October 2013

It is enjoyable to explore the genealogy of old buildings in downtown Johnson City. In particular, one edifice at 236 E. Main had a long and varied subsistence. Many of us associate several businesses with that location: Wallace Shoe Store (1970-72), Jo-Ann's Shops (1950s-60s), Christiansen's Cafe (late 1940s) and Dinty Moore Cafe (early 1940s).

Edisonia (top), Criterion (middle), Edisonia

Some of our more mature Heritage page readers might also recall three theatres that operated at that address from 1909 until 1937. In 1909-11, the Edisonia Theatre appeared to offer stage shows and plays that included a variety of vaudeville performances. Although the site was empty in 1913, it reopened soon after, apparently for the purpose of showing silent black and white movies. 

“Edisonia,” a name that stirs nostalgia for many theatre devotees, sported an admission price of a jitney (nickel), becoming a landmark for popular-priced amusements in the city.

The name Edisonia became a synonym for theatre in the minds of many fans in earlier days, according to Mrs. Jessie Jones Keys, widow of George Keys, an early movie house pioneer in Johnson City. George entered the business when he bought half interest in the theatre from his brother-in-law, Loftus S. “Loaf” Jones. A document bearing the date of March 5, 1913 was in the possession of Mrs. Keys. Her residence was listed as 408 E. Unaka Avenue.

Over time, George became active in operation of the Majestic and other nearby theatres. Mrs. Keys recalled when people would say, “Let's see what's going on at the Edisonia and then go over to the other Edisonia. The “other” one referred to the Majestic Theatre, located directly across the street.

A former projectionist at the Majestic and other local theatres here, John Ralph Perkins, recalled the old days: “The Edisonia,” he noted, “was also operated by George Keys and 'Loaf.' I went to work at the Edisonia in 1924 as an operator, a position that eventually became known as a projectionist. I remember that, at the Edisonia, we showed mostly westerns and serials.”

Some of the old stars included Elmo Lincoln (billed as the strongest man in the world and who became the first Tarzan in the era of silent pictures), Pearl White, Eddie Polo and many others. Some of the western stars were William S. Hart, Bronco Billy Anderson, Wild Bill Cody, William Farnum (and his brother, Dustin Farnum), Hoot Gibson, Jack Hoxie, Buck Jones, Harry Carey, Jack Holt, Tex Ritter, Gene Autrey ('I'm Back in the Saddle Again') and Leo B. Carrillo (who became recognized as Pancho, the humorous broken-English sidekick of  The Cisco Kid).

 “Another thing about the Edisonia,” said Perkins, “is that we would pack them in on weekends at 10 and 15 cents. Since seating was limited, when the house became full, Jones would holler up to the booth and tell me to speed up the machine so could finish the picture quicker, get the old crowd out and fill the house again.”

 In the 1920s, the Edisonia was given a name change to Criterion and some modifications after the business acquired a large sign from the Criterion Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. However, the clientele remained essentially the same. Perkins noted that the sign was quite large, being the biggest upright sign displayed in Johnson City at that time.

Interior modifications included painting, eliminating the large scenic panels along the side walls, removal of electric fans in favor of a better cooling system that utilized bigger fans attached to the roof upfront and moving the piano from the left side to the a spot directly beneath the screen.

A change in theatre designation also brought forth a fresh new crop of cowpunchers that included Bob Steele, Bill Elliott, Roy Walker, Bill Boyd and numerous others, but this was still the era of silent movies so the audience could not hear them. This would change shortly with the advent of “talkies.”

The theatre basically became a western theatre with good guys, bad hombres, cow towns, ghost towns, pretty girls and stunning horses galloping across the screen. Occasionally, management would display a different genre, but soon returned to what patrons wanted –  the western format. The Criterion and its predecessor, the Edisonia, also had a goodly fare of comedies and shorts.

Harry Cook, a former employee who became traffic manager at ET&WNC Transportation Co., worked for several other theatres that including the Majestic and Criterion, beginning work in 1929 while still a student at Science Hill High School. He served as an usher, ticket collector, relief cashier and assistant manager. He left theatre work after about eight years.

About 1935, the Criterion became the State. By this time, the building needed a major overhaul to stay competitive, especially now that sound movies had been ushered to the front. Extensive remodeling was performed that included improved sound equipment, comfortable seating, a new screen, new floors and a thorough cleaning that involved removing tobacco spray from the walls. In spite of the improvements, the theatre lost its patrons, who drifted to other nearby downtown theatres such as  the Majestic, Sevier, Liberty and Deluxe (later Tennessee).

