haven, following a naming contest. Utilizing “modern” projection equipment, The Haven seated less than 150, claiming it was “large enough to entertain a road show of any kind.” Vaudeville enjoyed only a brief stay, since the “populace found it a little wicked.” The first talkie in Canton starred Al Jolson as “The Singing Fool,” marking a “milestone in the motion picture industry world,” according to the papers.
In the late 1930s the theater was purchased by the Martin-Thompson Theatre Company, and in a North Georgia Tribune article of the day, it was described as a “thoroughly modern sound movie palace with all the comfort and color and light and cheer that denotes first class movie houses in the larger cities.” Air conditioning was added, along with inner steel framing, and a newly installed sprinkler system ensured it was fireproof to the point of boasting it would withstand “heat intense enough to crumple brick and mortar.”
In the decades that followed, The Canton Theatre was a destination for many, as residents recollect. Karen Smithwick remembers walking to the show wearing clothes sewn by her grandmother with a little pin of artificial flowers at the top of her blouse as was the style, dressed to “congregate with friends and hopefully get a boyfriend.”
Joe Satterfield recalls going to the movies in town at least every Saturday at 10 a.m. With a quarter to spend, the movie was 9 cents, popcorn, a coke and a candy bar each cost a nickel, and he had a penny left over! The show started with a newsreel followed by a cartoon and a cowboy western. “I can hear the rooster crowing now.” Joe also recalls his first date with Brenda, his wife of more than 50 years. The show starred Brigitte Bardot in a bikini. Joe quips, “I never dated anyone after that!”
Tragically, the closing credits were rolling as The Canton Theatre dramatically fell in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, experiencing an intermission that lasted into the early ’90s. Falling into disrepair, its roof caved in, and, sadly, it became a haven for resident pigeons and was nearly condemned before being acquired in 1997 by the City of Canton and later by the Downtown Development Authority.
Local architect Mark Robillard was commissioned to design its renovation and complete its restoration with careful attention to replicating the art deco style the structure reflected in its early heyday. A monumental staircase utilizing existing truss girders was constructed as were cast deco style medallions, a ball and arch frieze and a new logo designed by Bill Grant, are features employed to suggest and emphasize its early architectural style. Globe lamps, a backlit theater sign, paved entry and the four refurbished original round windows dressed the new entrance while brick, wood, brass, iron and glass complemented the new interior.
Bob Seguin, manager/director of The Canton Theatre, speaks of what he calls “this gem on Main Street.” “This is my life. This is the happiest I have been in my whole working life.” And it shows.
Currently, the Canton Theatre showcases theater, live music and movies, including an upcoming Silver Screen series. The Canton Theatre now stages shows produced by The Cherokee Theatre Company and Broadway Bound Productions, while its goal of producing shows in-house is upcoming with “Anything Goes,” opening on Valentine’s Day 2019. Tyler Webster, the theater business manager, promises that with such a fabulous production team, “It’s going to be ridiculously good.”
There is an old superstition in theater about a ghost light − a bare bulb that remains lit on the stage at all times. The spirits of past actors and the souls of others, who put so much effort into a performance, are always welcomed as the stage is never dark. In The Canton Theatre – downstage right – one remains lit, glowing day and night, illuminating a memorable past.
– Rajayne Cordery, lives in a historic home near downtown Canton and is a lover of all things aged.