The Grand Strand is not usually known for its rich art history or even holding onto the cool aspects of its culture. To be honest, the majority of the Strand deals in a disposable history that rips and strips its past for profits. Sure, there are survivors, but historical renovation typically succumbs to shiny and new.
But Conway could be viewed as the gateway to the Grand Strand and it revels in its history. Being one of South Carolina’s oldest cities, it wears its history on its sleeve, and one of the most striking parts of Conway’s mystique is the Main Street Theatre, with its marquee jutting out of the storefronts like the beacon of Conway’s past and present colliding.
The theater stands for more than just token history. It’s a stalwart of the arts in Conway and continues to act as a propulsive force in reaching out to a community that yearns for more. Now, the organization that runs the theater and is its main tenant - the Theatre of the Republic - is taking another step in a new direction by teaming up with a young filmmaker as he proposes to transform Conway into a miniature version of Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival. This weekend, the Main Street Theatre opens its doors for Conway’s inaugural indie film-fest – The First Nights of Independent Film Festival will be held Friday and Saturday evenings.
Kevin Mayberry is the filmmaker’s name, and he’s equal parts businessman, promoter and dreamer. We met with Mayberry and Tim McGhee, TOR’s executive/artistic director, to take a walk through the theater as McGhee prepared for the last weekend of TOR’s stage production of “39 Steps” (a melodrama based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name).
Mayberry is also busy, preparing the line-up for his film-fest with his partners from Spartan Media Works (a combination of Whatwedostudios and Sticky Hat Productions). Every few minutes his phone rings. He’d talk for a minute or two, and when he hangs up, he tells us about a new film that’s been confirmed for the film fest’s roster. The phone calls were fine. It gave us a chance to let McGhee tell us about the history of Main Street Theatre, which was originally built as a cinema - so the film festival represents a return of sorts to the venue’s roots.
There’s no denying the instant aura that’s set when you ride over Conway’s Main Street Bridge at night as the glow of the streetlights fade into the blaze of neon and bubble lights from Main Street Theatre’s marquee. Wouldn’t it be great if it meant even more to cinephiles? Wouldn’t it be a masterstroke for this little resilient theater to become the Grand Strand’s hub for independent and artistic cinema? Wouldn’t that be cool?
Theater Boom and Heyday
“This is full-circle for Main Street Theatre,” says McGhee as we walk the aisle down to the stage, looking out on the 300-plus seats in the auditorium. It has a classic theater feel. “This building got its start as a movie theatre.”
Glancing back at Conway’s cinematic history, it’s really quite rich. The earliest mention of theaters in Conway is the Casino Theatre on Main Street back in 1915. Admission was between 5 and 10 cents. It closed in 1916 and the Pastime Theatre took its place in 1917. In 1930, the Pastime played Conway’s first sound movie, “Chasing Rainbows.” The Pastime held-out until 1936, when The Carolina Theatre took its place.
In October of 1947, the Holliday family built the Holliday Theatre (later Main Street Theatre). It opened with “The Foxes of Harrow” starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara. And this begins Conway’s cinematic heyday. Off and on, for two decades, this small town had a multitude of movie theaters operating at once. Drive-ins also had a nice run through the ’50s with the Conway Drive-In (closed 1955) and Highway 501 Drive-In (closed 1961).
This was a time of racial segregation in the South, and most of these theaters had what was referred to at the time as “colored” seating. Usually these seats, reserved for African Americans, were in less-desirable sections or the balconies of the theaters. But during this theater boom, a so-called “colored” theatre, the Hillside, was built in Conway and lasted until 1955.
But the two standouts among these theaters were the Holliday and the Carolina, a Main Street duo of stunning theaters. The Carolina had a huge lobby with terrazzo floors, stamped metal ceilings, balconies and a spacious stage that provided a place for live productions. The Carolina was considered the premiere theater in town, surviving nearly 30 years before closing in 1965. Few remnants remain in the offices found there now.
