A gaping hole on Gainesville’s South Main Street sits where once stood a prime entertainment venue for North Georgians.
It’s the former location of the Royal Theater between the Collegiate Grill and Hunt Tower, formerly the Dixie-Hunt
Hotel. The gap between the two buildings now serves as a parking lot for Hunt Tower, an office complex, and a cut-through from Main to Maple streets.
The Royal was perfectly situated in the center of what might be called a mini-entertainment district just off Gainesville’s downtown square. You could get a chopped steak, fries and milkshake at the Collegiate before a movie, then slip down to Lee Crowe’s or Pete Tankersley’s pool rooms afterward for a game of eight-ball or snooker. Or you could reverse the order and get your refreshments at the Collegiate after the movie.
South Main was a lively street in the 1950s and ’60s, especially weekend nights. It was the primary route for cruisers, looking to see who’s coming out of the movies, hanging out at the Collegiate or the pool rooms. After circling the square a couple of times, cruisers would branch off to South Main to ogle pedestrians collecting on the sidewalks.
The Royal was the main movie house in Gainesville for many years. Downtown was a movie center. The Ritz was on North Bradford just off the square, and the State was on Washington across from the Jackson Building. The Roxy was a couple of blocks off the square on Athens Street.
Moviegoers generally thought of the Royal as the main theater, the Ritz showing a lot of Westerns, and the State lower-rated movies. The State had an unsavory reputation for sanitation with reports of rats running the aisles, scarfing up spilled popcorn and soft drinks.
When a new movie would come out nationally, it was the Royal that usually showed it first in North Georgia, though it often played weeks later than its national premiere.
The Royal opened to great fanfare March 30, 1931. It was the 10th theater built by Frank Plaginos, a pioneer movie operator. He and his family at one time owned all the theaters in Gainesville. His son, Paul Plaginos, succeeded him as North Georgia’s movie mogul.
John Thompson bought the Royal and Ritz in 1967 and operated other movie houses in Gainesville, including the Skyview Drive-In on Atlanta Highway, Lake Lanier Drive-In on Thompson Bridge Road and Sherwood Rocking Chair Theater on South Enota Drive.
When Frank Plaginos opened the Royal in 1931, Gainesvillians praised the place in palatial platitudes. It was described as brick, fireproof, two stories with “one of the most ornate fronts of any theater in the state.”
Wrote the Gainesville News, “It is equipped with the latest Western Electric sound system, and preliminary trials in the screening of pictures have shown the system to be perfect in every detail, both as to sound and perfect screening.”
The Royal would seat 900 people, including 150 in the balcony, where at the time black people were confined. Cushioned seats were amply spaced, and three aisles provided for easier access.
Besides movies, the Royal was host to various other programs or vaudeville-type acts on a 16-by-30-foot stage.
The Ritz brought elaborate stage shows, most featuring movie cowboy stars, such as Lash LaRue, Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown and Hopalong Cassidy. It also was the site in 1952 of a world premiere, “Birthright,” a documentary about venereal disease that featured local residents as actors and local scenes.
Frank Plaginos first came to Gainesville in 1921 and built the State, also installing a $10,000 pipe organ for regular concerts. Plaginos had operated theaters in Charleston, W.Va. The State’s formal opening was Nov. 3, 1924, with the film, “Sea Hawk.”
When the Royal closed in February 1979 with the showing of “Animal House,” it was using the same projection system Plaginos had installed in 1931. Demolition of the Royal was part of the Hunt Tower renovation to provide parking for offices in the former hotel building.
Gainesville’s first movie house was on South Bradford Street. Other earlier theaters included the Alcazar and Alamo on Main Street.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.