We’ve been over this before, but considering the amount of interest readers indicated for the 1890s fires that swept through the downtown, possibly our most dramatic incidents are fires in the late 1930s, such as that of the old Carolina Theater.
Anyway, the movie, “San Francisco” involves a robust town on the West Coast in the19th century, a standard San Fran certainly meets. It also involves Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. And it was very vigorously talked about. I was of a single-digit age but still wanted to see it. Finally, my mother agreed, and we took off for town in the old Hudson-Terraplane.
As we approached Florence downtown, we saw smoke rising but thought little of it. We didn’t connect smoke with a fire in a theater where a movie was underway. But as we made a left turn off Palmetto Street onto Dargan, we saw numerous hoses on streets, red trucks and flashing red lights.
As I unloaded quickly onto a busy sidewalk, I spotted a couple of kids I knew and approached them for information. Boy, did I get it. They had inside information that the San Francisco fire had spread into the theater and there had been fatalities. Then I looked at smoke and fire rushing from the roof of the theater building and knew there was no chance of anybody getting back in.
This was about the time I learned that my old buddy’s information was bogus. There were no fatalities and no serious injuries, and smoke swirling over the audience and firefighters on the 100 block of South Dargan were the main memories. There many efforts to save many neighboring buildings, including the W.M. Waters Furniture Co.. which was next door to the theater. The manager at Waters was atop the building, spraying water to discourage spread of the fire.
One of the best-known sayings to come out of the incident was when the cashier of the Carolina called owner Martin A. Schnibben at the Colonial Theater to tell him, “Mr. Gluck is at the Carolina.” The rule was never to refer to fire in a theater, so Mr. Gluck was fire’s representative.” It worked well, and Schnibben took off on a run around the corner to the Carolina.
The fire was supposed to have started in the projection room, so a black family that lived in space above that room were a concern. But all week went by, and they reappeared safe and sufferers of little loss. Ads the next day showed lots of appreciation for firefighters who had made big difference, eliminating the fire problem. Schnibben, owner of the theater, said work would start right away. C.D. Waters, whose store had been most endangered, did an ad thanking the firefighters and promising his store would be open the next day.
The Morning News editor said in an editorial that one might say that Florence and Darlington have two fire departments each. Just a few minutes apart, they were heard from quickly when it appeared there might be danger of a spread.
“It is hoped Florence will not be called again to return the call, but our friends in Darlington may rest assured that Florence is ever ready to be of assistance,” the editorial said.
Florence had a couple of fires soon after the theater fire. One was on East Evans Street, at the Roxy Theater, soon to reopen as the State, and a fire was halted in the Schofield Hardware Co. building that now is the site of the present Hotel Florence,
Probably the greatest national attention for the Florence Fire came from the VFW and a recommendation that Roger Cook didn’t receive the Carnagie Medal for bravery. It was Cook who went to the stage front of the theater and, with lights down, announced that a new state law required an evacuation of theaters for quick examination of the theater periodically to ensure that there was no fire. There was much groaning, but the audience went onto Dargan Street, where they were amazed to learn the theater was burning. No award came of it.
Schnibben promised the rebuilt Carolina was to be the biggest theater in town yet, seating 1,000, which was 250 more than previously.