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Exploring Theater’s Past Unearths Suggestions for Future Restorations

Fri September 04, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Robert Lee Long

It’s a case for the history detectives.

“We’re still in the discussion stage,’’ attorney Billy Myers said. “What we’re doing right now is getting information together about what other towns are doing. Quite a good number of towns have renovated their old movie houses and turned them into local community theaters and places for the arts. Our goal is to restore it to its original architectural significance. Obviously, there are a myriad of uses for it, and a community theater is one of those.’’

Before that can happen, funding has to be obtained. Documentation of the building’s past has to be provided. That’s where the public comes in, Myers said.

“We’re encouraging people to contact the newspaper or the DeSoto County Museum so that we can start putting together a history of the building,’’ Myers said.

The building is currently owned by local developer and preservationist Jim Seay.

Pieces of the building’s storied past can be found in the nooks and crannies of the upstairs attic and in the labyrinth of rooms, some of which have been converted into apartments.

The journey into the past begins after entering through the building under its former street front marquee. The former marquee is gone now, replaced by a shingled awning typical of a 1970s makeover.

Wires and fixtures dangle from the ceiling of a former medical clinic that once called the theater home.

The trek then leads up a creaking stairway into the musty-smelling, cluttered attic of the old movie house.

An aqua and yellow-colored retro-style soda drink machine, pinball machine and cabinet-style radio are some of the treasures that line the attic’s shelves and floor.

One of the residents who lives in the building said he and at least one other tenant may not be alone.

They hear strange, unexplained noises at night.

“I hear the stairs creaking,’’ the resident, who asked that his name not be used, said. “It’s kind of weird. I just kind of roll with it.’’

The resident lives in what used to be known as the “colored balcony’’ during the days of segregation.

The screen, projection room and other parts of the theater are still intact, although the slanted floor on the ground floor has been timbered-over with a new floor.

Brian Hicks, executive director of the DeSoto County Museum, recently provided a few known facts about the old theater’s history.

In May 1940, W.H. Carver approached Earl Mosby with an offer to purchase the theater building in Hernando.

“Carver began erecting a 300-seat picture show building at once,’’ Hicks said.

The floor timbers were pressure-treated creosote. The walls were 12-in. thick brick construction. All seats were padded and a water cooling system was erected on the roof

School buses transported rural children to and from the movie house on Saturdays and Sundays.

When Carver got ready for a new neon sign for his new business, he fund a used sign in a West Memphis junkyard. It had the letters “AVON’’ in neon and in a vertical position. Underneath was a painted tourist court. All of the neon would burn except the “A.’’

Carver reportedly painted over the lower letters with the new wording of “Theater,’’ and with the “A’’ not burning, the name became the “Von Theater.’’

During World War II, the Von Theater barely made expenses until Memphis officials appointed a censor to screen movies in Memphis

Hernando had no such censor and soon crowds from Memphis began arriving in Hernando to watch shows that couldn’t be shown in Memphis

“Local people could hardly secure seats for a Sunday movie,’’ Hicks said

The seating was increased to 500, a wide screen was installed, and the theater was sold several times during the next few years.

Eddie Bond, a country-western singer, was the last owner to operate the building as a movie theater. Bond changed the name of the theater from Von to Bon in the 1960s to reflect the new ownership but left the “D’’ off the marquee.

Bond, who now lives in Covington, Tenn., seemed surprised that efforts were under way to restore the old theater.

“It’s been such a long, long time since I owned it,’’ Bond said. “I have a lot of fond memories of it. I think it would be wonderful if they did restore it.’’

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