The Swan Theater
Once upon a time (the middle of the 20 th century) the Swan Theater occupied a prominent place on South Peachtree Street across from the Norcross depot, and a prominent place in the hearts of local residents. It was located on the ground floor of the Norcross Masonic Lodge and offered the excitement of seeing “golden age” movies to residents of the town and surrounding area. This article is a remembrance of the theater, some of the people that worked and visited there and the pleasure that it gave to local citizens of that era.
The local masonic lodge chapter opened their building in Norcross in 1909. The chapter has used the second floor of the building for their meetings since then, but they decided to sell the first floor of the lodge building to local businessman E. C. Settle a few years later, and for the next 50 years or more various businesses were located in the downstairs space. The one that is best-remembered by long- time residents is the Swan Theater, shown in the photo below.
When did the theater open? The exact date is unknown at this point, but Robert Ivy, who grew up in Norcross in that era, recalls that the ground floor of the Masonic Lodge had previously been the home of a retail store and had required substantial renovation in order to make it serve as a movie theater. He recalled that Herbert Wright did excavation work to create a sloping floor, and Reps Miller, the local carpenter who lived on the road that bears his name today, did much of the interior renovation, including adding a stage, projection booth and back entrance. Entries in the Masonic lodge minutes indicate that the white stucco was added to the building in the fall of 1946, and around that same time Reps Miller sent a bill for some of the modifications he did to the first floor space.
The Swan was definitely open by October of 1947, since local residents provided advertising materials listing movies shown in the theater from that date (see photo below).
Jimmy Garner remembers that the first operator of the theater was businessman William Aiken. Aiken was an experienced theater manager, having previously been in charge of the Lowe’s Grand Theater in downtown Atlanta. However, his involvement in the Swan was relatively short - in December 1947 Mr. Aiken and his wife Bobbie divorced, and an article in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported that the judge had given Mrs. Aiken most of the couple’s assets in the divorce settlement, including the family automobile, the household furniture, and his half interest in the Swan Theater in Norcross. (Mr. Aiken was not left out completely – he was awarded the family’s four horses.)
After Mr. Aiken’s exit management was transferred to Raymond Emil Ziebell, and it is he that many longtime residents of Norcross associate with running the theater. Ray Ziebell was born in Chicago Illinois in 1907 of German immigrant parents and grew up in Wisconsin. He moved to Atlanta as a young man, and married his wife Estelle in the late 1930s. He held several jobs over the next two decades, including being a clerk and then supervisor for the United Drug Company, and later an estimator for the General Repair Company. Mrs. Ziebell was listed as a wholesale milliner in the 1940 census, and worked in sales at several stores offering ladies’ clothing in Atlanta, including Good Friend Stores and Topps.
But the Ziebells ventured into business in Gwinnett County circa 1950, when they took over management of the Swan Theater in Norcross, and they ran it for most of that decade. Mr. Ziebell did the booking of movies and the procurement of supplies, such as tickets, popcorn and the coconut oil that gave the popcorn its buttery taste. For several years Mrs. Ziebell worked at the theater as well, selling tickets or taking them up as people entered.
The photo below shows Betty Scott Jarrett in front of the theater entrance circa 1955.
In the beginning the theater showed movies six days a week (being closed on Sundays), with several different titles offered in most weeks. On Saturday there were matinees (many times featuring a cowboy doubleheader) as well as evening showings. In later years the theater was open on Sundays as well, as customs and “Blue Laws” restricting business activities on Sundays were loosened. At first the movies on Sunday had Biblical themes, such as “Sampson and Delilah” and “David and Bathsheba”. The theater did not show films on Sunday until Sunday evening church services were over.
The Norcross community provided most of the labor at the theater. Bee Pitman, a retired Southern Railway employee who lived on Carlyle Street, served as the janitor for many years. The projectionists, ticket-takers, concession salespersons and the like were typically local high school students. Projectionists at theater over the years included Gerald Nuckols, brothers Paul and Roy Adams and Olin Pirkle. Betty Lou (Nalley) Burns, Mary Alice (Nalley) Brown and Sue Warbington worked as cashiers in the later years, after Mrs. Ziebell took a job with The Lovable Company, a manufacturer of women’s undergarments based in Buford, GA. Others who worked at the theater included Ray Adams, Frank Gant, the twins Bill and Bob Todd, Martha Sims and George Doby.
Shows at the Swan generated memories that linger on today. They included
- Major motion pictures like circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, moonshiner action film Thunder Road, sci-fi disaster film The Giant Claw and Georgia-set movies like I’d Climb the Highest Mountain and Gone With The Wind. (Martha Cook and Dodger Deleon both spoke of the revivals of this film at the Swan, which drew crowds that stretched down the block and around the corner past where Dominick’s is located today)
- Serials and cowboy movies were shown on Saturdays. Serials presented some fantastic adventure in episodes, always seeming to end in a cliffhanger, with the hope that the audience would be compelled to come back the next week to see what happened to the hero. Young boys would come dressed up in their cowboy outfits, complete with holsters and toy guns, as in the photo of Jimmy Carlisle below.