Right down the street, the Holliday had a splendid marquee, inviting audiences into its 650 seats, with a few of them made extra wide for larger members of the audience. It also had what was called a “cry room” to accommodate families with crying babies. There was a beautiful balcony. But the theater had a spotty reputation for keeping the doors open. It closed in ’48, reopened in ’52, played some 3-D movies, closed again at the end of ’53, reopened in ’54 and then in 1955, it closed for a decade.
Mayberry hangs up his phone. “We just got an animated short on the schedule called ‘Alma,’” he says.
We stand by the sound and lighting room that used to be the projection booth, the theater is laid out in front of us. “To do an independent film festival in Conway is great. I thought my first film fest would be in a gymnasium or something. I never expected something like this,” Mayberry says. “To do a film-fest in a historical landmark like the Main Street Theatre makes it extra special.”
Mayberry is from Wilmington, N.C. and he still shares living time between his house there and his place in Myrtle Beach. But he seems drawn to Conway. “Conway is the county seat, the bridge to so many things in Myrtle Beach,” he says. “Conway feels like Americana, like a Norman Rockwell painting. What we plan to do is make a Rockwell 2.0.”
Mayberry has always loved movies. He started writing scripts when he was eight and really fell head over heels when he got his first camera at 12. From then on, he always tinkered with movies and story ideas but says, “I really leaned into film about a year ago.”
But his role models aren’t unrecognizable names from the world of indie films, they’re familiar ones. “My idols are Stan Lee and Alfred Hitchcock, both of them had the chance to sit in a theater and watch other people be moved and inspired by their childhood ideas,” he says. “The films in this festival honor the way I think indie films should be made. They’re handcrafted with lots of heart by unsung filmmakers. You don’t need a big budget to touch people.”
Mayberry and McGhee look at this festival as a build-it-and-they-will-come scenario. “Everything happened so fast, and we put this thing together on the fly, so we haven’t seen any local or CCU student filmmakers submitting,” Mayberry says. “But we have films from Spain and Ireland and a bunch of domestic shorts. Hopefully, it will bring local filmmakers together and show them we can make good films here as well as show them here.”
But Myrtle Beach has had an independent film festival for eight years, moving from a conference room at Horry-Georgetown Technical college to the multiple screens at Carmike’s Broadway 17, and the ninth annual Myrtle Beach International Film Festival is set for April 24-27.
If done right, the two festivals could bookend the year by dishing out indie fare in the spring and fall. But what about the rest of the year?
From the ’60s to Hellish Disrepair
In 1965, the Carolina Theatre closed down and the Holliday Theatre opened back up, completely renovated. The only kid on the block with reels rolling and images flickering across a screen - it carried that momentum for two decades. But somewhere along the way, younger audiences started veering away from the Holliday, escaping to the much hipper Myrtle Beach and the collection of theaters up and down the Strand.
By the early ’80s, the Holliday was falling apart, most of the lights in the marquee had burned out and no one bothered to replace them. Ticket sales had dipped to dismal, and in 1986, after the final showing of “Top Gun,” it closed.
Between 1986 and 1989, the inevitable of all abandoned theaters on the Strand happened when it became a church for a short time. And in 1990, the theater was a victim of a fire. The blaze echoed through the empty hall, erasing the movie mystique of Main Street and leaving only the theater’s marquee in front of an empty, burned-out shell.
Red Carpets and Historic Brick
Mayberry’s phone beeps off. He says, “We just confirmed ‘The Book,’ a short film about grief and loss.” As he and his partners firm up the schedule, Mayberry tells us about the openness of the festival submission process – films can have a running time from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, and the genre can range from animation to documentary to fiction to horror to comedy to anything in between.
“Most of the films are between seven to 10 minutes,” Mayberry says. “That way if it’s really good people can say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did so much with seven minutes.’ And if they don’t like it, at least it’ll be over in seven minutes.”
