By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
The old days live in photographs and faded memories, but despite the sweep of time, some pieces of the past endure.
The Coliseum Civic Center in downtown Corinth is one of those pieces.
“It fools you on the outside,” said Rosemary Williams, who’s spent decades seeing to the Coliseum’s survival. “You don’t expect elegance.”
It’s clear from the brick exterior that the building’s been around for a while. B.F. Liddon opened the Corinth Coliseum Theater on July 4, 1924, and people who walked through the front doors on that day encountered grandeur.
“It was like nothing else, of course, around here,” said Alan Simmons, Liddon’s great-grandson.
Imagine imported marble steps, along with marble wainscoting. Picture plaster florets and friezes on the walls, as well as intricate “egg and dart” crown moldings, and all of that comes before stepping into the main auditorium with its balconies, box seats and stained-glass lights.
“They called them movie palaces for a reason,” Williams said. “It was an architectural masterpiece in a Mississippi small town.
‘More dimes than quarters’
Liddon created a showplace, where early audiences checked their coats on the way in then lost themselves in silent movies or live shows.
“My great-grandfather did his own blueprints for it,” Simmons said, “and he built the whole thing as his own contractor.”
Simmons said it appeared to be a risky venture. The building held just under 1,000 people, which was about one-sixth of Corinth’s population at the time. Liddon’s gamble was met with standing-room crowds, and Simmons partially attributed its success to low ticket prices.
“When people asked my great-grandfather about the prices, he said, ‘There are more dimes than quarters in Corinth,’” Simmons said.
The theater drew people from towns around Northeast Mississippi, and it also benefited from Corinth’s crossroads’ nature, Williams added.
“Corinth used to be a big railroad town,” she said. “There were hotels up and down the street. Actors came in to do vaudeville shows, or variety shows.”
Through the years
The Coliseum had an organ, so someone could play along to silent movies. It adapted over the decades, as “talkies” became the motion picture norm. It continued to entertain crowds through the ‘30s, ‘40, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Back in the 1960s, when I was 10 or 12 years old, they would show movies on Saturday afternoon,” said Tommy Ledbetter, Coliseum manager. “Most of the time they were ‘B’ horror movies, the old black and white scary movies. That’s what I remember, old horror movies and a lot of westerns.”
Progress caught up to the Coliseum in the late 1970s, when a twin cinema opened in Corinth.
“People wanted to go to the new thing,” said Simmons, who inherited the building from his great-grandfather in 1957 at the age of 5.
Simmons sold the building in 1977. The new owner tried to keep it running, but the audience wasn’t there.
The Coliseum was donated to Alcorn County in 1981. The story could’ve gone any number of directions from there.
But those marble stairs and plaster friezes survived for today’s visitors thanks to the leadership of the Corinth Area Arts Council, Inc., board of directors, which oversees the building.
Williams was building manager for nearly 30 years. During that time, a mix of grants and private donations helped fund the Coliseum’s restoration.
The Mississippi Arts Commission’s Governor’s Award for the Arts recognized the arts council’s work, and the League of Historic American Theatres honored the council with a Historic Theatre Preservation Award. The building is on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places.
“We tried to get it back to the original look from when it was built,” Ledbetter said.
The building has new seats and updated lighting, and some of the flooring has been replaced. Since the screen and projector were removed, the Coliseum Civic Center had to relinquish its status as a “movie palace,” but the stage, fly loft and dressing room have been put to good use in recent years.
“Corinth Theatre-Arts uses it for Christmas shows, and we bring in students from 20 to 30 schools,” said Ledbetter, who also serves as managing director of CT-A. “We have a lot of gospel events and revivals. We had a couple of gospel plays last year.”
The site has hosted weddings and receptions, and musicians have recorded in the venue because of Liddon’s practical genius.
“The acoustics are great,” Ledbetter said. “You can stand on the stage and talk normally and people can hear it in the back. We’ve tested it.”
Alcorn County provides money for a building manager and a janitor. Most of the maintenance and general upkeep is funded by rental fees.
“It’s an old building, so there’s always something to fix,” Ledbetter said. “We keep a list. When we get the money, we do the next thing.”
The past is never assured a place in the present. It’s natural for the old to make way for the new, but the Coliseum Civic Center remains an elegant survivor.
“It’s from a bygone era,” Simmons said. “That’s what keeps it so special. We will probably never see its like again.”