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Palestine, Texas

by Sandy Fiedler

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Gem Theatre old photo
Newspaper photo that was reprinted in the July 4, 1976, special edition of the Palestine Herald-Press. Date of original photo is unknown, but it was probably 1930s.

Courtesy of Roddy Millichamp

In 1908 two conjoined buildings were erected in downtown Palestine. The left side was built by Judge P.W. Brown and became the gas company. The right side, built by Judge B.H. Gardner, became a silent movie theatre, THE GEM PICTURE PALACE. Upstairs were sixteen offices housing doctors, dentists, and lawyers.

Newspapers carried provocative movie ads promising thrilling movies, full of romance, laughs, sentiment, courage, and spine tingles. Not much has changed in movie offerings to the present time, except, of course, that sound is now incorporated into the film. Sound then was live and melodious.

One newspaper ad stated, "Mrs. Mae Middleton Colley [the Colley family was influential in Palestine at the time], who has just returned to Palestine after a successful season in wide musical circles, is offering a special musical program at the Gem Theatre tonight…", featuring her accompaniment to a male quartet. This was local entertainment before the movie showing. Mrs. Colley was famous for her skillful accompaniment on piano and organ as the movie unfolded.

Gem Theatre today
The old Gem [silent] Picture Palace today
Now Star of Texas Antiques

Photo courtesy Sandy Fiedler

The Gem ceased to be a theatre in the 1930s when the structure became the office for Texas Power and Light until the 1970s. In 1996 the twin buildings were bought by Roddy and Susan Millichamp. After three years of intense restoration, the old theatre was reopened as the Star of Texas Antiques shop during Dogwood Trails, March 16, 2000. Most notable is a collection of 15,000 antiquarian books. When the left side of the building is fully restored as well, the book collection should expand to about 30,000.

One of my favorite Gem newspaper ads is for The Young Diana with Marion Davies, a colorful silent movie actress on and off celluloid.

Marion Davies movie poster
An ad for Marion Davies feature being shown at the Gem [silent] Picture Palace in Palestine.

Photos are taken of original newspaper ads courtesy of Roddy Millichamp, current owner of the old theatre.

Marion was the till-death-do-us-part mistress of the powerful publisher and founder of Cosmopolitan Studios, William Randolph Hearst, who was married to the mother of his children. Together W.R. and Marion lived and entertained Hollywood's brassy royalty in Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California. Their lives were immortalized in the brilliant movie Citizen Kane, product of the young genius, Orson Welles. Because W.R. disliked the portrayal of himself in the movie, he saw to it that Welles in effect became blacklisted in Hollywood. The world never saw what could have been.

Unfortunately, Citizen Kane's portrayal of Marion's acting skills as hackneyed, a forced creation of Hearst's influence and wealth, has stuck. But this is not the truth. Marion Davies was a capable, multi-hued actress, worthy of a better legacy.

Pola Negri in Gypsy Blood
An ad for Gipsy Blood at the Gem [silent] Picture Palace.

Photos are taken of original newspaper ads courtesy of Roddy Millichamp, current owner of the old theatre.

Davies reminds me of Helen Grossenheider, a young woman from a strict St. Louis family, who in the same time period ran off to California with the man of her dreams. Happy are the words on postcards she wrote to her adoring little sisters who easily forgave her for leaving home. Happy, until she discovered that her husband already had a wife. Helen died an early death of syphilis.

Lon Chaney in Flesh and Blood
An ad for Lon Chaney in Flesh and Bloodd
at the Gem [silent] Picture Palace.

Photos are taken of original newspaper ads courtesy of Roddy Millichamp, current owner of the old theatre.

Her picture hangs on my office wall. There she stands, posing in 1923 in a California studio, with a flowing dark dress, a single long strand of pearls, floppy hat, sunlight from the window serving as a backdrop. The roses at her waist are hand-colored a deep red, the way people used to color black and white photos to add realism and dimension. Her face is white with rosy, flushed cheeks. She is smashing. She was my grandmother's sister, "Dear Sister Helen," my grandmother always called her, almost genuflecting at the mention of the name. The rest of the family, however, was ashamed and mostly silent about her. It took some effort on my part to find out the truth about her death.

Why does she intrigue me? Because she was daring while the rest of the world trudged along? Because she exchanged her papa's house with its massive dark Victorian furniture in a snowy landlocked city for an ocean breezes, perpetual sunshine, and adventure? Setting isn't everything, but it is something.

D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm
An ad for D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm
at the Gem [silent] Picture Palace.

Photos are taken of original newspaper ads courtesy of Roddy Millichamp.

The 1920s: Patrons attend the Gem Picture Palace in Texas; Marion Davies is an actress and paramour; Dear Sister Helen basks in the southern California sun - transient fantasy, romance, and brave innocence.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

September 2001
© Sandy Fiedler

Palestine, Texas

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