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College of Arts & Sciences
Savannah River Archaeological Research Program

Sid O'Berry Theater

The following is a web exhibit on Sid O’Berry’s Theater in Ellenton, South Carolina.

Sidney O’Berry remembered the early theaters in Ellenton and how they inspired his father and him to open the permanent Ellenton Theater.

Old photo of ellenton threatreAs a child, I was fascinated by the flickering shadows on a piece of white painted canvas projected by a gentleman I have never forgotten through all these many years. His name was Mr. White and he erected a “picture-show” tent on a vacant lot across the street from Norman Brinkley’s store. Inside the tent were two seating arrangements; on the left were benches (not chairs) for the black patrons, and on the right the same arrangement for the white customers. The tent wasn’t very large, holding perhaps fifty to a hundred people, and the hand-cranked projector was located in the open and operated by Mr. White.

Mr. White stayed for quite some months, even into the winter. But cold weather did not hamper his business. Positioned inside the tent near the front row of benches were two large oil drums converted into heaters, and usually they were kept almost red-hot during the movie.

[Later] in 1938, a Mr. Mills and his wife, from Varnville, South Carolina, with their son Lee Murray, would drive approximately fifty miles to Ellenton twice a week to show feature movies. They had a very nice theater in Varnville, but to have one in Ellenton presented them with a challenge! They first selected a location which, I believe, was a portion of Mr. Russ Sanders’ acreage behind his store on the side street where Mr. Sam Lowe, Senior, and his family lived. At first, a rectangular affair was constructed of two-by-four wooden beams upon which was nailed chicken wire that was then covered with burlap bags to keep people on the outside from viewing the screen, and there was no ceiling or roof–it was an open-air theater–and movies were shown only at night, of course. In due time, a wooden building was constructed that had a roof which kept the rain out. The seating arrangement was similar to Mr. White’s. Mr. Mills would sell tickets to the blacks at the right door, and Mrs. Mills sold tickets to the whites on the left, and there was a divider running down the middle of the building for segregation.

There was a platform constructed about six feet from the dirt floor upon which Lee MurrayOld photo of two people operating movie projector placed the two portable Simplex 35mm projectors they brought with them each trip. The platform was not enclosed to make a projection booth but was in the open for all to see. The projectors used incandescent lamps–not carbon arcs–and had a film reel and magazine capacity of 1,000 feet (ten minutes of playing time) after which the next projector was turned on for another ten minutes and thus have a continuous performance by just switching from one to the other throughout the program.

Eventually, during a terrific wind and rainstorm, the poorly braced building collapsed, and Ellenton was without a theater for several years until my father created a much nicer one from an old store building on Main Street, making “curved” benches with backs for patrons instead of flat boards–and retaining the dividing rail between whites and blacks. Our first movie starred Gene Autry in “Sierra Sue,” and it was shown on a Saturday, and while not in color, it was in sepia tint–a carry over from the silent picture days when films were often tinted or toned a color to suggest various moods.

–Sid O’Berry from Ellenton: My Life……It’s Death

When I was fifteen or sixteen, Mr. O’Berry built what we called the Sack Theater. We called it the Sack Theater, ’cause it was made out of croker bags. He would nail them to the sides of a wooden frame and he used it for a theater until he finally got a building down there next to Jean’s place.

Old photo of man beside movie projector

–Donald Franklin, 1994

We also had a theater in Ellenton. We went to the movies whenever we could get money to go. That’s where my mother saw Gone With the Wind. She and some of the older ladies saw it before I ever saw it.

–Doris Steed Franklin, 1994

all images copyright Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, 2010
images cannot be reproduce without the written permission of the SRARP