A website aiming to help “consumers make better decisions about their personal finances” recently named Camden as the second-least expensive city for movie buffs in the country.
NerdWallet tied Camden’s Little Theater in second place for the cheapest movie tickets in the country with a theater in Marion, N.C. The theater used to sell $5 movie tickets for adults and $3 tickets for children. The theater’s current owners, James and Rita Trivett, revealed, however, that ticket prices went up to $7 for adults and $5 for children last December. Even though slightly out of date, the ranking brings attention to Kershaw County’s only movie theater -- a theater with a long history of bringing movie magic to Camden.
In 1915, R.W. Mitcham built the 300-seat Majestic Theater, located on DeKalb Street across the street from where the Little Theater is today. The Majestic had air conditioning and heat; a “projectionist” that ran two reels simultaneously so the audience wouldn’t have to wait for him to switch the reels in the middle of the movie; and featured live orchestra music during silent films. About a year later, Mitcham remodeled the theater to accommodate a larger screen, 100 more seats and more space between the seats. In the 1930s, when radio became popular, “sound was in demand,” and Mitcham immediately incorporated the sound system into the theater, according to Joan A. and L. Glen Inabinet’s A History of Kershaw County, South Carolina.
The Inabinet’s book also speaks of a man named T. Lee Little. He had been a “showman” since 1910, serving as secretary of the Kershaw County Fair -- where he brought the first “areoplane” to South Carolina -- and as secretary of the Horse Show Association.
In 1934, the city of Camden allowed Little to rent out the Camden Opera House as the Haigler Theater. It held 600 and featured “seasonal stage shows,” including musicals and vaudeville.
Little built The Little Theater in 1948 to replace the Majestic. The property, where the theater still stands today, was once the site of the Little family home.
A March 15, 1955, Camden Chronicle article touted Little, and a Charleston man, as “about the only movie picture exhibitors who have remained independent against the inroad of the chain and the ravages of time and fortune.” Little, for whom Little Street is also named, was one of Camden’s “most popular and respected citizens,” according to the article. In addition, to the Majestic and Haigler Theater, Little also operated the Sky-Vu Drive-In for some time.
According to another Camden Chronicle article, the Little Theater was sold in 1977. The Trivetts purchased the building in 1991. Rita had already been working at the theater for several years after a friend asked her if she could help run it. She and her husband had a background working concessions for a variety of events and always enjoyed working with the public.
Two years later, Rita said, she knew she wanted to purchase it. She made the winning bid, but a rival bidder said they had purchased the contents. According to a Chronicle-Independent article from that year, the Trivetts had to go to court after the other bidder -- an entertainment company -- removed most of the items out the equipment they needed to run the theater. The entertainment company took a projector, movie screen and other items.
The Trivetts made another winning bid, however, and reopened the Little Theater. Ironically, the other company, which had operated a movie theater called The Hub in Camden’s Dusty Bend, eventually asked the Trivetts to purchase their equipment and take over their lease. Rita said she and her husband were losing money there, but the new owner of The Hub property let them out of their lease and agreed not to open another theater. The Hub was where Newman’s Furniture Store is today.
It didn’t take the Trivetts long to learn how to run a movie theater. When they first re-opened, they used a movie booking agency in Charlotte to get all of their feature films. After the last member of the family-owned agency died about six years ago, James began booking the movies for the theater himself. He is a part of the National Association of Theater Owners, which sends him catalogs of movies he can feature. The Trivetts said “Jurassic Park” and “Batman” are two of the best selling films at the theater. “Godzilla” was a bust, they said, and they’ve learned not to sleep on films that turn out to be blockbuster hits. “Titanic” was a movie they featured about 12 weeks after it was released because they didn’t think it would do well, Rita said. The movie still earned money at the Little Theater and she learned her lesson, she said with a smile.
The Trivetts’ love for children is their main motivation for staying in the movie business, they said. Family films are their main focus, and one of James’ favorite genres of film to feature at the Little Theater. Being “able to see children who used to come to the theater get married and bring their own children back to the theater,” is the best thing about owning the theater, he said. Rita said she never forgets a face and loves when people stop to tell her that they had their first kiss in the Little theater.
Rita’s favorite movie feature at the Little Theater was 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Rita said she grew up listening to Turner’s music and that film is the one movie she remembers sitting in the movie theater to watch with the guests.
The Christian-based film “Courageous” has did well, the Trivetts said. “Courageous” is a film that the Trivett’s tried to feature, but were not able to until they partnered with First Baptist Church of Camden. Larry Godwin and Leon Prosser helped get the film to the Little Theater and pre-sold tickets, Rita said. The Trivetts also collaborated with the church to get the film “October Baby,” James said.
The Trivetts “twinned” the building soon after they took ownership of it so that they could feature two movies at a time. The downstairs theater features the newest movie and seats 460; the upstairs plays an older movie with seating for about 100. Their first upstairs screening was “A League of their Own,” featuring Tom Hanks in 1992.
“It’s been fun,” Rita said. “We’ve worked hard to keep this theater open. We’ve had a lot of support from people in the community and we do it for the children,” she said.
The Trivett’s also own the sole movie theater in Lancaster. They are preparing to close that building, however, because they cannot afford to switch from 35mm film to digital. The Trivetts put digital projectors in the Little Theater in December for about $130,000, Rita said. Companies are no longer providing movies in the 35mm format, she said; digital has better sound and the visuals are clearer. They hope that a KickStarter campaign will raise the funds for the Lancaster theater, so they will not have to close, James said. A similar funding mechanism was used in Indiana, he said, and the movie owner was able to go digital and buy all new seats with the money raised.
If he does have to close the Lancaster theater, James is hoping to spend more time repairing the Little Theater, and finding more films that adults can enjoy alongside their children.
The Little Theater features 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows. A show listing is available at 432-7330.