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"Let's go to the movies!"

If you said that in Athens many years ago then you might go to the Dixie Theater and see a Hollywood film (or two) and owner Mr. N.G. Dorbandt might have been there to welcome you.

Designated as the first of its type in Henderson County, the Dixie Theater was featured in an article in the Athens Weekly Review of May, 1941 Historic and Home-coming edition. The subhead on the article offers more information: "N.G. Dorbandt Pioneered the Show Business Here 29 years ago" - and "’The Great Train Robbery’ Reeled by Hand was first Picture Shown Here."

Originally located in the LaRue Building on the south side of the courthouse square (corner of Prairieville and East Corsicana) the Dixie Theater in those years offered a 45 minute feature with the admission price of 5 or 10 cents. And as the reporter put it, the theater “was especially proud of its opera chairs and its modern projections equipment.”

As the subhead described, among its early showings was “The Great Train Robbery,” This was a 1903 silent film issued by Edison company, and was one of the first movies that showed a complete story instead of just a series of scenes. One scene, frightening at the time, was when a bandit fired his pistol directly at the camera.

Silent films at the time were usually accompanied by music - from the proverbial piano to sometimes full orchestras. At the Liberty the Yantis Orchestra and a “mammoth electric organ" did that.

The founder and owner of the Liberty Theater, N.G. Dorbandt, described as “a pioneer in the theatre business," had operated several non-theater businesses before he came to Athens and came to the city in 1912 to open the Dixie.

In 1919 the facility was restored into a “building 40 by 100 feet and with new equipment, and costing some $20,000.” The idea was to provide the customers with “the latest word in clean-comfortable entertainment.”

As service to their customers, the Dixie offered a variety of films over the years, among them a 1923 Harold Lloyd film. His movies often featured precarious stunts (performed by Lloyd himself) so in this case the management was concerned about the audience reaction. Their advertisement at the time read: “Manager’s Note: especially reinforced seats with straps for hysterical patrons. Doctor in attendance at all performances.”

Other times in addition to the films, the theater was the venue for live performances including shoe sales figures/comic book character Buster Brown and his dog Tige. Another was a 1928 offering of $500 prize for a couple who agreed to be married on stage. Another attraction in 1929 was psychic “mental marvel” Mel Roy. Then in 1924 the Dixie was the setting for the selection of the Queen of the East Texas Cotton Palace celebration and another publicity stunt came in 1926 when a hundred movie tickets were dropped from an airplane to celebrate “Greater Movie Season.”

In 1929 as sound films became the order of the day it naturally brought changes to the Dixie. And in fact, according to the reporter in the 1941 article, “...the Dixie was one of the first to install the necessary sound and projectors on the silver screen for its patronage." The first sound movie to be shown was "The Singing Fool" starring Al Jolson and proved very popular.

In 1934 Mr. Dorbandt updated and remodeled the theater adding 42 1/2 more feet to the building and "The Dixie took on a completely new face and dress." The improvements included a new marque, new upholstered seats, new carpets and new cooling and heating systems. Other improvements meant the addition of new sound system and projector for a better picture.

Admissions to the Dixie at one time were as high as fifty cents, but after the first World War and then the following 1930s depression admissions were reduced to as low as 15 cents. The Review reader was informed in the 1941 article: "Though the hard times and financial difficulties have been lifted, the price has remained the same, due to the volume of business with which the theatre has had and which remains increasing daily. This is an unusual experience for any modern theatre of the present day and age."

In his 1929 Henderson County history account of leading Athens citizens, J.J. Faulk called Mr. Dorbandt “…one of the progressive citizens, always ready to assist in any laudable enterprise which is calculated to benefit the town.” He added: “During the years that he has resided here in he has built up a large circle of friends and his success in business has been deserved.”

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