A new life for historic theaters
By By Penny Randall / staff writer
April 6, 2003
The oldest theaters in Mississippi have varied pasts. Here's a look at four that are getting a second chance through renovation and new ownership.
Beverly Drive-In in Hattiesburg: Opened in 1948, the historic Beverly Drive-In was successful for decades. But in 1987, the theater's owner passed away suddenly and the theater was forced to close.
Jim Norton and Barbara Suick, who own seven drive-in theaters in Florida and Wisconsin, reopened the Beverly on May 15, 2001.
Norton and Suick's N&S Theater Drive-Ins is one of the largest drive-in chains in the country, and their eight drive-ins are among roughly 600 left in the United States. The two are leasing the Beverly from the daughter of the original owner.
The Beverly reopened as a first-run twin theater. It has 500 parking spaces with two large screens one measuring 100 feet x 75 feet and another measuring 80 feet x 40 feet.
Hamasa Shrine Temple Theatre: Built in 1923, the Hamasa Shrine Temple was designed by the Saenger Amusements chain's house architect, Emile Weil.
The fraternal organization and the Saengers worked out an arrangement where the Saengers would operate a movie house inside the auditorium of the Temple starting in 1927, while the Shrine would own the building, and their functions would be held in an upstairs ballroom.
Built in a blend of Byzantine and Moorish styles, the Temple was highly ornate, and dramatically decorated with bright colors, gold, several kinds of marble, intricately molded swirls of plasterwork and Middle-Eastern style mosaics.
It also had marble fountains and bronze chandeliers. The Temple was hailed as one of the finest theaters between New Orleans and Atlanta.
When the Saenger's lease ended in 1972, the Shrine took over The Temple completely, restored it conservatively and made minimal alterations. It still looks remarkably the same as it did when it opened in 1928.
Today, movies are shown on occasion at the Temple Theatre. But its main use is for live stage shows, plays and concerts. It also continues to be used for Shrine activities.
The Hamasa Shrine Temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Saenger in Biloxi: Opened Jan. 15 1929, the Saenger was touted as the Pearl of the Gulf South.
The $200,000 theater was owned by Julian and A.D. Saenger of New Orleans. It was designed by Roy A. Benjamin and built by Arthur Perry. The Saenger Biloxi was one of more than 30 theaters the brothers owned in America, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The first movie to be shown in the Saenger was "Interference," produced by Paramount and billed as a 100 percent all-talking picture starring Clive Brooks, Evelyn Bront, William Powell and Doris Kenyon. The theatre seats 1,245.
Over the next four decades, the theatre changed hands several times and last operated as a movie house under the ABC Theaters banner.
In 1974, a fire closed the theatre and, in 1975, ABC deeded the theater to the city of Biloxi. The brick and steel structure was sound and the first phase of renovation began that year.
The year 1981 saw the addition of a green room, and, in 1983, the Biloxi Saenger was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the late 1990s, the colorful electric sign was replaced with a duplicate of the original and, in 2001, the lobby was restored. Further restoration is planned.
Tupelo Community Theatre: The former Lyric Theatre, now known as the Tupelo Community Theatre, was built on the site of an earlier opera house in 1912. It was exclusively a vaudeville house until the 1930s when it became part of the Malco chain of movie houses.
Renovations to the theater then included a new marquee and an Art Deco redesign for the interior.
The Lyric continued presenting stage shows in addition to movies. The Lyric remained a popular movie house until 1984, when it was abandoned and nearly demolished.
The Tupelo Community Theatre came along, purchased the old Lyric, and it has remained open ever since. Stage shows are now back as the focal point of the theater.