Johnson City is the only town in the area that did not manage to preserve at least one of its classic cinemas from the glory days of downtown Americana. You’ll find marquees in downtown Bristol, Elizabethton, Erwin and Kingsport. Only one of the old theaters, though, is still functioning as a full-time movie house: The Capitol Cinemas in Erwin.
Despite tough competition from modern multiplexes in the region, Jan Bradley is still making a go of things at The Capitol. Unlike many older cinemas that rely on art-house and second-run movies to stay afloat, The Capitol is even booking new releases. Two of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Incredibles 2,” are playing this week.
Bradley kept Erwin on the first-run circuit in part by converting to digital projectors with 3D capability in 2012 — a necessity given that distributors phased out 35 mm film in favor high-definition downloads. The Capitol’s projectors were part of a $250,000 investment that also resulted in new custom seating.
It’s exciting to see Bradley get a boost for her efforts at the 78-year-old theater from the Tennessee Main Street Facade Improvement program. The Capitol was one of three structures in downtown Erwin recently singled out for $25,000 grants, and Bradley plans to use the funds to restore the Capitol’s facade in a manner similar to the building’s original exterior design.
That’s what should be happening in old downtowns across the country — historic restoration with viable modern adaptation.
One reason The Capitol has been around for eight decades is that it has remained in the same family since day one. Bradley’s grandfather, Earle Hendren, opened the cinema in September 1940, and her father, Joe Hendren, later assumed ownership until Bradley and her sister took over. Bradley became the sole proprietor in 2012.
If only Johnson City had such a place. Five cinemas called downtown Johnson City home over the years — The Edisonian, The Majestic, The Liberty, The Sevier and The Tennessee. At its peak in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the latter four were competing for a moviegoer’s dime.
Three have met the wrecking ball, and neither of the remaining buildings houses a cinema.
The Edisonian, which was the city’s original silent movie house, closed in the 1930s after a few name changes. It has been used as retail space in the decades since.
The Liberty was a dilapidated shell until developer Brent Long began renovations for retail, office and residential space last year. The Johnson City Development Authority awarded Long a $7,500 grant to help build facades for both the East Main and East Market sides of the building, but it will not be a cinema.
Johnson City’s golden age cinema history sadly has evaporated from the downtown landscape. We can only envy — and visit — our neighbors in Erwin. We’d love to see The Capitol around for another eight decades.