(Above) A crowd gathers beneath the marquee on the theater’s opening day in 1951.
Photos Courtesy of the Chattanooga Public Library
‘Tis the season for Oscar-nominee fodder, which got me thinking about the movie theater scene in Chattanooga. I heard that the Rogers Theater downtown used to be a local landmark, but today there’s no trace of it. What’s the story there?
Workers put the finishing touches on the front of the theater prior to the grand opening.
Dear Curious Cinephile,
Believe it or not, there used to be three big theaters downtown at mid-century – the Tivoli, which still stands and operates today; the Martin, which was demolished in 1979; and the Rogers, whose tenure ran from the 1950s to the 1980s. The Rogers was bulldozed in 1980 after lying empty for half a decade, and EPB now takes up the block where it once stood. However, prior to closing its doors, the Rogers Theater was touted as a jewel of the city and saw countless moviegoers walk through its doors throughout the years.
Plans to build the Rogers Theater were announced in 1948. Though there were other theaters currently operating in the city, the population of Chattanooga was growing, and the Eastenn Theaters company advertised their newest addition as an upscale and ultra-modern movie house that would draw in visitors from across the city. The Rogers Theater got its name from Emmett R. Rogers, the city manager for Eastenn Theaters, who’d previously served as the first manager for the Tivoli Theatre. Rogers had been responsible for innovating theater spaces across the region; some of his additions included lobbies lavishly decorated with art, ushers, and theater pipe organs.
An employee adjusts one of the theater’s commercial film projectors.
Three years after plans for the Rogers were announced, the theater opened its doors to the public on March 2, 1951, and the response was enthusiastic – the line to get in extended from the entrance to wrap around the block. With over 1,200 seats and marquees on both Market and Broad Streets, the Rogers Theater premiered as one of the finest state-of-the-art theaters in the region. The theater’s inaugural screening was of the film Three Guys Named Mike, which was met with middling-to-poor reviews and can now be viewed for free via public domain, for anyone curious about it. Over the years, the theater would go on to show not only the best of Hollywood’s offerings, such as the record-breaking Ben-Hur, but also provide viewers with the opportunity to travel the world from their theater seats by showing “travelogues,” which documented travels and tourist experiences abroad.
Moviegoers flock to an evening showing of blockbuster Ben-Hur in 1960. (Photo Courtesy of The Chattanooga Free Press Archives via ChattanoogaHistory.com)
By the late ‘60s, the Rogers needed a little facelift, and the newly renovated theater reopened in 1969 with a showing of Midnight Cowboy. Unfortunately, the theater began to fall into disrepair once more in the following years. In 1975, firefighters responded to a fire caused by the popcorn machines, and though there was no serious damage, the theater still closed its doors in the fall of the same year. It was demolished by the city five years later – Chattanooga’s premier movie house of its day was no more.
The Tivoli Theatre – which is still operational today – advertises a Chattanooga Symphony performance in November of 1977.
While it’s always sad to lose what could have been a landmark historic theater, don’t despair quite yet! The Tivoli Theatre, just a few blocks over from where the Rogers once stood, is currently celebrating its centennial anniversary and is very much still open for business – don’t hesitate to give it a visit.
Hope this helps!
Resident History Hound
The Martin Theater – another one of Chattanooga’s now-demolished movie houses – lights up the street in 1967.