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Released April 26, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG --- University of Southern Mississippi faculty and students know history professor Andy Wiest's fondness for a good joke.

Moviegoers in the late 1970s were not amused, however, when Wiest, then an undergraduate student at Southern Miss working part-time at Hattiesburg's old Avanti Theater, would, for kicks, crank up the volume during key moments in showings of the thriller "Jaws" pushing an already edgy audience to the brink of insanity.

"We ran that movie a long time, and we eventually got bored with it, so to have a bit more fun when the most suspenseful scenes in the movie came on, the music got soft and then went away, then it came back on really loud," Wiest said. "Folks would literally jump out of their seats."

The Hardy Street movie house, run by Southern Miss students in recent years featuring second-run movies for a $1, will feature its final movie April 28 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. when the University Activities Council will present "Grease."

The building, located across the street from the university, is scheduled to be demolished in the near future for construction of a roadway designed for easier access to the campus' main entrance.

"It's a shame it has to be torn down," said Southern Miss student Jerron Mannery of Jackson, president of the UAC. "It was a good location."

Recently Wiest and former manager Benny Sanford took a final tour of the theater, a trip down memory lane as the building faces its own curtain call.

Sanford, himself a film student at Southern Miss while managing the Avanti, was often in on many of the pranks that were common practice at the theater.

"We would take the marquee pole (used to arrange letters to advertise movies on the building), stick it through the projection window and tap people sitting below in the audience on the shoulder during the movie," he said. "It's amazing we didn't give someone a heart attack."

Technology has improved the movie theater experience, including the use of digital equipment. At the Avanti, the 35-millimeter projector required changing film rolls five to seven times every 20 minutes, Sanford said.

"Sometimes, the projector operator wouldn't be paying attention (to make the reel change), or had fallen asleep, and the screen would go blank," he said.

The theater has gone through a variety of name changes. Originally, it was known as the Dome Theater, considered by many to be a reference to the popular nickname for the university's domed administration building. Later it became the Avanti, and after its closing and subsequent use by Southern Miss students was called Reel to Reel theater and now Seymour's Cinema.

Former Southern Miss student and Hattiesburg resident Patty Talbot worked at the Dome while in high school and also remembers going to movies there while a student at the university in the early 1960s. In high school, Talbot worked in the theater's concession stand, popping popcorn and making milk shakes. She remembers the Dome's owner, George Edwards, supervising the theater while smoking his trademark cigar.

"I worked the hardest whenever band camp was held in the summer on campus, and all of the campers would come over to see movies," she said.

As children, Talbot said she said she and her sister Ann Aldridge of Hattiesburg would go watch a movie at the Dome nearly every weekend. The film "Geronimo" stands out most vividly in her memory.

"I just remember being really scared after seeing it," she laughed.

Wiest said the Avanti closed in part because of the introduction of multiplex movie theaters. But he would return for another tour of duty at the Avanti while in graduate school at Southern Miss, lured back by some of his buddies who reopened the facility. "Some enterprising friends of mine arranged to rent the theatre and run it as a college-type, second-run movie theatre," he said. "We showed movies the second time around for a dollar a pop, and we also ran midnight movies aimed at the college crowd, before nightspots in Hattiesburg stayed open after midnight so we had the market to ourselves.

"My friends thought this would be a moneymaker but had no idea how to run those old projectors. They had heard that I had worked there and brought me on board. The first night we were showing the "Elephant Man," and things indeed started to go haywire, and the projectors just flat out turned off. I did not know what to do - my memory of how to work those things were not as clear as I had hoped, but it just so happens that in the audience that night was Benny, who came dashing upstairs, just like the old days when I messed up and he was the boss, and fixed them for us.

"We showed movies there for just over a year, including concert movies, cult movies - you name it. In the end I think we broke even and called it a day, and the Avanti closed down again."


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April 27, 2004 9:12 AM