The submission fee was $25 to enter the festival, and Mayberry wants to start advertising for next year’s festival the minute this one ends, to strike at the iron while it’s hot. He gives this advice to next-year’s submitters, “Just believe in what you’re doing and remember to tell a good story.” He adds, “Low budgets or no budgets don’t matter. It’s the story that matters.”
As far as the tone of the festival, Mayberry and McGhee are going for a semi-polished feel. “You can wear shorts and flip-flops or dresses and sport coats,” Mayberry says. Outside the 300-seat theater there will be a red carpet flowing out onto the bricks of Main Street and a step-and-repeat wall for paparazzi-type photo opportunities.
There will also be beer and wine served, along with popcorn. “Our popcorn machine is like 102-years-old,” McGhee laughs. “It smells so good when it’s popping. It’s just the right mix of aged flavoring to get right into your senses.”
Here is the best part – tickets for both nights are $5. That’s six hours of indie film premieres for a 5-spot. All the ticket sales are going to help the theater, and it can use every bit of it after recently having to replace the roof on all three of the facility’s Main Street buildings. “It would be nice to slap a sold-out sign on the ticket booth,” says Mayberry.
A Resurrection on Main Street
Shortly after the fire, 335 Main Street sat disheveled, breaking down in the conditions. The Holliday family wanted to demolish it for liability reasons, but the residents cried out to save the building and the city of Conway denied demolition. A private non-profit organization called Main Street USA took over the deed, and with the help of the city and local contractors, the debris was removed, the restoration began and the Holliday Theatre was renamed the Main Street Theatre.
In 1993, a community consensus led to handing the property over to a scrappy bunch of volunteer performers and artists known as the Theatre of the Republic. With help from South Carolina grants and fundraising efforts, TOR began a long and determined resurrection campaign.
Before their new home, the casts of TOR would perform plays anywhere they could find a space – hotel banquet rooms, Wheelwright Auditorium at Coastal Carolina University, high school gymnasiums – and they couldn’t wait for the renovations to be done, so much so that they performed a live production of “Dracula” in the theater before the roof could be installed in ’98.
In ’99, as Hurricane Hugo bored down on the coast, threatening to flood the Waccamaw River, TOR laughed in the storm’s face by putting on the play “Big River.” “With TOR the show always goes on,” says McGhee.
McGhee’s beginnings with TOR were less than glamorous. He started serving on the theater’s board of directors in 2001, but after three years, he resigned to take over as executive/artistic director. Since, he’s directed almost all of the live productions.
But McGhee wanted to do more with the space than live performances. “TOR was originally designed to be a movie theater, and I love movies. It only made sense to start showing films,” he says. There was an already-installed projector and screens that were used for set design in the live shows. It seemed like an easy conversion.
“At first, I thought we could show current commercial films, but I wasn’t privy to the business of licensing,” McGhee says. “I quickly realized what a headache that would be. So we decided to start showing classic films.”
During the last two years, the theater has shown two classic movies a month – Hitchcock flicks and ’70s favorites such as “American Graffiti.” In October 2012, there were screenings of classic horror films, ending with “The Exorcist” on Halloween night. McGhee tells us the biggest crowds have come from screenings of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.”
It hasn’t been as successful as McGhee would like, but he understands why. “You have to get used to watching a movie in mono sound with an extreme letterbox ratio (the screen size),” he says. “People are used to movies filling up the screens and having THX sound. But we’ve tweaked the sound system for the festival. It’s all about not killing the magic of these films, whether they’re new or old.”
What’s the Significance?
Maybe we’ll never have an art house cinema like the Castro in San Francisco or even the Commodore or Byrd Theatres of Virginia. But if the geography tightens, is it possible we could eventually find ourselves with a place like the Cameo Art House Theatre in Fayetteville, N.C.? If we go even tighter and limit the comparisons to South Carolina, can a little theater in Conway match the historical relevance and success of The Nickelodeon in Columbia or the cool factor of the Terrace 3 Theatre in Charleston?
