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Shelby's last picture show

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By Steve Doyle

 You may have known it as a men’s clothing store or an antique store, a nicknack shop or the emporium of sweetness it is today.

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You may have wondered why its awning sticks out just a little farther than its neighbors, and if you’ve been inside, you might have considered that the floor space seemed to be unusual compared to others in Shelbyville.

But what you may not know is that the building at 610 Main Street was for decades the center of entertainment in Shelby County: The Shelby Theater.

For five decades – since at least the early 1930s – residents of Shelby and surrounding counties walked under the glittering marquee, past the vivid posters and into the world of Hollywood.

This was an old-fashioned movie house, with red velour in the entry way, the smell of fresh-popped popcorn filling the room, intrusive ushers with flashlights and the danger of bubble gum on the bottom of any surface you encountered.

It was the sort of place made famous by the lovely novel by Larry McMurtry that was turned in 1971 by Peter Bogdanovich into cinematic art, The Last Picture Show.

If you saw that film, you watched the lives of characters portrayed by Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms, to name a few, played out in a windswept Texas town whose centerpiece was a little theater with a flickering marquee.

That was the Shelby Theater with a little more dirt added.

This was where on a weekend evening your Mom could give you 50 cents, drop you at the door and come back after two movies, popcorn and a soft drink to pick you up out front.

“It was a great place to go on a Friday night or a Sunday matinee,” said Pat Burnett, the man who owns the building now. “We went there all the time.”

There was no HBO or pay-per-view, no VHS or DVD. And primetime movies were typically aired on Saturday nights on NBC.

Like the Vogue in St. Matthews, the Uptown on Bardstown Road, this is where you learned about cinema.

This was the place where young boys and girls first came to know John Wayne and Elvis, where you took a school trip to see Babes In Toyland and where Santa stopped every Christmas to hand out candy before a double feature.

It’s where you cried for Old Yeller and Savage Sam, laughed at The Absent Minded Professor and developed nightmares from Spacewoman and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. It’s where you found out what surfing was.

It’s where you first noticed teenagers you knew sitting on the back row and occasionally doing more than holding hands and wondered if they didn’t miss some of the scenes.

In the summer you may have ventured to the Highway-55 Drive-In, but the rest of the year, the Shelby Theater was your movie world.

But in the mid 1960s, that movie world changed. On Bardstown Road near the Watterson Expressway in Louisville, a set of twin cinemas opened, with larger screens, more vivid sound, larger seats, more good things to eat and the latest movies in dramatic presentation.

The Showcase Cinemas stole your heart and, ultimately, killed your theater. You decided that if you had a big date, this or the wonderful old theaters of 4th Street in downtown Louisville would be your destination. The Shelby Theater went dark soon after.

During its final years it served as the venue for the occasional country music concert – Jim Ed Brown was a recognizable name who played there – before it finally went dark.

“I’m not exactly sure when the theater closed,” Burnett said. “My father-in-law – Mark Scearce – bought it, and I don’t know the exact year. It must have been in the early ‘70s.”

Since then, the building has taken a methodical evolution of different shops until it opened just recently again as the home to C.J.’s Candies, the sort of place where you can gain weight just by sniffing the air and peering into the display cases.

But in its first days after closing the theater became home to Andriot’s Men’s Shop, another Shelbyville fixture that left cramped space two doors up and ultimately made way for the expansion of Tracy’s Appliances. Andriot’s remained there until 1985, after which the facility became an antique store and then a gift shop.

“That was in 1972,” said Billy Andriot, who now operates W Cromwell at Science Hill. “We were actually in both Shelbyville theaters. The old Burley Theater was two doors up the street, and it burned. We moved in there. Then we moved into the old Checkers Theater.”

In those early days, Andriot would give a visitor a tour into the upstairs corners near the old projection booths – which still remain today – and into his back storeroom, where the old movie screen still was in place with the small stage in front of it.

Today that room is closed off from the rest of the store and is the home to inventory from Wakefield-Scearce Gallery. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on renovations and reproofing.

“We built out the building all the way to Clay Street, and twenty-five or thirty years ago, we put a new roof on it,” Burnett said. “There are two floors in there now, and there’s an elevator to move things.

“But some of the fixtures are still stored downstairs. The marquee windows that held those ‘coming attractions’ posters are still there.”

In some cities, old movie theaters are resurrected as a venue for classic cinema, local theater and other civic events. Some towns have built theaters with new technology and old-styled architecture. Celebration, Fla., on Disney’s property has such a cinema.

But Burnett said he has not heard anyone discuss using the building like that. “Anything’s possible, though, I guess,” he said.

There is one footnote to this story, and it’s not a pretty one. As the theater stood, it, along with the old Shelbyville Municipal Pool, were some of the county’s last bastions of segregation. The doors were open to African-Americans, but people of color were required to sit in the balcony.

“I never thought about it until I was older,” Burnett said, “but everything in there was separated. There as even a separate concession stand upstairs.

“I always wondered why I couldn’t sit up there. They were better seats.”

Said Andriot: “I remember that well. It was a different time, a sad time.”

That old balcony now holds candy. All the seats are gone, and the only remnants of the theater are the stage in the back of the warehouse and that funny-shaped awning out front.

But like the movies you saw there, visions and the memories of the theater never go way.