The Brown Hotel/Dixie Theater/Ritz Theater


East Broad Street in Livingston was once quite busy with activity with two
boarding houses on either side of the street and at least four homes where
now there are only two. Many out-of-towners found lodging at the Dale Hotel on one side of the street and at the Brown Hotel that was on the corner of East Broad and North Goodpasture Street, the place where Brown's Flower Shop is located today. Noted far and wide, the Brown Hotel had a fine reputation for its homelike atmosphere and delicious home-style meals that were served to guests in the old-fashioned dining room. The owners were Tom W. Brown and his wife, Aribelle Brown, better known as Belle Brown.


 Tom Brown once taught school at Hilham and married one of his students, Aribelle, whose maiden name was Reeser. Mrs. Belle Brown, the first postmistress at the Allons Post Office, was a great granddaughter of Moses Fisk. Tom and Belle Brown were the parents of 10 children, one of whom was named Albert Wales Brown but was nicknamed "Mike". He got the nickname from a big, blond Irishman named Mike, who worked with a road crew and boarded with Mrs. Belle Brown during the time the road was being built from Livingston to Celina. He stayed at the boarding house for over a year while the road was under construction, and during that time, Albert Wales Brown and the big Irishman took a real liking to each other, spending time together at the end of each work day. When the road project was completed and Mike the Irishman moved on, Albert Wales Brown missed him terribly, asking every day, "Where's Mike?" And he wound up being called "Little Mike" for a time, and as he grew up, the name Mike Brown was how he was known.
The boarding house consisted of 10 or 12 rooms that were rented out. An old crank-type telephone was on the wall and a potbellied stove sat in the middle of the parlor floor. Folks would gather around the stove to sing and dance while someone who was called "Peg Leg Pete" played the fiddle. After the death of Tom Brown, who at age 38 learned he had Hodgkins disease, Mrs. Belle Brown and her son, Mike, entered into a business partnership together and had what was known as the Dixie Theater constructed right next door to the Brown Hotel. Together they got a loan at the local bank in the amount of $250 to have the theater built.

When Mike Brown was 19 years-old, he won the hand of his sweetheart, Clarice, age 20, whose maiden name was also Brown. Much to the dismay of Clarice Brown's parents, Marvin and Ida (Oakley) Brown, the couple eloped on Mike's motorcycle, and when they returned home, Clarice's parents locked her
in her room and forbid her to come out for a period of time. Gradually, Marvin and Ida Brown got used to the idea of their daughter marrying what they considered not too good a prospect, believing that the
theater business was sinful, and the idea that their daughter was married into a family that ran such an establishment didnšt set well with them at all.

Mike Brown's in-laws, however, were quite mistaken about their new  son-in-law's abilities. He invented not only the first night light, but also the first locking gas cap, and sold his ideas for these products for the
amount of $300 to a man who got the patent on each item. Nevertheless, after a period of adjustment on the part of the young bride's parents, the newly married couple took up residence in one of the rooms at the Brown Hotel. Clarice Brown went to school at Alpine, received a teaching certificate, and got a position teaching school at Ivy Point on Highland Mountain. As time passed, the Mike and Clarice Brown family grew to include two daughters, Colleen, and her sister, Marinella, who everyone fondly called


Mike Brown named his oldest daughter after a prominent star of the silent
screen, Colleen Moore. And it didn't just end with his naming his firstborn
after the film star. He wrote a letter to the well known actress, telling
her he had named his daughter Colleen Moore Brown, and in turn, Ms. Moore responded to his letter by sending him an autographed picture of herself, along with a baby dress for her namesake.

Mike Brown was a hard-working young man who not only helped with the running of the Dixie Theater at night, but drove a taxi during the day. The Browns owned two taxis. Both were Model T Fords and one was driven for the Browns by Luke Copeland. The taxis made many trips to the train depot in Livingston, picking up distinguished visitors who came to stay at the Brown Hotel. Among those who came from places such as Washington, D.C. to Livingston was none other than Cordell Hull. Colleen remembers when she was around 3 or 4 years-old how she would get to ride in the taxi with Cordell Hull and he
would say to her, "Come sit on my lap, you can't see out." Colleen said Mr. Hull always wore a bowler hat and smoked a big cigar. His shirts had a celluloid collar with a little leather bow tie. He hired the
Brown taxi to drive him around the area when he came to Livingston from Washington.

