• Elena Cawley

Downtown Tennessee Theaters feature Art Deco ambiance, digital experience, historical quirks

Updated: Mar 31


The history of the Oldham Theatre in Winchester began in the 1940s with a “brick ordeal.” The argument delayed completion of the building, and the result of the quarrel is still visible today, according to owner Beth Rhoton.


The Oldham is one of the Art Deco theaters in the state. Tennessee offers several cinemas for movie enthusiasts who would like to enjoy digital experience in an Art Deco-style atmosphere. While many American Art Deco buildings have been destroyed or converted, the movie theaters in Winchester, Shelbyville and Fayetteville have preserved their original, streamlined Art Deco style.


The Oldham began with a 'brick ordeal'

“The Oldham Theatre originally opened as a replacement for the Rivoli Theatre on the south side of the square in Winchester,” Rhoton said. “George E. Oldham, who owned the Rivoli Theatre, bought the theater under construction on the north side of the square from his brother-in-law in 1949.”


Oldham couldn’t witness the completion of construction, however.


“Mr. Oldham passed away in September 1949,” Rhoton said. “It is interesting to know that construction took much longer than expected because Mr. Oldham thought the contractors were charging too much for the brick. Construction stopped until the brick prices came down. They actually had to stop construction for quite a while because of the argument over the brick. But it did open to the public in 1950, and it’s been in operation ever since.”


Visitors can see traces of the brick argument even today, said Rhoton. “If you drop by the Oldham Theatre, you will notice the back wall of the Oldham is made of different bricks from the rest of the building,” she said.


“We have the original documents showing they were arguing over the price of brick. They stopped construction until they could work out the ordeal. They ended up using different bricks in the back of the building. When the theater opened for the first time in 1950, it bore the name of Oldham Theatre in memory of George Oldham,” Rhoton said.


She and her husband, Ray, bought the Oldham in 2000. They have worked on restoring the building, while keeping the authentic atmosphere.


“We have restored it as close to the original as we could, while making it feasible to still have it open,” she said.

The original theater had a balcony. “We closed that off and added a second screen there because it’s not feasible in the movie business to only have one screen,” she said. “And that’s what most historic theaters have done. We had designers come in and try to put it back as close as possible to the original.”


Designers kept the original lighting and replaced items with period pieces that met the Art Deco style of the building, said Rhoton. The only aspect that has been modernized is the equipment. “All of the equipment is digital,” she said. The surround sound, seats and wall covering have also been replaced within the last 10 years.


The authentic atmosphere keeps movie enthusiasts coming back. “We have lots of fans,” she said. “That’s what keeps us in business. We have people that come every time we get a new movie. They come because they like the hospitality but, also, they like the ambiance of the theater.”


Miranda Lambert also found the Oldham special. “She came in one late night and shot part of a video at the Oldham,” Rhoton said.


Movie lovers will find more than just the film experience when they visit the Oldham in Winchester. “We have a wonderful downtown,” said Rhoton, who also serves as Winchester City administrator.


The area is pedestrian-friendly. “We have completely redone all the facades, lighting, pavement. Since 2008, we have worked really hard to restore the downtown area,” Rhoton said.


The Capri’s history includes a contract on a napkin

She and her husband also own the Capri Theatre in Shelbyville. “The Capri Theatre in Shelbyville is a little bit older than the Oldham Theatre,” she said.


Its history started in the early 1940s. It was called the Princess Theatre, but the name was changed to Capri Theatre. “In 1941, the Princess Theatre was operated by Auditorium Co., a subsidiary of the Nashville-based Crescent Amusement Co. In 1948, it was remodeled to the plans of architectural firm Marr & Holman and reopened in May 1948 as the Capri Theatre,” Rhoton said.


“We purchased the theater from a great friend of ours, Clyde Jacobs, who was very well known in the theater industry. He worked on theater equipment all over the United States, but he was born and raised in Shelbyville. When he got ready to retire, he called us because he knew we were really big on restoring and trying to offer reasonable entertainment. We purchased the Capri from him. We were at a movie convention in Tunica, Mississippi, when we bought it. We wrote our contract on a napkin while sitting at a restaurant. We bought the Capri in 2002. We renovated it but stayed with Art Deco design.”


The Capri shows movies, but it stars in some films, as well. “The Capri is in lots of movies and music videos – I guess due to Nashville's proximity,” Rhoton said. Visitors of the Capri will also enjoy the Shelbyville downtown area, with its shops and restaurants.


The Lincoln began with 'Air Cadet'

Another theater that has preserved its original ambiance is The Lincoln Theatre in Fayetteville. The cinema offers a modern digital experience at an Art Deco-style building. The digital equipment is “the biggest change” in the history of the Lincoln Theatre,” according to lincolntheaterfayetteville.com.


Visitors can expect “amazing digital projectors (and) unequaled digital surround sound.” The history of the Lincoln Theatre goes back to 1951. The first film attendees saw was “Air Cadet,” a 1951 war drama, directed by Joseph Pevney and starring Stephen McNally, Gail Russell, Alex Nicol and Richard Long.

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