It’s not that the Grand Strand and Horry County haven’t had its chances. If you take a look at our history of theaters, it’s a vast and deplorable treatment of America’s entertainment pastime. Let’s scan through the theaters that existed, failed and fell to oblivion while all over the country, other special movie houses where renovated and repurposed to become treasures of their communities.
The missed opportunities on the south end are light, letting only the Deerfield Plaza Triple (closed 1999) in Surfside Beach fall by the wayside. But on the north end, the lost theaters are substantial. There was Ocean Drive (closed 1975), the Colonial (closed 1964), the Holly (closed 1955), Ocean Cinemas (closed 2000), the Surf (closed 1975), Crescent Beach Drive-In (closed 1950) and Ocean Breeze Drive-In (closed 1955).
The Tara Theater, located at the Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort, has hosted several small film festivals associated with the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art in the past. Films were shown and guest speakers associated with some of the films held Q-and-A sessions, but one hasn’t been done since 2012. “I don’t know what or when we’re going to do another one of those,” says Patrick Sullivan, a representative of the Pawleys Island festival. “We didn’t do one this year and so far there hasn’t been one scheduled for 2014.”
Further south in Georgetown, The Strand Theater is similar to Main Street Theatre, as it is occupied by a local community theater outfit, the Swamp Fox Players, and it too, has a limited cinema series, showing classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” to documentaries to more recent fare including “Now You See Me.”
Myrtle Beach appears to have spent a century committing theater genocide. And the history is shaky, but here is the list of Myrtle Beach’s neglected chances at indie cinema – Ben’s Broadway aka Broadway aka Cinema Theatre (closed 1955), the Camelot (closed 1990), the Cinema aka the Broadway Theatre again (closed 1985), Dunes Cinemas (closed 1993), Dunes Cinema 8 (closed 2004), the Fox (closed 1975), the Flamingo Drive-In (closed 1975), Myrtle Cinemas (closed 1999), Myrtle Drive-In (closed 1955), the Plitt (closed 1990) and the Pottery 6 (closed 2002).
Then there are the two biggest shames of Myrtle Beach’s cinematic negligence – the Gloria and the Rivoli. The Gloria Theatre was a magnificent spectacle. It was right across from the Pavilion, the neighbor to what would become Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a half block from the ocean. Since it closed in 1969, its transformation has led to a beachwear store.
And woe is the history of the Rivoli Theatre. So long it’s been since the architect Harold J. Riddle designed this exceptional landmark in 1958, complete with two really cool sculptures by the entrance. Forgotten is the highlight of 1967’s Sun Fun Festival when the film “Don’t Make Waves” premiered at the Rivoli and brought the stars of the movie, Tony Curtis and Sharon Tate, to the Grand Strand. This was two years before Tate’s murder by the Manson Family.
But the Rivoli closed in the early 1980s. The really cool sculptures are gone, and the poor place has spent years being defaced and abandoned, generally left out of Myrtle Beach’s cultural loop, until the last few years when a local non-profit, non-denominational ministry known as Ground Zero started converting it into a club for Christian teens.
The past is the past and we should let these houses of the holy rest right? But why is it that TOR and the movers and shakers of Conway saw the importance of the Main Street Theatre’s restoration, while much of the rest of the Grand Strand seems oblivious to what these potential treasures could mean to the communities? How can these buildings be treated as useless dumps and sacrificed for this temporary progress we’ve gotten so used to?
The Other Kids on the Block
If the First Nights of Independent Film Festival were to continue as an annual event, it could work in concert with the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival (MBIFF) which runs in April. MBIFF, in its ninth year, has become a popular event for the cinephiles of the Grand Strand. Last April, MBIFF screened around 50 indie films in four days at Broadway’s Carmike Cinemas. The festival accepts pretty much any genre in the categories of short films, animation, feature length, documentary, music video, and something its Web site refers to as “anything goes.”
But Jerry Dalton, owner of DPEC – MBIFF’s parent company, is realistic about the future of indie films on the Grand Strand. “I’m an artist and a filmmaker, but I’m also a businessman,” he says. “Myrtle Beach just doesn’t have the right demographic right now for an art house theater. There are people here that support the arts, but compared to the population, it’s not a lot.”