 The theatre did not survive its  new name and upgrades. It closed its doors about 1939 and was put on the market for other commercial use. The first company to display an interest in the property was Dinty Moore's Restaurant, who had just lost its lease on the opposite (north) side of Main Street and moved into the remodeled theater building.

In 1944, Henry Christianson resigned as manager of nearby Sterchi's Furniture Store and bought out Moore. He had the premises remodeled in 1947 but in early 1948, closed the business and rejoined Sterchi's Knoxville operation. 

The next retail to show interest in the property was Keyburn Restaurant, whose name was derived from the two owners, Keys and Burnham). Hugh Millard managed the restaurant for about a year and then closed it. Later, the Jo Anne Shop, a woman's apparel store, occupied the building for an extended period of time.

W.F. “Burgess” (“Shorty”) Smythe, who operated Smythe Electric Co. next door for many years, recalled attending movies at the old theatres. His firm performed the electrical work for much of the remodeling efforts during the numerous changes at the old theatre's location.

The next enterprise to acquire the location was Wallace Shoe Store, Inc. They left the large sign in place to remind customers that their establishment was linked to the old theatre's storied history with all of its amusement, glory, tumult and declines. That portion of our city's downtown entertainment history had seen its day and abruptly faded into yesteryear.  

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The 1916 black and white silent film version of Davy Crockett was a dramatic contrast to the 1950's Technicolor one.

L to R: The Real Davy Crockett, The 1916 Movie One, The 1950's Television Crockett

The 1916 movie starred American singer, dancer and actor, Dustin Farnum, as Davy and Winifred Kingston as his sweetheart and future wife, Eleanor Vaughn (fictitional). The distribution company, Paramount Pictures and the production company, Pallas Pictures produced a 50-minute movie on five 10-minute reels.

Crockett, in name and reputation, conjures up the image of a tall, brave mountaineer, ready at any given moment to tackle anything that could be thrust upon him on the ground or through the air. Although Davy was somewhat famed as a hardy huntsman, in the Pallas picture, he was portrayed more as a lover than a fighter, in spite of the fact that he could not overcome his shyness around women. Although he found it impossible to tell Eleanor how much he loved her, his acting as a lover was made creditable. That would have been more the case had the Pallas script used an earlier version that was released as an opera.

Critics that year noted that there could not have been a better actor to act portray Crockett than 42-year-old Farnum. Although he performed three heroic scenes during the 50 minute production in accepted style, that was about all the film had to offer its expectant audiences. For the rest of the motion picture, the actor was mushy at times, working with a story line that was soggy plus an elongated unrelated side narrative that distracted from the intended subject. 

In one scene, a scheming gambler planned to ensnare Eleanor, who was the daughter of a wealthy southern gentleman. The character was played by Page Peters, who tragically drowned soon after the film was released. To see Peters alive in action on the big screen, knowing that he was deceased, suggested a possible money-making opportunity. Families of fair means could have its members individually filmed with just enough footage to revive them later from the grave, allowing them to live forever on celluloid. The idea apparently never materialized.

Hoping to inspire Davy, Eleanor read a book titled Lochinvar to him. It was a fictional romantic hero of the ballad “Marmion” (1808), written in 1808 by Sir Walter Scott. However, even a famous romantic poem about a man who saved the woman he loved from marrying someone else made little impression on Crockett.

Soon after, another suitor who was interested in Vaughn's family sizable fortune advanced to the screen and began courting the impatient Eleanor. Even though she loved Davy, she agreed to marry the man, but on the wedding day, Davy decides to call out Lochinvar from England and transport him to the wild frontier. Just before the bride and groom exchanged marriage vows, Davy grabbed his prize, whisked her away and soon married her.

In other action, Crockett was attacked outside his cabin by a pack of ravenous wolves. Using his bare arm as a door brace, he displayed extraordinary bravery that highly impressed his audiences. Later, Farnum expertly broke an unruly horse and, in doing so, performed some fine bronco riding to the delight of his fans. Another scene found the actor expertly trapping a bear.

In summary, the movie's scenic surroundings were very entertaining and were it not for a somewhat drawn-out and padded story, this “Davy Crockett” production could have been a film disaster. It was the opinion of a reviewer that, with Farnum playing the lead role, the possibilities existed for another film of similar title and plot that learned from the failures of the first one. The critic encouraged Pallas to pursue another Davy Crockett movie along more active lines.

Something conspicuously absent in the 1916 version was the hit song from the 1950s titled, The Ballad of David Crockett.” It was recorded by several singers, but Bill Hayes's version became the most popular.

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Dr. Frans M. Olbrechts (1889-1958), a Belgian anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institute, became known for his work with seven Indian tribes, which included the Cherokees. Of particular interest was his documenting of atypical native American customs.

