CLAXTON — Opened in 1927 when movies were still silent, the Tos Theatre in downtown Claxton closed after a November 1976 showing of “Across the Great Divide.” “Futureworld,” billed as the next attraction, apparently never played at the walk-in.
After a decade in public ownership under the Evans County Recreation Commission, a construction project last fall restored the façade of the theater to its pre-1940 outlines. Inside, there are few seats and no ceiling; the old ones having been removed and determined to be mostly unsalvageable.
But this week, an architect visited the site to begin putting prices to a plan for reviving the Tos as an arts and entertainment venue. Recreation Director Danny Swain and Recreation Commission Chairman Myron Midgett want those numbers for donors and other funding sources.
“We’ve got the vision. We know where we want to go with it,” Midgett said. “We just didn’t have professional advice about what it was going to cost, and you can’t really solicit strong donations from people that are willing to give without those good cost estimates.”
Matthew Cramer, architecture director for Lose & Associates, said his firm should have preliminary costs for the interior of the theater in four to six weeks. (About pronunciation: “Tos” and “Lose” both rhyme with “close,” meaning near.)
The push to raise money coincides with Evans County’s centennial year, 2014. Swain and Midgett hope the focus on local history will help build momentum for the project.
An American story
A black-and-white “Who’s Who in Claxton” newsreel, circa 1936, shows the front of what was then the Italian Garden Theatre, as well as a smiling close-up of its owner, S.G. Tos, and a glimpse of an employee, who Swain identified as Albert Parker, working in Tos’ bakery next door.
S.G. Tos, who settled in Claxton circa 1910 and eventually built a chain of five theaters in the area, was born Savino Gilliotos in Ivrea, Italy. He arrived in the United States through New York’s Ellis Island in 1902.
Before Tos built his first theater, he opened a bakery in 1910. Both Albert Parker and Ira Womble Sr. later worked for him in the bakery. Parker eventually purchased Tos’ bakery, now Claxton Bakery Inc., the maker of Claxton Fruitcake, and Womble started his own bakery, Georgia Fruitcake Co. So, Tos played a key role in establishing Claxton’s claim as “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” even though his own bakery made bread and other goods besides fruitcake.
Meanwhile, Tos built his Italian Garden. It clearly prospered under this name for more than a decade — Swain mentioned a report that about 780 people attended the opening. But in 1940, the year that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini allied with Nazi Germany, Tos changed the name of the theater to his own, Americanized, last name. He had been a U.S. citizen for about 20 years.
Over the years, Tos added theaters in Pembroke, Reidsville and Collins, plus a drive-in on U.S. Highway 301 in Claxton.
Family members carried on the business after he died in 1966. But by then, movie patronage was shrinking, and theaters in the smallest towns folded. The last of the Tos theaters in operation, the Claxton drive-in, closed in 1984 and has since been torn down.
In 2003, Tos’ grandson Gil Mincey donated the Tos walk-in cinema, beside the Claxton Bakery, to the Evans County Recreation Commission. Swain, 67, who has been the county’s recreation director for 46 years, took on the project.
Swain calls himself “the last of the Tos boys,” who had their first jobs with Tos. Swain started operating concessions at the theater just before he turned 7. Tos provided a stool so he could reach over the counter, says Swain, who continued working there until he was in high school.
By seeing to the restoration of the theater as a public space, Swain sees himself as both preserving Tos’ place in local history and carrying on his work.
“Recreation, of course, is leisure pursuits, and Tos was much into recreation and much into entertainment. And he made his living off of people in their leisure time, when they go to movies, when they could attend concerts,” Swain said. “He staged boxing matches in the theater. A lot of events went on inside the theater.”
The theater had a big screen and a small stage. Over the years it hosted beauty pageants, baby contests, meetings and fundraisers. The Recreation Commission’s design concept for the theater’s future world will reverse the priority of stage and screen, with a larger stage and a retractable screen.
The concept calls for 452 seats, including 312 at ground level and 140 in the balcony. An artifact of segregation, the balcony was once where black patrons sat.
Created several years ago, the design concept included an attached wing, which had once served as a corner gas station, as part of the restored facility.
But plans have changed. The commission is now buying the adjoining half-acre, including the wing, an old telephone exchange building and the Tos home, from Mincey. The price is $75,000, paid in installments, starting with a $6,000 down payment.
Now the plan is to tear down the other adjoining buildings — but not the house — and use the area for a parking lot and garden.
The Evans County commissioners recently approved a $115,000, two-year loan for the Tos project as an advance on the Recreation Commission’s share of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The Recreation Commission spent about $91,000 on the restoration of the front and façade. Several years ago, $60,000 went for a new roof, but a leak was still apparent from water on the concrete floor last week.
The commission is paying Lose & Associates, based in Lawrenceville, Ga., and Nashville, Tenn., up to $3,000 for the cost projections.
Evans County officials earmarked $250,000 in a previous SPLOST referendum for the project. Under the SPLOST agreement, the Recreation Commission could also apply up to $160,000 to the project from its funding for general capital improvements, Swain said.
For comparison, the city of Pembroke owns the former Tos Theatre in its downtown with similar restoration hopes. Pembroke has a $900,000 share of SPLOST for the project, and officials know this won’t be enough, Pembroke City Clerk Betty Hill said.
With the cost estimates, Swain and Midgett hope to raise funds to move the Claxton project beyond a reliance on SPLOST.
The eight-minute newsreel, which played at the Italian Garden Theatre, also shows people working or shopping at various other Claxton, Bellville and Daisy businesses, with narration trumpeting their appeal. Sites featured include the Claxton Coca-Cola Bottling Co., NeSmith Funeral Home & Ambulance Service, a grocery store, two oil companies, two turpentine stills, a beauty shop and a dance hall, plus Claxton’s First Baptist and First Methodist churches as they looked in the 1930s.
The newsreel has been turned into a DVD, which Swain plans show Thursday during the Claxton-Evans County Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet. Copies will sell for $27.50, with proceeds to go to the Tos project.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.