Secrets of the Blue Ridge: In Search of the Silver Screen

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Outdoor movies at the Esso filling station at Ruckersville, Greene Co., c. late-1930s. At Nortonsville in northwest Albemarle County, Kermit Parrish operated a similar venue in the 1950s and ‘60s. Described more like a “sit-in” instead of a drive-in, it was located across the road from the Parrish family’s general store compound near the crossroads of Simmons’ Gap, Dyke and Markwood Roads. Courtesy of the Holsinger Collection; UVA Special Collections.

Alongside Brown’s Gap Turnpike in western Albemarle County sits an unassuming private residence, once a family-owned country grocery store fronted by fuel pumps. However, a peek beyond its more recent history might surprise the casual passerby.

In 1949, during a period when Jim Crow defined, and even dictated, many social interactions, Randolph L. and Grace W. White had a plan in mind when they purchased that plot of Brown’s Cove land from James H. and Phennie Thompson. Straightway, the Whites constructed an unpretentious movie theater on their acre-plus of land, and then, in a manner similar to that which would define their life calling, opened its doors to all in the community, both black and white. The modest venue had no balcony to accommodate segregated audiences, so theatergoers sat and watched the movies together, just as they labored side-by-side on the surrounding farms.

Randolph White (1896–1991) went on to found the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune newspaper in 1954, a vital organ in the African American community, and one means through which he unabashedly championed the voice of the disregarded. David Maurer, retired features writer and Yesteryears historian for the Daily Progress, wrote, “The ability to see a need and then do something about it was a hallmark of [Randolph] White’s life.”

Crozet’s Lyric Theater operated out of Sallie Wood Ballard’s former grocery store building. Its ticket booth prominent on the front porch, western Albemarle’s first theater hosted lantern slide presentations and political speakers. With the addition of electricity provided by W.F. Carter’s Cold Storage and Ice Company in summer 1913, the village gained access to movie shows without a prerequisite trip to the County seat. Courtesy of the Holsinger Collection; UVA Special Collections.

Even when such entertainment venues were a rare commodity outside of cities, the forward-looking business community in the railroad-straddling village of Crozet was adding amenities during the first decade of the 20th century. Situated “on the old blacksmith shop lot” formerly operated by Jim Woodson, on the corner of the intersection of Railroad and Crozet Avenues, a c.1905 grocery store was repurposed into a theater by the Crozet Amusement Company. The newspaper noted in October 1912, “Hon. H. [Henry] St. George Tucker will address the voters at this place tonight in the Lyric Theater. Crozet always furnishes a good and appreciative audience and Mr. Tucker will receive such.”

Just across the tracks, the exemplary careers of pioneer Crozet merchants Clifton and Curtis Haden drew to a close in 1937 when local builder William F. Starke performed major renovations to the Haden store on behalf of Curtis’s son William “Bill” Haden. Haden’s Crozet Theatre was modern in every way, and quickly established itself as the premiere entertainment venue in western Albemarle County.

Bill and Frances “Lady Hall” Haden established Crozet Theatre in 1937, created by way of extensive renovations to the former Haden Brothers mercantile. Owned through the ensuing years primarily by the families of Henry Smith and Ed Daughtry, the theater closed in 1961. Its building was razed in 1980, during redevelopment of the adjacent cold storage facility. Courtesy of the W.F. Carter family.

During its first 16 years of operation, the theater employed numerous Crozet High School seniors for ticket sales and concessions, and as ushers and projectionists. A devastating fire in October 1948 nearly spelled the end for the popular establishment, but extensive repairs coupled with upgraded renovations led to some of its most successful years. In addition to the Hollywood stars advertised on its marquee, it played host also to live performances by barnstorming country music personalities, beauty pageants, and even a stage show by one elderly character claiming to be the western outlaw Jesse James.

The late Adam Clark Wyant reminisced about the days of his youth in 1930s White Hall when he was allowed to visit the Camp Albemarle Civilian Conservation Corps facility on Sugar Hollow Road. His favorite hours spent there came on balmy summer evenings when motion pictures were projected on the outside of the camp’s recreation building. Since his father, A.K. Wyant Jr., leased the property to the government, he was welcomed into the secure oversight of that group of young men, each of whom was far, far from home, and thankful to relax with a movie after a full day of physical activity.

Summertime 1951 was the right time, and Crozet the right place, for Charlottesville business partners Robert Hurt and Marvin Bobb to make their entry into the wave of popular outdoor movie drive-ins that were sweeping the nation. Hurt called on John W. Clayton & Son of Mechums River to prepare a drive-in theater site on a portion of an experimental orchard he had on the western outskirts of the village.

Charlottesville business copartners Robert Hurt and Marvin Bobb opened Crozet Drive-In Theater in 1951. Carved out of an apple orchard off of Jarmans Gap Road, with a capacity of 300 cars, its screen glowed in that corner of the summer night sky until 1962. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

With television for the masses still a few years away, thrift-minded nearby neighbors occasionally opted to forego the movie’s soundtrack and, instead, gathered on their porches or sat in the yard to partake in the novel experience of the giant silver screen without ever having to leave home. More than one youngster admitted to the adventure of climbing a tree in their yard in hopes of catching a glimpse of the show.

During Crozet Drive-In’s early years, it was operated by the owners and by the Hugh and Catherine Via Strickler family. Around 1958, the drive-in business closed, and its land was sold to the Clarence W. Clayton family. The Claytons, Pokey, Sonny and Betty, refurbished the drive-in and re-opened to the public in 1960. It operated two more years until Sonny and Betty took over as managers of Charlottesville’s Ridge Drive-In, which they operated for the next 15 years.

Unique among local theaters was one operated by Kermit Parrish in Nortonsville, in the northwestern corner of Albemarle County. “Our heyday, as Uncle Kermit called it, was the 1950s and ’60s,” recalled Margie Via Shifflett. “It wasn’t even a drive-in; it was a sit-in. It just had plank benches, kind of like church benches except without backs. Granddaddy [Parrish] used to make furniture.

South of the intersection of Brown’s Gap Turnpike and Doyle’s Side Lane, Randolph White, a descendent of enslaved plantation workers once owned by the Cove’s namesake Brown family, established a movie theater in 1949. Later, in the former theater space, Joe C. Barbour operated a restaurant. In 1962, Ernest and Margaret Rosson Shifflett opened a grocery store there. Today, western Albemarle’s sole extant movie house is a private residence. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

“Just down the road from Nortonsville store, as if you are coming back to Earlysville, there was a cutout in there where we had the movies. I was probably nine or ten and remember them putting it together. They put the screen up close to a big bank, and placed the benches from there on down. Uncle Jack owned the garage on the corner there before the store and that’s where they got the power for the projector.

“They made popcorn up at the store, and bagged it, and then I could take it down there, but I was told that I couldn’t stay and watch the movies. I don’t know how much they charged them to go in there and sit, but some people still tried to sneak up on the mountain piece behind it, which was Granddaddy’s, and watch it for free. I can remember Daddy [George Milton Via] and Kermit going up there and chasing them away.”

Always in search of that silver screen! 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2020 Phil James

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