For instance, “Catch a green snake, hold it horizontally extended by the neck and tail, run it seven times back and forth between your two rows of teeth and then turn it loose. Eat no food prepared with salt for four days following this procedure.” The person was said to be protected from a toothache for the rest of his or her  life (if they survived the trauma of the snake). The toothache theory, Dr. Olbrechts explained, was that a ghost transmutes the particles of food lodged about the teeth into worms, which then burrow into a tooth. Cures were supposedly effected by a phantom squirrel that pulled out the worms and carried them away.

Other examples of toothache prevention were “Whenever you see a shooting star, you must immediately spit or you will lose a tooth shortly afterwards. If you always heed this advice, you will keep all your teeth for as long as you live.” Also, you were never supposed to throw anything into a fire that had been chewed, such as a wad of tobacco or the skin of an apple, or the flames will “chew your teeth.” The method of preventing boils was to swallow the body of a living daddy-longlegs after first pulling off its legs.

Some of the prophylactic methods came from skunks and buzzards. “The odor of the skunk,” said Dr. Olbrechts,” “is believed to keep away contagious diseases. The scent bag is taken out and hung over the doorway, a small hole being pierced in it in order that the contents may ooze out over the timbers. At times of an epidemic, the entire body of the animal is hung over the door and as an additional safeguard, skunk oil is rubbed over the skin.”

Buzzard feathers frequently were hung over a doorway because this bird preys upon carcasses. It is supposed to be immune from ill effects caused by bad odors and able to communicate this trait to those who have its feathers.

Dreams and omens played a prominent part in Cherokee “medicine.” According to the doctor, anyone who dreams of birds will instantly become insane. Bees or wasps appearing in a dream are predictive of blindness, while dreaming of a burn indicates an impending snakebite. When one dreams of a ballgame, the complete burning of a cabin or of some relative leaving home, it means that some member of the settlement will soon pass away. A dream of a rushing bull or of a windstorm is prophetic of an impending epidemic.

Constant sickness was thought to be caused by malicious animal spirits and witches. The proper procedure was to find the responsible cause and then call upon some opposing force for help. If a disease is thought to be caused by worms, for example, various birds that are worm eaters are solicited to bring about a cure. Should the most striking feature of the disease be its obscurity, such a sly and wary creature as the otter is commanded to effect the cure.

The Indians have a considerable “materia medica” (a body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing). Olbrechts found the uses of plants were determined by their peculiarities of growth, rather than any real effectiveness.

For example, a shrub growing in the cavity of a hollow tree is used against “painful remembrance of the dead, because as it was explained by the medicine man, “when we tear away the roots stubbornly clinging to the tree, we will, when we drink a decoction or concentrate of the roots also be able to pull out of our minds the remembrance that makes us sick.” A boiled down mixture of ferns, therefore, will give the rheumatism patient the power to straighten out the rheumatic muscles of his or her limbs.

Dr. Olbrechts spent several months in Cherokee country gathering material to complete a study of the medical native lore. A report combining the work of him and James Moody, another Smithsonian pioneer of Indian medicine folklore, was issued in Nov. 1932 by the Smithsonian Institute. 

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May 31, 1909 was a momentous day in Greeneville, Tennessee – the former 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was eulogized. He lay at rest among the sprawling greenery in the National Cemetery, which for the previous 34 years had served as the resting place for the remains of the former president.

purchased by the government and made into a national cemetery. It was a beautiful where, for several years in his early life, Mr. Johnson had worked as a tailor. The property was meticulously provided for and commanded a fine view of the mountain range which separated Mr. Johnson’s adopted state of Tennessee with North Carolina, where he was born.

Thousands of the descendants of his neighbors and friends in East Tennessee took advantage on that special occurrence. They were there to honor the memory of the former distinguished citizen by organizing the Andrew Johnson Memorial Association.

People came from all portions of the expansive and picturesque East Tennessee countryside. While most were of the present day generation, some were old-timers who spoke about him with much fondness and boasted of having known the “Courageous Commoner,” as he was known in his day. 

The keynote speaker of the occasion, Martin W. Littleton, a U.S. Representative from New York, offered a glowing eulogy of the former president who, during his term of office, was tried on impeachment charges but came up one vote short of conviction. Littleton, a native of East Tennessee, assessed, at great length, the life of the distinguished man in whose honor the people had assembled and further predicted that the day would come when the entire country would pay homage to the memory of Johnson.

