Arcade Theater Demolished

posted by JohnColes on January 12, 2004 at 8:31 am

CHARLESTON, SC — The Arcade Theater was in the Art Moderne style by prolific Charleston architect Augustus Constantine who personally supervised a renovation to the building in 1957 when the pergola and yellow brick were added.

In correspondence from Albert Sottile in 1958, he made his affection for the Arcade Theater known. He wrote, “I must deal with the most enchanting place of all, the Arcade Theater, standing on Liberty Street. Charleston people, as well as visitors, have nothing but praise for the beautiful pergola approach to the theater, as well as the interior of the theater itself. We were almost tempted a year ago, to accept an offer to convert it into a business establishement, at a good rental. But, we decided that to do so, we would be robbing so many of our friends and visitors, the pleasure of visiting this little gem of a theater. So, the offer was turned down and there it remains, continuing to contribute a good measure of delight to our patrons.”

On November 8, 1973, the Arcade Theater closed. Larry Barrett, assistant general manager of Pastime Amusement Company cited an insufficient quantity of good films as the reason. While saying the Arcade Theater would be closed indefinitely, he added that it was not a permanent closing nor was it due to financial reasons. “Most of the films,” he said, “are booked through the major studios' branch offices in Atlanta, Charlotte or New York.” He said that quality films were always scarce in the early Fall because the major studios wait until Thanksgiving and Christmas to release films.

A letter from T. J. Worthington to the Editor of the News and Courier on November 26, 1973, is particularly insightful when trying to understand the appeal of the Arcade Theater. “I read in the paper that the Arcade Theater had closed, according to the management, because no quality films were being made anymore. That is preposterous nonsense. I suspect the truth lies more on whoever it is selecting the films and his idea of what a good film is.

Seven and eight years ago one could go to the Arcade once a week, not knowing what would be on, and see a first rate film. One never took a chance at the Arcade. It was the envy of cities for miles around.

Charleston was one of the very few cities outside New York that showed quality above Hollywood commercial successes. In the last five years the Arcade has not even been up to that. There has clearly been a shift.

The shift was not due to the theater losing money. In those years the theater was always full, because the Arcade could be depended on to show quality. However, when it began to change, the frequency of good films became scarce. I know there are good films being made. Two I have seen outside Charleston are “The Conformist” and Pasolini’s “Decameron.” The problem at the Arcade is in the management, not the film industry. Hollywood has always been blamed for making bad films, and it has, but the Arcade was never a theater for the average Hollywood film. The Arcade’s audience was driven away long ago and the habit is gone. So, is the only good movie theater Charleston ever had."

On December 26, 1975 the Arcade reopened under the management of Coastal Theaters, a subsidiary of Fairlane Litchfield Company, Inc. of Easley, South Carolina. Coastal Theaters also took over management of the Riviera Theater. H. G. Meyer, Jr. was named city manager for Coastal Theaters.

In March, 1978, the Academy Award winning documentary “Harlan County, USA” was shown. The exhibition was part of the Independent Filmmakers: Southern Circuit film series. Hart Perry, cinematographer for the film was there to discuss how the film was made and answered questions from the audience.

In January, 1981, the Charleston Board of Architectural Review approved a parking variance for a planned lounge and restaurant in the former Arcade Theater. The board noted that the major trade for a restaurant and lounge in that location would be college students, who generally would walk to such a close establishment and not require parking.

From 1984 through 1997, the Arcade operated as a gay nightclub often featuring drag shows. In 2000, the College of Charleston bought the property. It was used for a computer lab, a physics lab, classrooms and offices. In August, 2002, the College sought permission from Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review to have the building demolished in order to expand its business school.

Initially, the board unanimously denied the college’s request. Board member John Moore said, “It’s not the most beautiful building around, that’s for sure, but it’s one of the rare examples of this kind of architecture.”

A month later, the board reversed itself saying the former Arcade Theater really isn’t a classic and definitely isn’t worth saving. Architect Jeffrey Rosenblum said, “I contend that it’s just standard shopping strip architecture with a little bit of frou-frou. This building has no architectural merit.”

Today, the “Little Gem” is gone. Many factors including soaring property values, the rapidly expanding College of Charleston, and the lack of will by local preservationists to preserve the smaller scale buildings of mid-twentieth century architecture, have combined to cause the loss of another tangible piece of Charleston’s architectural and cultural history.

Comments (1)

mda38 on February 15, 2009 at 3:59 pm

I saw old movies there on a regular basis in the late 70s, so a bit of information is missing, I think. Previous to that, my mother went there to see art house films such as “Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea,” that I was too young for.

I fell in love with old movies there. Many of the old ladies who worked at the Gloria also worked there. A nasty group of bitter old women who I miss these days.

I woldn’t call the club, “gay,” either. It was a new wave, “alt” place.

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