A vibrant home to African American history in Macon, Georgia

21 02 2012

For African Americans living in Macon and central Georgia in the early 1900s, entertainment options were few. For entrepreneur Charles Douglass, this was an opportunity. In 1912, the successful African American merchant, banker, and investor opened the Douglass Theatre. It quickly became a popular destination for blacks in the region and is today a popular destination for all.

The original theatre – with 350 seats – opened in 1912 as part of a complex which also included the Douglass Hotel. Vaudeville acts and other live performances were offered as well as film screenings. In 1921, a new theatre opened adjacent to the original, bringing seating capacity to 750-800 and offering a visually stunning space for patrons.

Douglass Theatre exterior

A Macon landmark, the Douglass Theatre offers a range of entertainment options for residents and visitors

The Douglass was an entertainment mecca. Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, performed here, as well as the vaudeville comedy duo Butterbeans and Susie. Other shows included sacred dramas, church benefits, and “handcuff king and escape artist,” M. Martinelli.

Movies, first silent films and later “talkies,” were a staple of the Douglass’s schedule. The films of Oscar Micheaux, the first African American film maker, were shown at the Douglass. Filmgoers were treated to a gold fiber screen, which gave a warmer sepia hue to images rather than the plain black & white tones of most movie screens of the day.

Well into the 1960s the Douglass Theatre remained true to its roots as a showplace of African American talent. Untold numbers of theatergoers witnessed the performances Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Little Richard. In 1958, disc jockey Hamp Swain introduced a live Saturday morning talent show broadcast from the Douglass. It was on this show that Otis Redding, born in Dawson, GA, and raised in Macon, was discovered.

The Douglass Theatre closed its doors in 1973, after the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Douglass. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and remained vacant for many years. In 1997, after years of restoration, the Douglass opened its doors and is once again home to a variety of stage & screen offerings for patrons of any race and culture. Jazz, blues, opera, 3D films, dramatic plays, and family-friendly fare await visitors to this treasure of African American history.

For more information and performance schedules, visit the Douglass Theatre’s website. The theatre is located at 355 Martin Luther King Blvd. in downtown Macon.

The Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas makes every visitor a winner

7 06 2011
Las Vegas, NV

Vintage pinball machine ready for play at the Pinball Hall of Fame

Most of the millions of people who visit Las Vegas annually go home having lost at least a few dollars at a casino or two. For the few folks who who get off the beaten path and visit the Pinball Hall of Fame (PHOF), though, each quarter spent is a winning experience.

Operated by collector Tim Arnold and members of the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, the game of pinball rises to art form at this hands-on collection of more than 150 pinball machines. From Bally’s Heavy Hitter (1947), to Stern’s CSI (2009), each machine is fully restored and operational, giving enthusiasts and newbies alike the chance to capture an elusive match play or high score. The collection is rounded out with 50 or so classic arcade games such as Donkey Kong and Asteroids.

In the 1970s, Tim and his brother operated a string of pinball parlors in Michigan known as Pinball Pete’s. The chain was a huge success well into the 1980s. By 1990, Tim had amassed a collection of close to 1,000 pinball machines and was ready for a change of scenery. He and his collection landed in Las Vegas, where he began work on restoring the machines at his own expense and with the help of good friends.

Eventually, enough machines were in working order for Tim to show off the collection. He sponsored “Fun Night” events to thank friends for their efforts and raise money for local charities. The events grew into a twice-a-year, two-night party with 1,000 or more people in attendance.

During this same period, the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club was established, with a mission to bring together pinball enthusiasts and eventually open a facility devoted to the game of pinball. In 2006, the Pinball Hall of Fame opened, giving residents and visitors an opportunity to explore an American pastime hands-on.

Though PHOF is more arcade than museum, each machine has a note card which tells its history as well as providing information about the manufacturer. Readers can learn about historic moments in the history of the game, technological improvements made over the years, or the story behind a specific machine and related marketing efforts, such as Gottlieb’s Canada Dry machine. The best feature of this museum, however, is that every exhibit virtually screams “touch me.”

Admission is free and visitors are welcome to play until closing time or their supply of quarters is depleted. All proceeds are donated to local charities and donations to support PHOF are welcome. More information about PHOF, hours of operation, pinball history, tournaments, and links to other pinball fan resources are available at www.pinballmuseum.org and www.pinballhall.org.