Dalton is quick with an example, “Take a look at the recent release of the indie comedy ‘The Way, Way Back,’” he says. “Compare it to other cities with an indie film scene and you’ll see that indie films just don’t make the numbers here.”
Last year’s MBIFF wasn’t its biggest, but Dalton tells us there was a good turnout, and the audience responses were great. There was even a growing interest from sponsors. But he’s also quick to tell us that most of the audiences were visitors from other cities.
Some of this enthusiasm may stem from MBIFF being selected as one of the top 50 film festivals in the world worth the fee by Movie Maker Magazine. “The key to putting on a good festival is organization. It has to run like clockwork,” Dalton says. “That applies to not just the scheduling but the panel that selects the movies. A panel should be diverse, people from all walks of life. Most judging panels for festivals are made up of filmmakers. That’s a big mistake. Filmmakers look at films differently than regular audiences.”
Last month, Dalton took MBIFF on the road to Niles, Michigan for three days, premiering some of the films from 2013’s festival. “The city and the Michigan Film Commission really got behind it, and the whole community seemed excited,” he says. “It’s a little disheartening that this is our second year of taking the festival to Michigan, and it did better there, than our best year here.”
Dalton attributes this success in the Midwest to the city’s support. “It’s sad when a town in Michigan is putting up banners and asking us what they can do to make the festival bigger and better. But in our own city, there are no banners, no promotion,” he says. “It’s not that the city of Myrtle Beach does anything wrong. They just don’t do anything to promote or improve an event like ours. And forget about money to bring in movie stars that could generate revenue for everyone.”
The MBIFF has had an attendance high of more than 1,500 in its best year, but Dalton explains how cities with decent-sized festivals can pull in anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 thousand people. “If a festival is done right, with the community support, it can make a significant economic impact,” he says. “Indie film fests have the potential to bring in millions in revenue.”
The Future of the Republic
“OK, yep, got it,” Mayberry says into the phone and hangs up. “We’re hoping they get the effects done in time for what should be a great film called, ‘Shattered Memories.’” He takes a sip from a coffee cup that never seems to leave his hand.
Along with all the films he’s confirming via phone, the schedule also includes a list of Mayberry’s own films – “The Assistant,” “He Dies at the End” and the iPhone Film Festival 2011 Winner, “The Time Fixer.”
Main Street Theatre will return to its classic movie series after the festival, playing “Miracle of 34th Street” at 3 p.m. on Nov. 23. And the Christmas theme continues in December with “White Christmas” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 22.
And the partnership between Whatwedostudios and Sticky Hat Productions is yielding even more projects in the future. “We’re working a film called ‘Midnight House’ in rotoscope (when live actors are made to look like animation). “We’re also working on our first full-length feature film, ‘3 Days,’” Mayberry says. “When it’s finished in early 2014, I plan on having the premiere here (at Main Street Theatre). I want to continue this relationship, share our accomplishments. I’m just so grateful TOR gave me this opportunity.”
And this opportunity may lead to other plans. Mayberry and McGhee both mention collaborating on a reality show/documentary revolving around the auditions, casting, and the production process for TOR’s upcoming musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which will debut in June. It will also detail the probable controversy caused by lighting up the word “whorehouse” on the theater’s marquee in downtown Conway.
As far as this weekend’s film fest is concerned, McGhee has a very enlightened view toward the possibilities. “This building was built for the community. I try to open it up to the community as much as possible,” he says. “Hopefully this helps bring more independent and art films to the area. But it takes a vision, persistence and time to grow a culture like that.”
Mayberry’s role can be seen as more of a dream in progress. “I subscribe to this old Chinese proverb – ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” he says. “Well, I love drinking coffee, making stuff up and putting it on film. I also love helping other filmmakers do the same.” He swallows a sip of coffee and says, “Unless they don’t drink coffee.”