But life at the Brown Hotel and the Dixie Theater had problems as well as being a place of entertainment.
After both daughters were born to Mike and Clarice Brown, they moved into and shared the home of Russell Dale, whose house was on the right side of what came to be known as the Floyd Davis house. The Russell Dale home was a large white house that was torn down many years ago. While living at the Russell Dale home, and when Colleen was only 5 years-old, the whole family came down with smallpox, and this included Colleen's younger sister, Marinella, who was only 7 days-old at the time. Colleen remembers that the house was quarantined for three months with a sign on the front of the house warning others to stay away. Boxes of food were left on the porch by Mrs. Belle Brown and were scooted near the door with a long pole.  Mike Brown brought the smallpox germ home with him following a visit to North Carolina, where his mother-in-law, Ida (Oakley) Brown, had been taken to a tuberculosis sanatorium after coming down with that disease. Mike Brown had driven his father-in-law, Marvin Brown, over to visit Ida
Brown, and while in North Carolina, Mike went to a barber shop for a haircut. A shoe shine man who worked in the barber shop was polishing Mike's shoes while he was having his hair cut, and Mike noticed sore places on the man's arms. When he asked what was wrong, the fellow replied, "I don't rightly know, they just come up on me." Smallpox for the whole family was the result of that shoe shine, but in time, the family all recovered from this much feared disease.

As a small girl, Colleen also told me about riding in a horse-drawn surrey with a fringe top owned by Mrs. Cora Qualls, wife of Elvin Qualls. Mrs. Qualls sold food items to homes and businesses in Livingston, and the surrey was what could be considered a rolling grocery store, with things such as butter, eggs, milk, and fresh chickens for sale. Colleen was very helpful to Mrs. Qualls in that she was the one who got down
from the surrey and took whatever item was being purchased to the doors of the homes and businesses that were regular customers of Mrs. Qualls.

The Dixie Theater quickly became a place where crowds of people gathered, especially on Nickel Night. Many businesses around the square in Livingston would give a ticket to the theater with purchases of $3 or more, and with this ticket, plus five cents, folks could get in to see the movie. On Nickel Night, it was always a standing room only crowd. Folks would be admitted until not another person could be squeezed in, even standing up. Mrs. Clarice Brown had a soft heart when it came to little boys who had no money to get in to see the show. Colleen remembers that all a little boy had to do was drop his head and look pitiful and her mother would say, "Do you want to see the show? Well, go on in and get yourself a bag of popcorn, too."

Colleen had a number of jobs over the years in the theater business, one of which an apron her mother made for her to wear was used. The apron had two pockets sewn on it, and in those two pockets, nickels were placed. It was Colleen's job to put the nickels in the player piano that played while the silent movies came across the screen. She wasn't big enough to reach the slot on the piano to place the nickels in, so she had to stand on a box.

On other occasions, a black fellow named Lans Allen, would play the piano before the show started. Lans Allen and his wife cooked at the Brown Hotel. Marinella and Colleen would sometimes tap dance while Lans Allen played the piano before the shows began. And this tap dancing gave Marinella an idea once on how she and Colleen could make some money of their own. They walked up the street to the corner
of the square, where Morgan's Department Store used to be located, and Marinella danced on the street corner while Colleen fanned her feet, something Marinella told her to do so anyone passing would think she was really doing a terrific job dancing. Then Colleen used the hat she was fanning Marinella's feet with to collect money in. They got quite a little bit of change before their mother somehow found out what was going on. Clarice Brown marched up to the street corner and got them, and all the way home, she gave each one a good whipping. Needless to say, they didn't dance on the corner anymore.

