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  Texas : Architecture / Images : Theatres -

State Theater, Winnsboro, Texas

by Billy B. Smith
Memory is a curious thing. I recall vividly some of the movies I saw there in the 1950s, but the appearance of the theater itself is vague in my mind. The old State Theater in Winnsboro, Texas, was one of my favorite haunts for several summer weeks when I was growing up.

My paternal grandparents invited me to come to Winnsboro to spend two weeks with them for three summers in a row between 1953 and 1955. Winnsboro, at that time, had about 2500 residents. It was a quiet, peaceful East Texas town, a very different community from the city where I lived. It offered a variety of attractions for a boy eight to ten to explore. My grandparents had no qualms about allowing me to wander about town, for no dangers lucked about either in the sunshine or in the shadows.
The State  Theater, DeKalb Texas
The State Theater in DeKalb, June 1997

Photo courtesy Billy B. Smith
Atlanta Texas State Theater
The State Theater in Atlanta, June 1989
Photo courtesy Billy B. Smith
One of my first discoveries was the State Theater on Main Street. "State" was a common name for movie houses in this part of the world. There was one in DeKalb, Atlanta, and an ill-fated one in Pittsburg that burned down when I was a kid. Winnsboro's State was not a very large theater. It had a triangular marquee, which jutted out over the sidewalk, and a box office that I believe was to the right of the entrance. A small lobby contained the traditional snack bar and the restrooms. One thing that impressed me was the price of the tickets. A youngster my age could get in for a quarter, except on Tuesdays when the price dropped to a dime. This sounded like a real deal to me. And the movies changed ever two to three days. Sometimes there was even a double feature. I squeezed in as many films as possible during my two-week stays.

The interior of the State, as I remember, was not that appealing. It reminded me of a large box. There was a center section and smaller side areas containing maybe four seats per row. The theater had no balcony. What struck me were the light fixtures, the only decorations the house had, that were spaced about ten feet apart along the walls. The lights bore the colors of the rainbow, giving an otherwise drab atmosphere some sparkle. Within this auditorium I saw some classic movies: All the Men were Valiant, Jubilee Trail, This Island Earth.

Next to the State, separated from it by a narrow alley, was a small café. It served the best hamburgers in town and therefore attracted movie patrons by the droves. Across Main Street was a pool hall where the bigger kids hung out. Winnsboro's downtown was active during this era, and I felt all grown up by being where the action was.
Mission Theatre, Sulphur Springs, Texas
Mission Theatre in Sulphur Springs

December 1984 photo courtesy Billy Smith
My grandfather would take me for rides around the country and to other towns in the area. Many of these had their own picture shows: the Gem was in Quitman, the Strand in Gilmer, the Joy in Mt. Vernon, and the Mission in Sulphur Springs. I wish I could have checked each one out, but there was no time to do so. But I did have one fascinating adventure. I discovered that Winnsboro once had a second theater, which, although shuttered and dead to the movies, was still standing. It was, very appropriately, located right next to the funeral home on Elm Street. I want to say that the marquee sign said "Ritz," but my cousin tells me that it was the Kilroy (or something like that) Theater. Whatever the name was pales beside what I eventually saw there. A neighborhood kid and I found a back door to the old movie house that had a broken lock. We managed one day to go through that door, flashlights beaming brightly. I will never forget the sight that confronted me. All the seats and the screen were intact, but they were covered by thousands of spider webs. We could also hear rats scurrying to get away from us. There were several rips in the screen, but except for nature's reclamation of the property, the place was in pretty good shape. There was even a balcony. Unfortunately, this was my only visit. After telling my grandfather what we had done, he forbade me from having any more exploits involving the abandoned theater. The building eventually became a florist shop. I don't know what its present status is.

Like many small town picture shows, the State sadly succumbed to the popularity of television and other more spectacular distractions. It went out of business, sat empty for a long time, and ironically became a video rental store. The marquee was removed, and over time the old building resembled less and less a theater. I don't get back to Winnsboro anymore, so I cannot relate the ultimate fate of the State. But it once offered a little boy exposure to a celluloid world, where he got his first taste of a form of entertainment that makes him salivate with anticipation even today.
© Billy B. Smith
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