- Playing Lucky, a bingo-like game played by the audience at intermission where they could win prizes like a free movie pass, popcorn or perhaps cash. Bev Tye remembers going to the movies on Friday evenings while her mom and dad had lodge meetings upstairs. “I remember winning ten dollars at Lucky and was too shy to get it. Joel Dove went down to claim the prize (in return for half of the money.)”
- Live shows with Captain Don, a popular TV personality in the Atlanta area and many others
The Ziebells were known in Norcross for being fashionable dressers, and for keeping a sharp eye on activities at the theater. Betty Scott Jarrett recalls that
Mr. Ziebell was always dressed in a suit and would occasionally peek through the curtains at the back to make sure everybody on the back row was behaving.
and Martha Cook said that
The Ziebells were very glamorous to me. Didn't she have bright red hair and wear very nice clothes and more makeup than most of our moms? He was a tall man, very professional looking and always wore a suit. He sold the tickets. His wife, who always wore a sweater and skirt, took the tickets at the door. Mr. Ziebell kept a close watch on the back row, peeking through the curtains often.
In the early days the Ziebells lived in an apartment in Atlanta, and Roy Adams recalled that Mrs. Ziebell spoke often to her husband regarding her desire to move to a house. Eventually the Ziebells worked with Kenneth Warren, a Norcross builder who lived on Holcomb Bridge Road, to build a house at 1945 Dellwood Drive in Atlanta, near Piedmont Hospital.
The Ziebells took a vacation trip to Mexico in December 1958, and they asked Ray Adams to take charge of the theater while they were gone. Mr. Ziebell had a heart attack during the trip and died there. His remains were brought back to Atlanta for funeral services, and he was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.
After his death theater management was taken over by Larry McClure, who ran the Gwinnett Drive-In Theater on Norcross Tucker Road outside town, and Oscar E. Kilgo. Mr. Kilgo had been an active entrepreneur in the entertainment business in the Atlanta area for many years. His daughter Betty recalled that her father had many business activities – he ran neighborhood and drive in theaters, presented and promoted concerts for performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Tommy Roe and owned a recording studio and company based in Brookhaven. He also was the post photographer for Fort Gillem, an army facility on the south side of Atlanta in those days, and had a “man on the street” photo business – in a time when it was common for folks to dress up to go shopping at stores such as Richs and Davisons in downtown Atlanta, he would take snapshots of people on the street and develop and print them within one hour (in a rented darkroom at a nearby dime store) and have them ready for folks to take home as a souvenir.
Betty tells a story that a few weeks after her father had presented a concert by Jerry Lee Lewis at one of his drive in theaters, he was visited by IRS agents who were looking for the performer, wanting to discuss back taxes that they thought he (Lewis) owed. Mr. Kilgo was able to convince them that he had not seen the flamboyant entertainer since the show was over.
Kilgo also picked up the nickname “The Cartwheel Man” from his theater operations – he found that he had to stock lots of dollar bills for the cashiers at his drive in theaters on Fridays, since many of his patrons would be paid in cash on Friday and would come to the theater that night wanting to pay for their admission or concession items with large bills ranging up to $100.00, many times wanting small bills in return. He switched to giving change for large bills in silver dollars (at that time known by the slang term “cartwheels”), and found that this dampened the demand for change (and also got him a nickname.)
Oscar Kilgo is shown in the mosaic caricature below.
During the 1960s there was increased competition for small theaters from television, and over time the Swan cut back to showing movies on the weekends only, and then ceased operations circa 1962 - 1963.
Mike Camp, who grew up in Norcross in the 1950s, wrote of the Swan:
In retrospect, I now believe the Swan Theatre was one of our major cultural institutions influencing not only individuals, but the entire community as a whole. The citizens and shop/business owners in Norcross were mostly honest, caring people who wanted their community to prosper and their citizens to do well in the Post WWII era. They took great pride in their town and its well-being. I believe Mr. and Mrs. Ziebell were also such people. They kept their personal life totally in the background and focused on providing a positive, wholesome product to their community. I never recall a marginal movie being shown on their silver screen. Quality entertainment presented in a safe and fun environment was the product they offered. Their standards of decorum and conduct were understood without being spoken. I never recall an ugly scene involving misbehavior inside the theatre or outside where people safely gathered.
The Ziebells respected all elements of the town. They invited the churches to use their facilities to aid their causes. Movies like The Robe, Barabbas, Samson and Delilah and Spartacus, and above all I’d Climbed the Highest Mountain were frequently shown for minimal fees.
I shall always remember the smell of pine oil cleaner they used, the Necco multi color wafers from the candy counter, the irresistible smell of great popcorn, the upcoming features on the poster boards out front.