As she got older, Colleen also had jobs such as popping and selling popcorn, selling tickets, and taking up tickets from customers as they came into the theater. From around the age of 10 years-old up until she finished high school, she was involved in helping run the theater. Friday nights were also the night Grand Old Opry stars would come to the Dixie Theater. Lots of the what we would refer to now as the older stars of the Opry made several appearances at the Dixie, and include such well known names as Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, and the Everly Brothers, just to mention a few. Gene Autry appeared there once, and the famous film star, Tex Ritter, came and stayed at the Brown Hotel for a couple of weeks during his appearance at the Dixie Theater. Before Tex Ritter departed from his visit in Livingston, he bought gifts for the Brown girls. Marinella got a doll and because she was older, Colleen got a box of candy. Colleen said she was resentful of Marinella's gift because she knew when she ate all the candy, her gift would be gone, and Marinella would always be able to keep hers.

  In 1938, Mike and Clarice Brown built the Ritz Theater on the square in Livingston. The success of the Dixie Theater was responsible for this happening, and with the move to the square, the theater was in a better location, with more parking and a bigger building. The Ritz was added onto in 1940 to accommodate 275 people. Chamler Nolen was the assistant projectionist for the Ritz and learned this job from Walter "Red" Gray, who was the chief projectionist. Chamler remembers how Howard Masters and other musicians in the area would
climb on top of the roof above the marquee and play music while the movie was in progress at the Ritz. Crowds would gather in the street and on the sidewalk near the Ritz to listen to the music.

Chamler describes Howard Masters as the best guitar player in Overton County at that time. Others who played with Howard were the Lewis twins and Ira Louvin, who later became one of the famous Opry stars known as the Louvin Brothers. Lans Allen played with Howard, too, and according to Chamler, Lans was an extremely talented musician, someone who could play just about any instrument back then, and played very well, too. Chamler told me the movies that were played at the Ritz were ordered from a
traveling salesman who represented the big movie companies such as Metro-Golden-Mayer, and the films were sent by mail to the theater. Stage shows were performed after the first movie, and then that same movie would be shown again. The theater had a very unique system that cooled the building in the summer, and although Chamler doesn't know for certain, he believes Mike Brown invented the mechanism that was used to keep the building cool.


In 1946, Chamler went out on his own and began showing movies at county schools in this and surrounding counties. Admission was 10 cents for children, 25 cents for adults. The movies could be viewed at places like Independence School and also a
school in Pickett County called Possum Trot. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big hit at Independence. Chamler Nolen's lifetime career as a projectionist began while employed by Mike and Clarice Brown at the Ritz. The Ritz had many young men of Livingston working while it was in operation who were all paid in kind by
Clarice Brown.

These young men's families could all come see the movie free of charge, and in addition, she cooked and helped clothe them also. At the death of Clarice Brown in 1948, Colleen Brown Peterman, who by that time had married and was living in Florida, returned with her husband, Dwain, to help Marinella and her husband, Fred Rose, run the Ritz Theater. In 1952, Colleen and Dwain Peterman (former mayor of Livingston and once city manager of Cookeville) and Marinella and Fred Rose purchased property
where the bowling alley of Livingston was once, and on which Sunset Drive-In was built.

In 1956, both the Ritz Theater and Sunset Drive-In were bought at auction by Dr. H.B. Nevans, who in turn sold the two businesses to Leland Allred. The ownership of the Ritz passed sometime later from Leland Allred to Wallace Allred and Kuell Stephens, and the building burned in 1963. The town
of Livingston lost a wonderful source of entertainment with that fire. When I was growing up, Saturday afternoon matinees were always on at the Ritz, and that was the place myself, my two brothers, and most of the neighborhood kids could be found. It would probably be impossible to tell the number of times we all watched Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ride off happily into the sunset while singing "Happy Trails to You!"

Betty Lou (Johnson) Copeland had the idea for this article, and I wish to thank her for suggesting it to me. Because of her idea, I got to spend a couple of fascinating afternoons with Colleen Peterman in Cookeville to gather information for the article. Thanks to Chamler Nolen for the pictures he shared with me, along with memories of his days at the Ritz he recalled for the article. And to Colleen Peterman, thank you so much for my visits, for lending pictures to be copied, and for being such a wonderful source of information.

I felt almost spellbound as I sat and listened to Colleen's stories about growing up and the wonderful experiences she had as a child. It was a real treat I will always remember. It was almost as good as being transported back in time to the days when the Dixie Theater and the Brown Hotel, and
then the Ritz, were all very prominent and well known places in Livingston.

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