and Downtown Jackson Fifty Years Ago
by Dr. Jerry Dallas
The Kiddie Matinee’s origins are a bit fuzzy, but it was going strong in 1948, and even written up in a national magazine. A “gosh-awful” sounding idea, the magazine article's author called it. But, for a while at least, it was a commercial success and a good public relations move. Its key attraction was a stage show in which local children sang, danced, recited, played a musical instrument, or did whatever their parents considered them good at. The article claimed that “the children love it and so do their parents,” a statement probably more true of the parents than the performers.
The shows took place in the old Majestic Theater until it closed in the summer of 1951 and then moved across East Capitol to the Paramount. The Majestic, established in 1914, was Jackson’s first “pure” movie theater. It had an interesting history. Native son Lehman Engel, of national musical fame, recalled that one of his formative childhood experiences was listening to the pianist play for the silent films there. A more ominous event was its 1922 promotional stunt offering free admittance to Ku Klux Klan members wearing “their regular Klan regalia.”
Although rather past its residential prime, West Capitol was still a lovely street and the bus ride into town was—well, scenic. The area just west of the viaduct was perhaps a bit seedy, but a youngster looking forward to the thrill of a downtown Saturday morning wouldn’t have noticed.
Bus riding West Jackson kids coming into town for the Kiddie Matinee usually got off at the Edwards and walked the remaining two blocks. The stage shows were fun, but not as entertaining as the feature film (usually shoot-em up Westerns), cartoons, and serials like “Superman,” “Perils of the Darkest Jungle,” “Flying Disc Man From Mars,” “The Return of Dan Daredevil,” and so forth. The shows ended around noon, which left some time to wander around town before catching the bus back home.
Downtown Jackson, in those bygone days, was a beehive of crowded activity, especially on Saturday mornings, and there were lots of fun things to see and do. But there were also those sights of a more troubling nature which suggested to a viewing child that all was not right with the world. One such spectacle was that of a crippled Colored man (to use the terminology of the day) sitting or lying on a wooden cart mounted on roller skates. I don’t think he was an amputee but his legs, if such they were, were useless and folded under his torso. He wasn’t a beggar, but rather hawked peanuts all around downtown by scooting his little cart along the sidewalk with his hands. Theater entrances were among his favorite sites.
Way back in the 1930’s a North Farish Street businessman, Erman Myers of the Myers Coffee Company, had rescued the unfortunate fellow from the street, built him a cart, and set him up in the peanut business. As the years passed, “Wagon Shorty,” as his customers and the local denizens called him, became a commonplace downtown sight. Few knew that his real name was Albert Alexander. I was not one of them.
The abrupt closure of the Majestic wasn’t all that traumatic. The Kiddie Matinee was about the only occasion I went there anyway, and without skipping a beat it moved directly across Capitol to the Paramount with Alon Bee, a local radio personality, still the congenial host. But the handwriting was on the wall and we didn’t see it. The Century and the Park theaters folded even before the Majestic. A new theater, the Royal Music Hall soon replaced the Century, but the Park (formerly the Joy and before that the Ray) became a five and dime store. Drive-in theaters were popping up on the outskirts of town. In late 1952 television came to Jackson.
At age eleven I got sick with hepatitis and didn’t go downtown or anywhere else for about six months. By the time I recovered, the family had moved to a new home in Alta Woods. Getting into town on Saturday mornings became much trickier as Jackson City Lines service to new areas of South Jackson was problematical at best. The bus that picked us up so punctually on school days for the cross-town trip to Bailey was nowhere to be seen on Saturday—or in the summer. Sometimes a parent might drive us into town, but we usually walked about a mile down Terry Road to catch the “Doodleville” bus at the Redwood Inn. I don’t recall ever thinking of the crippled peanut vendor during my hepatitis hiatus, but he was still there when I resumed my downtown jaunts. His presence was just a given fact of life.
The older I got, the less frequent my appearance at the Saturday morning Matinee. The last few times I did attend, the crowd seemed louder and more boisterous than before with a lot of vocal animosity between West Jackson kids from Enochs and their North Jackson counterparts from Bailey. The shouts, cheers, and jeers weren’t exactly good-natured. Things never got out of hand, but the audience had become less polite and respectful. I marveled at Mr. Bee’s composure in the midst of it all.
On Saturday, March 13, 1954, a newspaper ad announced the “final performance” of the Paramount Theater’s Kiddie Matinee. What had happened? Financial problems connected with the growing popularity of television were certainly a factor. But there may also have been darker forces at work. In February and March 1954, Jackson papers ran a number of stories on the growing problem of juvenile vandalism in local theaters. One manager reported that in his establishment kids had slashed over 100 seats. The situation got so out of hand at the Pix that it stopped admitting children and teenagers unless they were with an adult. Evidently, the fifties were not as serene or law-abiding as we like to remember.
Anyway, whatever the reason, the Kiddie Matinee was no more. Thankfully, the New Joy, known in earlier incarnations as the Gay and Buck, was still in operation offering Saturday morning double features, three cartoons, and a “Canadian Mounties Versus Atomic Invaders” serial. But just three months later, it too went belly up. Its immediate neighbor to the west, the State, limped along until May 1956 before closing. Not long afterwards the suburban Pix Theater in Fondren went out of business.
Downtown Capitol Street is no longer “Mississippi’s Main Street” or its “major shopping Mecca.” It’s not even a “main drag” anymore. But it was fifty years ago. Its decline and fall from those lofty heights is, of course, a by-product of vast and complex socioeconomic changes. But for me at least, it all began with the disappearance of two of its most distinguishing features, the Kiddie Matinee and “Wagon Shorty.” Sadly enough, I missed the final performance of the Matinee and never bought any of Mr. Alexander’s peanuts.
Capitol Street, Jackson, Mississippi, Then and Now
Jerry Dallas was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended public schools in and around Jackson (Pearl, Clinton, Barr, French, Bailey, Peeples, and Provine [class of ‘59]).
He served three years in the U. S. Army (1959-1962), then married Melva Crawford in 1964. Dallas received a B. A. from Mississippi State (1966), was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow (1966), and got an M.A. from Emory University (1968) and Ph.D. also from Emory University in 1972. He has taught at Delta State University since 1970. He and Melva have three children and a slew of grandchildren. He's done post-doctoral study at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Temple University in Philadelphia. He is currently working on a book about Jackson during the period from about 1945 to 1960, i.e, the period referred to by one historian as “the American High.”
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Hail to the Chief Drive In Movie by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson
Moorhead Picture Show by Jim Harrison
The Delta Theater by Tom Givens
Saturday Morning Matinee by Larry Blanks
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