December 2007

Most area folks can sadly recall Sept. 1, 1981 when the Majestic Theatre closed its doors forever. The beautifully designed edifice, built in 1902, served the city well for 79 years with first-run motion pictures.

Pre-1928 movies were a far cry from those of today; the first ones sported black and white images that could be seen but not heard. Silent features consisted of several six to eight-minute reels that were alternately played on two projectors. This monotonous labor-intensive routine required projectionists to work hastily so as to avoid annoying film interruptions. Advanced technology soon permitted movies to fit onto one or two large reels.

An organist or pianist, positioned in front of the flickering screen, was often used to provide musical accompaniment. Inscribed words on the big screen kept the audience knowledgably of the action. The Majestic’s owners purchased a “Mighty Wurlitzer” theatre organ in 1926 at a cost of $20,000. Frank Wilson was the first organist.

In 1928, major cinematic improvements occurred with the introduction of sound, the first offering being the 1927 “talkie” movie, “The Jazz Singer,” starring noted “Mammy” singer and actor, Al Jolson. Sound tracks were recorded on large record discs. To synchronize sight and sound, the projectionist carefully keyed the record groove with the “start” frame on the film. Miscues were normal fare with film breakage and record skips, throwing movies out of sync.

In those days, film advertising on theatre “fronts,” as they were called, was the responsibility of the owners, thereby requiring a staff artist to create new ones each time the movie changed.

 The excitement of the first “talkie” motion picture to be shown at the Majestic Theatre can be sensed in a Sept. 13, 1928 Johnson City Chronicle article: “One of the most significant events in the history of motion pictures will occur next Monday, Sept. 17, when the Majestic Theatre introduces to the public of this section the marvels and wonders of this scientific age, Vitaphone and Movietone, pictures with a voice and soul.”

The article went on to state that Warner Brothers’ new technology was in its second year of existence and had been accepted at such leading cities as Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, New York and Birmingham. The Majestic, affiliated with the Publix Theatres’ chain, was now ready to begin showing synchronized pictures.

The movie featured Al Jolson singing such songs as “Toot, Toot, Tootsie;” “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face;” Blue Skies;” and “Kol Nidre,” a Jewish prayer. Also included were the first talking news, Fox Movietone News, and other Vitaphone “shorts.” The Majestic Theatre owners expressed pride in being the first to announce the unique movie for East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

“The Jazz Singer” occupied the bill for the first part of the week and a new film, “Glorious Betsy,” played the second half. Matinee prices were 10 cents for children and 35 cents for adults. Showings after 6 p.m. were the same for children but 50 cents for adults.

 The newspaper article concluded with a message from theatre management: “The Majestic Theatre extends an invitation to the people of the outside cities and towns to avail themselves of this opportunity of seeing and hearing the latest and best pictures at all times in Johnson City, as Vitaphone and Movietone will become permanent policy at this Publix playhouse.” 

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In the mid 1960s, I became acquainted with George and Mary Parker, owners of the Dixie Drive-In Restaurant at 425 E. Main and occasional patrons of Frick’s Music Mart, where I had a part-time job. This restaurant was always one of my favorites, mainly because of their hamburgers with that special tasting sauce.

Top: The Dixie in the 1920s, Bottom: The restaurant in the 1950s

Jean Lewis, former writer for the Press-Chronicle, interviewed the couple just prior to their closing the restaurant in 1972 and gleaned 42 years of mouthwatering memories from them. The Parkers opened the popular eatery on Sept. 30, 1930 and are credited with pioneering curb service in Johnson City. This amenity allowed folks the luxury of eating inside their vehicles.

The husband and wife team acquired the novel idea after visiting a relative in Washington, DC, where curb service restaurants were already established and doing a flourishing business. After stopping at several drive-ins, they liked what they saw and decided to offer the same service in Johnson City. This was a gutsy venture considering the fact that the country was in the midst of a depression.

Mr. Parker related how the two of them pursued the dicey concept equipped with a bold dream, $85 cash, a bank loan, some scrap lumber and the assistance of some teenage boys. That initial effort produced a 12 x 20 foot structure that bore the name Dixie Barbecue.

According to Mrs. Parker: “We grossed $6 on our first day of business. We didn’t advertise or anything; people just came in. It happened that the Appalachian Tri-State Fair was in operation that day, located where the Municipal Building now sits.”

The first year would prove to be a difficult one, causing the entrepreneurs to wonder if they had done the right thing: “One day,” said Mrs. Parker, “it was so bad and snowy with no customers in sight that we decided to just close down and give up. About that time, a man came in and gave us six takeout orders. From that time on, we never entertained the thought of quitting.” The couple confessed to working seven days a week while caring for two nephews.

The Parkers were quite proud that so many youngsters, principally boys, worked there over the years: “Most of those who worked here as curb hops went on to make outstanding businessmen. We couldn’t begin to name them all, but there are those who became lawyers, architects, ministers and realtors.” The building literally expanded eight and ten feet at a time as the business grew in popularity, all the while maintaining a comfortable and affordable atmosphere conducive to family dining.

