Ask McGehee: Where was Mobile’s first movie theatre?

Old black and white photo of the Mobile Theatre
The first moving picture in Mobile was shown at the Mobile Theatre, which stood at the southern end of this building standing on the southeast corner of Royal and Conti streets. The theatre was rebuilt in 1900 but was lost to fire in 1913. The rest of the building was destroyed to make way for a Sears-Roebuck in 1941. Today, the block is filled by the Riverview office complex. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey

Mobilians may recall Downtown movie theatres, such as the Crown or the Crescent, but the first “moving picture” was presented more than a decade before their arrival. In fact, the first moving picture was shown in the Mobile Theatre in 1897. That theatre stood on the southeast corner of South Royal and Conti streets within a building dating to 1859. It had been constructed using remnants of the Mansion House, a famed Mobile hotel lost to fire. The loss of the Mansion House contributed to the building of the original Battle House in 1852.

The Mobile Theatre

The Mobile Theatre was the city’s only theatre for decades and occupied the southern end of the building. It had been remodeled in 1880 to accommodate an audience of 750, and in an era when fire was a major concern, management advertised that the structure could be “emptied within one minute.”

An 1893 redecoration was extensively covered in the Mobile Register and described the exterior as having been painted in “pretty contrasting colors of pearl and brown,” while its interiors had been papered in panels with maroon borders. The faces of the galleries featured “a design of cream and gold ornamented on the bottom with cardinal red fringe.” The large theatre curtain had been painted with an image of “the ruined castle of Heidelberg” and new gas light fixtures were also installed.

So, it was into this grand interior that the first motion picture in Mobile was shown four years later by an electrician named Frank M. Taylor.

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An Edison Invention

Although images had been projected before, using a “magic lantern” and glass slides, the idea of moving pictures had eluded inventors on both sides of the Atlantic for years. Thomas Edison began searching for a solution in 1888, and by 1892, his assistant, William Dickson, had unveiled the Kinetograph to film movies and an apparatus on which to view them. The projection of those images on a screen followed.

Taylor was fascinated by the idea and traveled to New Jersey to lease films and a projector. A fireproof projection booth had to be built in the back of the theatre’s orchestra pit, and, reportedly, a full house of curious Mobilians sat back and watched images of Monte Carlo flicker before them.

Apparently the film was shown at the Mobile Theatre until regular theatrical performances returned. Taylor briefly rented space to show the films around downtown Mobile before being hired to install and operate the outdoor movie theatre at Monroe Park.  

The Theatorium Arrives

The first listing for “moving pictures” in Mobile city directories came in 1907 at a “Theatorium” at 125 Dauphin Street, just east of St. Emanuel. By that time, movies had evolved to tell a story but only lasted a few minutes. Their popularity led to four more businesses offering moving pictures by 1909.

As Hollywood began producing ever longer and grander films, Mobile’s movie houses grew in number and in size. By 1920, Mobile had seven theatres in downtown Mobile, including the Crown and the Crescent. The arrival of Mobile’s palatial air-conditioned Saenger in 1927 would certainly be in stark contrast to Taylor’s showing 30 years earlier.

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