The Historic Rylander Theater
by Alan Anderson Archivist, Sumter Historic Trust, Inc.
The Rylander Theater served this community for almost exactly thirty years from 1921 to 1951. Originally conceived of as a joint city-civic group project, the city coordinating the finan- cing with the Chamber of Commerce and the Americus Rotary Club, early planning was led by Arthur Rylander, Mayor John E. Sheppard and city councilmen William E. Taylor and Charles M. Burke during the first half of 1919. On July 13,1919 came the surprise announcement by Walter Ry- lander, son of Arthur Rylander, of the younger man's privately capitalized $60,000 theater, thus obviating the earlier effort. Actual construction required a massive year and a half effort overseen by Evan Mathis on Walter Rylander's behalf. C.K. How- ell, of New York, was the architect who designed the magnificent edifice. E.W. Rawlings, the contractor, moved his family from Montezuma to Americus to complete the undertaking. Under the watchful supervision of Mathis and Rawlings, William Saling, of New York, did the interior decorating, Bob Clark, of Macon, the plastering, Bruce Clark, of Charleston, the wiring, Ernest M. "Dick" Viquesney, of Americus, the interior marble work and "lo- cal colored brick masons" all of the building's brick work. The installation of a $5,000 pipe organ, a "typhoon cooling and ventilating fan system" and nearly 1,000 opera chairs, with an orchestra section of 580, balcony of 150 and gallery of 130 (the last reserved exclusively for black patrons with their own separate entrance and ticket window because of racial segrega- tion) ballooned construction costs to $150,000! The Rylander Theater's grandopening was on Jan. 21,1921 with the national touring company of the hit play "Lightnin'". Movies debuted Feb. 14,1921 with Mary Pickford's "The Love Light" and Harold Lloyd's "Get Out And Get Under" on a twin bill. Admission prices were "adults 25 cents, children under 13 10 cents, colored adults 17 cents and colored children 10 cents". The first talk- ing movie to be shown in Americus, "The Awakening" starring Vilma Banky and Louis Wolheim, was under the proprietorship of Joel Gortatowsky in May 1929. R.E. Martin bought the Rylander in Apr. 1932 to add to his already burgeoning movie theater empire. Extensive renovations were made in June of that year and it had its second grandopening in July. The theater's namesake, Walter Rylander, severed his financial connection when he sold out to the Americus Grocery Co. on Sept. 19,1934. The beginning of the end for the Rylander's glory days came with the arrival on Mar. 15,1942 of the new, and larger, Martin Theater on Forsyth, relegating the "B" movies to the former, which was ingloriously renamed the Roxy in May 1945. Rapidly coming to a close, on Jan. 27,1950 the Hollis Lanier Co. (former- ly Americus Grocery Co.) sold its remaining interest to the Mar- tin chain. The latter dealt the Roxy a death blow shortly there- after with the opening of their Sunset Drive-In Theater near the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and 280 in April 1950. By the end of that calendar year the old Rylander Theater was closed for busi- ness. During its heyday it had hosted numerous minstrel shows, vau- deville acts, musical revues and plays as well as every Americus High School graduation from 1921 to 1940. The Americus and Sum- ter County Centennial celebration had been held there on Dec. 8, 1931 with thousands in attendance. Prominent among speakers ap- pearing at the Rylander were Sgt. Alvin C. York, hero of World War I, and Sen. Thomas J. Heflin (D-Ala.) and Rep. Charles R. Crisp (D-Ga.), two of the South's leading political figures of that time. John Philip Sousa, the "March King", and black musi- cians and entertainers such as Earl "Fatha" Hines and the Mills Brothers also performed in its venue. The Martin and Sunset theaters have since "gone with the wind" but the Rylander is enjoying a rebirth, rising like the phoenix of mythology, under the capable leadership of our current vision- ary city officials. Hurrah for historic preservation!