The Parkers cite one memorable event from May 1944 when three homesick GIs stationed in England painted a sign on a ballpark fence using foot-high letters and sent the Parkers a picture of it. It read: “Eat at Dixie Bar-B-Q – Home of Delicious Hamburgers, Johnson City.” The photo identified two of the three soldiers as Gale Cox and Cone Dixon, both former curb hops at the Dixie. The restaurant owners prominently displayed it in the foyer of their business for several years. The valued picture abruptly vanished one day after five busloads of students from Kingsport descended on the restaurant following a football game with their archrival, Science Hill High School. Fortunately, the picture was later recovered.

Mrs. Parker concluded the 1972 interview by saying: “It breaks our hearts to leave the business world of Johnson City, but it’s time we thought of our health and the future.”  

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The discovery of an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings is always an exciting find and often contributes to an enhanced understanding of history. Such was the case in late October 1938 when Mrs. Kate Keys of 407 Highland Avenue found two pages from a scrapbook dating back to 1888, just 10 days before the national elections. The specifics of the find were not specified.

The unidentified material, which most likely came from The Comet, described the upcoming November 2 presidential election between Democrat Grover Cleveland and his Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison. Of particular note was a reference to Washington County residents and brothers Bob and Alf Taylor who, just two years prior, ran against each other in the now famous “War of the Roses” campaign for governor of Tennessee. After the votes were counted, Bob had prevailed.

Harrison became president in 1889 by receiving a majority of electoral votes, although Cleveland had a plurality in the popular column. Cleveland turned the tables later and went into office for his second term. For governor, the Republicans ran S.W. Hawkins of Carroll County; for Congress, A.A. “Alf” Taylor of Washington County; for senator, James A. West, also of Washington County; and for floater, C.C. Collins of Carter County. The Democrats chose Robert L. (“Fighting Bob”) Taylor of Washington County.

Not all of the find was political fare. At the top of one of the pages is a picture in red of the American flag with a caption written in faded brown ink: “The flag of our own happy country.” A poem in praise of the flag by William H. Burleigh occupies the upper left corner, while another gem of poetry, “The Drunkard’s Daughter” by Rev. W.Q.A. Graham, takes the right-hand side.

The other side of the sheet contains more faded brown writing that proclaims: “For conduct good and lessons learned, your teacher can commend.” There is also a poem clipped from a publication called “The Methodist,” titled “The Resurrection and the Life” and written by Sereno Edwards Todd.

A death note, probably taken from the same publication, was written in a strikingly dissimilar style to that used nowadays. It ran, in part: “Died of flux (diarrhea) at her home near Loy’s X Roads, Union County Tenn., July 11, 1884, in the 27th year of her age. She was naturally of a cheerful and affectionate disposition. For the last six or seven years, she was altimes a great sufferer. Literally she passed through the furnace of affliction. We trust these dispensations consumed the dross and refined all the gold of her nature. We have not learned as to her spiritual comforts in the last hours. Only know that she has passed to the Spirit Land.”

The final clipping was an amusing four-stanza poem by a David W. Wright explaining why he was slow paying his subscription to the newspaper. The first and fourth stanzas read: “Send on your paper, printer; Don’t strike my name off yet. You know the times are stringent, And money hard to get. But I must have the paper, Cost what it may to me. I’d rather dock my sugar, And do without my tea.”

Thanks to Mrs. Kate Keys, her sharing of two pages of nineteenth century history almost 70 years ago allows us a brief yet interesting peek into a piece of Johnson City’s storied past. 

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While my father was serving his country overseas during WWII, he received a black and white Christmas card from his employer, Eastman Kodak Company in Kingsport, with these expectant words:

“The lights are still burning at Tennessee Eastman this Christmas – lights of hope and good cheer – lights of welcome awaiting your safe return. With best wishes from your company – P.J. Wilcox and James C. White.” Also enclosed was one of 11,000 $50 war bonds sent to servicemen and women stateside and abroad.


An examination of several Johnson City Press-Chronicle newspapers from December 1942 to 1944 denotes what many families are experiencing today – balancing the joy of the season with the harsh reality of a war. One ominous front-page article contained unwanted news: “American troops engaged in trying to stem the German breakthrough are suffering a big battle price in men and material, but are making the enemy also pay a fearful cost in blood and munitions for his great Western Front counteroffensive.”

Late Dec. 1944 found the city with temperatures in the low 20s and a heavy, slick blanket of snow and ice covering the region. School superintendent C.E. Rogers announced that city buses were running and that street forces were busy keeping the steps at Science Hill and Junior High free of the white stuff. Westbound trains at Southern Railway were running late; the Streamliner had arrived into the city six hours past due and No. 41 passenger train was 3.5 hours behind schedule.

Sixteen women’s organizations and eight Girl Scout troops were actively promoting bond sales that, to date, had yielded $47,156.50. The names of 497 servicemen to whom the bonds were dedicated were posted in the Main Street window of Sterchi Brothers. The newspaper counted down the 25 days of Christmas with a message at the bottom left on the front page, such as “23 Shopping Days to Christmas, Give War Bonds, Stamps.”