Outside visitors as well as local residents found exceptional pleasure in pointing out the still preserved sign of “Andrew Johnson, Tailor,” which continued to adorn one of the most unassuming buildings. The people also took much pride in the fact that, notwithstanding the almost successful effort to forcibly eject Mr. Johnson from the White House, the private cemetery in which he was buried became the first of such cemeteries to be given national status by Congress.

Among those present and participating in the proceedings was the popular Honorable Walter P. Brownlow, member of Congress from that district, who was a near relative of the late Parson Brownlow. Although Walter Brownlow, who was largely responsible for the creation of the National Cemetery, occupied no assigned part on the program that day, he was by common consent awarded a position of prominence.

In addition to Mr. Littleton’s speech, the program consisted of the singing of “America” and the “Star Spangled Banner” by a choir of 200 voices, an invocation by Rev. John S. Eakin and the introduction of Mr. Littleton by Honorary James C Park, closing with the official formation of the Memorial Association.

There was a notable group of musicians in attendance, several of whom were old-time fiddlers, who had furnished music at the political gatherings during the notable Johnson-Gentry gubernatorial campaign prior to the Civil War. Many of them were in a reminiscent mood and between tunes manifested great willingness to entertain visitors with stories of the dim and distant past.

Before the President's death, he made his wishes known: “When I die. wrap my body in the flag of my country, pillow my head on its Constitution and carry it to one of those beautiful hills in Greene County and there let me sleep until resurrection morning.” His wish was carried out to the letter. A silk flag, a gift from a lifelong friend, was used as a shroud, while the head rested on a worn copy of the Constitution, which he read and studied often.

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The recent announcement by Dolly Parton that a $300M expansion was coming to Dollywood prompted today's column. Dolly's dream park evolved over a duration of 25 years through a series of ownership and business name changes.

The earliest offering, Rebel Railroad, was built to compete with the successful Tweetsie Railroad park that was located between Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. Next came Goldrush Junction, Goldrush and Silver Dollar City, the latter being a 75-acre venture that opened in 1977 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Many people recall when Silver Dollar City was in its prime. In 1978, after the park increased in size by 33%, it announced that it needed singers, musicians, actors, actresses and dancers. It boasted of more attendance that year than most New York City Broadway shows.  

In 1980, more than 75 professional craftsmen demonstrated old-time skills during their Fourth Annual National Crafts Festival. The event brought an 80% increase in attendance from the previous year. Crafts ranged from the functional to the ornamental, with emphasis on being “one of a kind.”

A year later, the park began actively hiring senior citizens to augment the work force. These individuals were ideally qualified for making decorative crafts and working with vintage machinery. The park also began promoting “Older American Days” during the month of September; guests 55 and older were admitted at a reduced admission price.

The “City's” 1982 Sixth Annual National Crafts Festival in autumn of that year featured some of the best pioneer craftsmen in the breathtaking setting of the Smoky Mountains. This included authentic steam sawmill operation, glassblowing, grain threshing, cider making, needlepoint, wheat weaving, toile painting , doll making and more.

In 1986, Dolly Parton became a partner of the business with impressive ideas for the park. She commented that she always yearned to change the first letter on the famous “Hollywood hillside sign in California to make it “Dollywood.” The park acquired that name on May 1, 1986. Over the next quarter century, the impressive venture doubled to 150 acres with 10 secondary theme areas. 

When Parton left the hollows of the Smoky Mountains where she was born, the most exciting ride in town was the family horse. Twenty years later, East Tennessee and Dolly had changed. New attractions, included “River Rampage,” an artificial version of white-water rafting, and a steam locomotive that chugged through the surrounding park thrilling the passengers.

In a news conference at the park opening, Dolly said, “East Tennessee gave me life, enthusiasm and inspiration. And it's good if you can give something back. I was born a dreamer and I love the Smoky Mountains. I think it's a very beautiful place for someone with a creative mind.”

The singer/actress was especially pleased that her new business provided employment for the community surrounding where she was born. She said her favorite part of the site was a museum of souvenirs taken from her life, including the “coat of many colors” that she wore as a child, which inspired a song of the same name. Every time she went in the building, it was like looking back at her life.

Dolly's museum did not contain the three-room cabin where she once lived because its present owner would not  part with it. Subsequently, Dolly recreated the cabin as Parton's Back Porch Theater and used it for stage shows. The new owner said she planned to spend as much time as possible at the park during its first summer.

Tourism officials estimated that Dollywood would draw a million visitors a year, compared to a half million that Silver Dollar City park drew its last year. Dolly's influence was significant because of her drive and the fact that she spoke the same language as the people who lived there.

Dolly Parton, the local girl who hit it big, did not forget her humble roots and the fact that she was brought into this world by a mountain doctor who was paid only a bag of cornmeal for his work.

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