Honoring America’s infantrymen and women

31 05 2011

Military museums are an excellent way to learn more about the history of America’s military and the roles each branch plays in protecting America’s borders and interests around the world. The Army’s National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, on the grounds of Fort Benning, honors America’s soldiers and tells their stories through spectacular multimedia exhibitions.

Columbus, GA

Soldiers marching off to battle as part of a multimedia display at the National Infantry Museum

The Army is the oldest and largest branch of America’s military. Infantrymen are specially-trained soldiers whose mission is to engage the enemy in combat and defense. The men and women of the infantry are truly at the front line of war and have been since the earliest days of American history. The museum’s mission is to preserve the legacy of the infantry and its role in protecting the nation.

Covering three floors, the museum contains an IMAX® theatre, gift shop, restaurant, and exhibits that pay tribute to Medal of Honor recipients as well as halls dedicated to specific eras, such as World War I and II. And, there is a rifle range simulator in which participants can test whether or not they qualify for entrance into the infantry.

Probably the most awe-inspiring exhibit, though, is the “Last 100 Yards,” which takes visitors on a soldier’s journey of the final 100 yards of historical battles. The exhibit features video footage, actual military vehicles, and artifacts donated by soldiers and historians. The exhibit ends in the Fort Benning Gallery, which documents the Army’s near 100-year relationship with the Columbus area.

The National Infantry Museum is open daily, with extended hours when special exhibits or events are taking place. Allow a minimum of two hours for a visit. The museum’s Fife and Drum restaurant is open for lunch, dinner, and brunch. The museum’s website provides specific information, a current exhibit schedule, and details about the National Infantry Foundation, a non-profit which operates the museum.

Las Vegas’ Neon Museum shines, day or night

5 05 2011

There’s so much to do in Las Vegas. The casinos, entertainment, and seemingly unlimited dining options are big draws, but how many folks can say they’ve visited The Boneyard, a collection of historic neon signs in downtown Las Vegas?

Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas

A forlorn sign waiting for its rebirth

Neon (which produces a red-orange glow, other colors are produced by other inert gases) was once the primary medium for Las Vegas signage. The 1940s through 1960s saw spectacular growth in the neon sign industry, and particularly those designed by the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). Many of the storied signs of today, such as the still-standing Vegas Vic in downtown’s Glitter Gulch, or the now-decommissioned Stardust sign on the Strip, were installed during this period.

As Las Vegas continued to grow and signage technology changed, signs were dismantled and left to bake in the desert heat or fall into disrepair at the hands of a new business owner. In 1996, that changed with the founding of the Neon Museum.

The Neon Museum is a non-profit organization devoted to collection, preservation, and exhibition of neon signs for the purpose of educational and cultural enrichment. The museum showcases this very unique art form by restoring the signs to their original state and lighting the night sky with these bold displays. The museum officially opened November 15, 1996 when The Hacienda Horse and Rider was lit at the intersection of N. Las Vegas Blvd. and Fremont St.

The collection is showcased in two areas, along Fremont St. from Las Vegas Blvd. to 3rd St., and at the under-development Neon Boneyard Park at 821 N. Las Vegas Blvd., adjacent to the relocated La Concha Motel. A third gallery is along the Las Vegas Boulevard State Scenic Byway, which runs from East Washington Ave. to East Sahara Ave. Each of the collections captures Las Vegas history vividly and splendidly.

Aladdin’s Lamp, Nevada Motel, and Dot’s Flowers are only a few of glowing artworks on display at the Fremont St. gallery, which is open 24 hours daily as a self-guided walking tour. The scenic byway collection includes the Silver Slipper and original Binion’s Horseshoe; these signs are in the medians of the road so are most easily viewed from a distance.

The Neon Boneyard Park is perhaps most interesting even though it is currently under development and the signs are stacked in a parking lot behind chain-link fence. These signs are raw, weather-worn, and lonely with no glow or dazzle. Each has its own story to tell, but the visitor has to imagine it for themselves or perhaps relive an earlier time when they visited a particular casino or sight themselves. Eventually, the signs will be restored to their full working glory and will be displayed in similar fashion to the other installations around town. Plans are underway for the La Concha – a mid-century architectural delight with its own special history – to be the museum’s visitor’s center and main gateway.

Visit the Neon Museum’s website to learn more about the collection and monitor information about the opening of the visitor’s center. To learn more about the history of neon signs in Las Vegas, visit YESCO’s historical timeline and click on “The Golden Age of Neon.” Visit www.byways.org to learn more about the Las Vegas Blvd. State Scenic Byway.

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