One edition noted that 17 men from Selective Service Board #1 and 45 from Board #2 were en route to an Army induction center. A “Daily Holiday Bible Reading” section was posted each day on page 4 with one displaying the first six verses of Psalms 37. Needy families were reminded to register at the Salvation Army office for Christmas dinner baskets to be distributed at a “family party” being held at the First Presbyterian Church. Ration dates for meats and fats, processed foods, sugar, shoes and gasoline were listed: “Sugar: Book 4, stamps 30 through 34, valid indefinitely for five pounds each. Gasoline: No. 12 coupons in ‘A’ books good for four gallons through Dec. 21.”   

Five East Tennessee Seabees – Henry Tippett, Ray Britt, Glenn Poarch, William Cawood and John Laws – sent V-Mail letters to the Press-Chronicle from the Pacific theater as part of a state proclamation designating Dec. 28 as Seabee Day in Tennessee.

Holiday ads populated the newspapers: Fields: “Dress Shirts, $1.49-$1.98; Coplan Ties, $.50-$1; and Suspender sets, $.69-$1.”

Sears Roebuck: “Walnut Veneer End Table, $7.98; Chenille Rugs, $2.98; Hunting Pants, $1.98; and Christmas Tree Stands, $.69.”

Kings: “Black Chesterfield Coats, $35 to $59.95; Topflight Topper-Fashion of the Year.”

Sam’s Haberdashery (Samuel E. Miller): “Buy Him a Hat, $2.95-$9.95.”

The Little Stores: Coffee, $.30 lb.; Pork Chops, $.37 lb.; Flour $1.45, 25-lb. Bag; and Shrimp, No. 1 Tin, $.35 with 3-points of ration stamps.”

This Christmas, let’s adopt the same message on the 1940s Kodak card and offer lights of hope for today’s service personnel and await their safe return home.


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During the late 1940s, I recall seeing young men in downtown Johnson City selling a weekly national newspaper with the curious title “Grit.” These salesmen stood at busy locations, typically the corner of Spring and E. Main streets and along the front of the old City Bus Terminal at Buffalo.

A Grit newspaper in 1932 consisted of a regular size newspaper and 8.5 x 11.5 “Story Section” insert. The 28-page tabloid contained seven mostly “to be continued” stories aimed at different ages and both genders; two full page cartoon strips, “Bringing Up Father” and “The Bungle Family;” a column titled “Poems – New and Old Favorites;” and numerous ads. The successful Williamsport, PA newspaper recruited boys from across the country to peddle its merchandize in the bustling business districts of yesteryear.

An ad from the same 1932 Grit newspaper reads: “Boys – Sell Grit – Earn Cash, also a watch, rifle, glove, wagon, knife, scooter and many more free prizes. Fellows, you can have a paying business of your own by selling Grit on Saturdays. Over 19,000 boys are now making money and winning prizes. Besides their free prizes, many of them earn $1 to $5 every Saturday.”

A second ad from the news publication further stated: “Grit is easy to sell. It contains the news of the world, 150 pictures, comics, sports, a wonderful Story Section and many other intensely interesting features that delight the entire family. We give you a newsbag free.” A notice inside the paper was aimed at obtaining steady customers: “Send us $2 and your full address and Grit, together with the Story Section, will be sent to your post office or delivered by your mail carrier 52 weeks without further difficulty.”

In order to recruit young street vendors, the business published small 12-page comic books, such as one titled “Grit Will Help You As Nothing Else Can!” The storyline involves a young man receiving a leadership award from the local Boys Club. His friend Joe, envious of the lad’s recognition, decides to improve his skills by becoming a Grit paperboy. The results are quite predictable. After becoming a successful Grit salesman, Joe likewise receives a leadership award from the club and earns enough money to go to camp.

The booklet mentions six distinguished men who acknowledged that their Grit selling experience helped them along the road to success. The most recognizable celebrity was singing cowboy star, Gene Autry. Each Grit “salesboy” wore a hexagon shaped bronze-colored pin on his shirt to identify him as being an “Authorized Salesman.” After selling papers on the street for a week, carriers filled out a weekly sales report and returned it to the company, along with cardboard coin cards containing money collected that week.

The brainchild behind Grit was German immigrant Dietrick Lamade, who began publishing it in 1882. The entrepreneur was not satisfied with just selling papers; he wanted his product to brighten readers' lives with news focused on happiness, optimism, peace, cheer and contentment. Conspicuously absent was pessimistic and negative reporting.

Lamade’s recruits were said to have learned valuable lessons in honesty, integrity and perseverance. Grit sales figures went from 100,000 in 1900 to 300,000 in 1916. Grit is still around today but is now published as a magazine focusing on contemporary country life.

The young eager males hoping to get rich by selling Grit newspapers at downtown street corners of heavy pedestrian and automobile traffic flow have long since vanished from the American scene. 

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