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The Princess Theatre: city’s first picture show

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The Princess Theatre was initially built in 1914 where the Guidance Center stands today. Photo courtesy of Gloria Shacklett-Christy.

On a bright summer morning complete with a crystal blue sky, Annie Byrn sat on the porch of her new Main Street home. At her side were all her dollies, arranged just so they would be able to share her excitement over the day’s events unfolding before them. Her father, C.H. Byrn, had given her an important job.

“You’ll be in charge of moving all your dolls,” he had instructed.

Now, she could begin to see the wagons, one by one turning the corner off Church Street and heading toward their new home on East Main Street.

This was not the first time she had watched their slow procession. While they had been building the house, many wagons had come and gone, filled with dirt to fill in low places on the property that flooded during heavy rains. The dirt, she remembered her mother saying, was coming from the foundation workmen were digging for the new theatre a few blocks away.

As Annie pulled her golden brown hair away from her face, she turned to gaze toward the Courthouse. “Only a block away now,” she thought.

She could hear the wheels churning in the gravel together with hoof beats as mule teams strained to pull the wagons, filled this time not with dirt but washed clean and stacked high with their furniture.

Soon her family would be re-settled. Soon her dolls could be tucked in at night in their own little beds, safe and sound as before.

“What a wonderful time to be alive,” she mused, as the sight of the wagons pulling up to their front lawn reminded her of the theatre – from whence so often they had come and that her dad had been telling her about.
The “Princess” he called it.

“There’ll be huge scenes with big people up on the wall,” he said, “moving as if they were real.” Annie could hardly imagine it. But she liked the name. Her daddy treated her like a princess so maybe in some way the new theatre would become hers, too, a special place for her and her dollies to play and dream.

Occasionally, Annie’s parents would go to see the traveling Vaudeville acts that would appear at the Sam Davis Opera House (located on the corner of College and Maple Streets, where Pinnacle Bank now stands). Dad had said the new Princess Theatre, opening soon on Church Street, would also feature Vaudeville acts and be fun for the whole family. Annie could hardly wait!

Today, the Guidance Center occupies the building that formerly housed this early Princess Theatre. The black and white glazed tiles that made up its decorative façade are still visible. Built in early 1914 to accommodate an increasing demand for the new fad – “motion pictures,” Murfreesboro’s first cinema did indeed offer a venue for Vaudeville players on its stage. The Princess, and hundreds like it – each one a small town theatre – were erected all across America in the early twentieth century. Since most of them only charged five cents for general admission, they came to be known as “Nickelodeons.”

By 1900, technology was changing the way people experienced entertainment. Store fronts were converted into auditoriums for small theatres and were opened for motion pictures. The very first nickelodeon, called,” The Dixie”, was opened in Nashville in 1907 by father Harry and son Tony Sudekum. Those two entrepreneurs formed a corporation they named The Crescent Amusement Company. In a short time, The Crescent became the largest independent theatre chain in the South.

The Crescent Amusement Company chose Murfreesboro to locate its first theatre outside of Nashville. At the time, Gray’s Bakery and Trail’s Barber Shop were established businesses occupying the property Tony and Harry wanted. With a generous offer, the Sudekums were able to work out a deal. With the arrangement and Gray and Trail satisfied, the demolition of the Bakery and Barber Shop was underway.

Records show that the Crescent leased the property with the provision that the Sudekums, and the Crescent Amusement Company would pay to relocate the Bakery and Barber Shop businesses elsewhere, take care of all expenses involved in clearing off the old buildings and erect the new theatre building for a total budget of $12,000 - $15,000.

With one of the largest entertainment venues in Murfreesboro, the original Princess Theatre housed an auditorium and balcony designed to seat a movie-going audience of 620. It had a projection room with two projectors with a small stage equipped with dressing rooms off stage to accommodate Vaudeville players.

The Princess Theatre did indeed delight little Annie Byrn and her family, and continued to entertain Murfreesboro residents for more than 10 years. In 1927, a new Princess Theatre was erected on the site of the Sam Davis Opera House on Maple Street. A few years earlier, in 1915, Annie’s father, C.H. Byrn, opened Murfreesboro’s first Automobile Dealership right next to the Sam Davis and what would become the new location of the “Princess Theatre,” near the corner of College and North Maple Streets. The Byrn Dealership was located next door to the Princess when it moved from its first location on Church Street.

The story was compiled from an interview in the 1980’s that I had with Annie Burn Roberts about her recollections of her moving day as a child. At the time more than 70 years later, she was still living in her childhood home on the corner of Maney and Main Streets.

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christy, cinema, downtown, gloria, historic, murfreesboro, nickelodeon, princess, shacklett, theatre
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