Movie theaters were a major part of Commerce’s social and cultural life throughout the twentieth century. The history of the city’s more than a dozen theaters gives a glimpse into social changes, technological innovations, and the devastation brought by fire. Early theaters had interesting names such as The Cupid, The Brigham Blair, and The Star. In 1910, a tent theater was erected on the corner of Park and Main (opposite from the old Commerce Hotel, where Author’s Park is currently located). It showed Vaudeville comedies and other motion pictures to audiences enjoying cooler evenings temperatures. The Barker Theater, which also showed Vaudeville films, was open from 1916-1917 as a dual-purpose theater, having both a stage for live performances and an operating room to show recorded productions.
Another notable theater is the Hippodrome, which was constructed at 1221 Washington Street by Jack Lilly, the man responsible for building and operating most of the theaters in Commerce during the early 1900's. The Hippodrome played silent movies and was closed in 1931 due to the rise of sound productions. The first iteration of the Lyric theater was constructed in 1911 but faced a fate similar to the Hippodrome when owner A. C. Lilly realized that “talking pictures were the rage” . He decided that it was in his best interest to dismantle the Old Lyric theater and build the Palace at the same address (1206 Main Street). It opened in December of 1928 and was one of the first in the region built entirely for sound production.
Palace was one of the first theaters in the area to have air-conditioning. This demonstrates technological changes sweeping across in the South in the 1930s, with more public buildings being equipped with climate control. While describing Palace, local historian Otha C. Spencer writes that “keeping cool was often a better reason to go to the theater than the feature” itself . By the start of World War II, the majority of movie theaters in the United States were equipped with air conditioning. The magic of air conditioning made the Palace Theater a social center for almost fifty years.
As with many other theaters, the invention and integration of televisions into American home life proved too strong a challenge. With only around 600 people visited weekly the theater closed in July 1976. The building briefly became a women’s clothing store called Peggy’s Showcase and later became a private nightclub. In 1982, that nightclub was the source of blazes that destroyed much of north Main Street. Although some of the storefronts were repaired and/or rebuilt following this fire, the space once occupied by the Palace theater is currently an unoccupied greenspace.