Archive for the Cameo Theatre Category

A Downhome Diamond in the Rough

Posted in Cameo Theatre, Cinemassacre/James Rolfe, Pocohontas Hale, The Black Shawl on August 25, 2010 by Divide By Zero

Kickin’ it Old School, All Classy Like.

This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time.  I’ve been trying to line up a supervised tour for myself so I could include some current interior pictures of The Cameo Theater in downtown Bristol, VA.  I’ve only found one short review of it online in which the writer stated that the public rarely gets access to the inside.  He is absolutely right.  I’ve tried for weeks now making phone calls every day to get inside for merely an hour.  I haven’t had any call backs yet.  It’s a very mysterious place, and the history of it is very rich.  I don’t know exactly why it is defunct right now, but all I see is enormous potential for a very sophisticated, very fun, very profitable business.

The Cameo Theater.  What’s that?

It is a vintage theater on the Virginia side of State Street in historic downtown Bristol.  In talking with some very prominent Bristol/Abingdon socialites, I have found that the Cameo used to have a strong rivalry with the Paramount theater.  They used to try and steal customers from one another, sometimes even having people who worked for one theater spend a few minutes inside the lobby of the other, only to vomit out front to discourage people from eating at the rival snack bar.  This was in hopes of getting people to leave the Paramount to come to the Cameo, or vice-versa.  It was awesome guerilla marketing and sneaky backstabbing tactics that ran rampant in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

From the top!

Before it was the Cameo Theater, there was a business on that property called Little Hell.  It was the largest prostitution house in Bristol’s history.  I couldn’t find any dates of operation, but I know that more recently it changed ownership and became The Black Shawl.  It was headed by Pocahontas Hale, who was a Madam as well as a Medicine Woman taught in Cherokee spirituality.  The story goes that she always made her herbal remedies by herself, and never wrote down any of her recipes.  Local doctors, dentists, and pharmacists would buy her potions, carefully peel off her labels, and replace them with their own.  Madam Hale made more money with her herbal medicine than with prostitution, but never kept any more than $100 in the bank at any time.  After her death, local townspeople plundered her brothel to try to find the rest of her money.  No one found anything, until one night a regular John came in after sunset and left before the break of dawn.  Soon afterward he had a lavish mansion built, so he is believed to be Pocahontas Hale’s sole beneficiary.

It is also noteworthy that Madam Hale got in legal trouble for having a 15 year old girl on her staff.  She stated that the employee claimed to be 22 years old.  The case was dismissed as the jury decided that the girl could pass for being 22.  The girl got a job at another brothel, and soon after that 2 of the jurors who dismissed the case against Madam Hale were caught visiting the 15 year old girl (to see if she was as wild as she was described in court).

Intermission

After the death of Pocahontas Hale, The Black Shawl was torn down.  The neo-deco Cameo Theater was built a little while afterward, and has been there ever since.  I’m a skeptic, but there have been reports of a black figure circling the theater that resembles Madam Hale.  There has never been a formal paranormal investigation, and I have never seen it (and I spend quite a bit of time downtown), so I can’t say anything about that.  As far as I can tell, The Cameo shut down regular operation around 1990.  The only review I can find is from a local man who wishes The Cameo would open its doors once again.  All he says is “I watched Batman here for the first time long ago, and that was a great experience,”  among a few other blurbs.  I understand that now the Cameo is owned by a religious group here in town and only use The Cameo as a base for their radio station WCHB.

Next Curtain Goes Up [hopefully]

Personally, I really wish The Cameo would open its doors again too.  There is so much potential there!  There are local theater groups; also, there are 2 colleges very close by with numerous drama/theater students who would love the chance to perform on a stage like The Cameo.  Not only that, both ETSU and UVa Wise are within an hour and a half away.  Both of which have fantastic actors who would also love to perform in front of the 500+ seats of The Cameo one weekend a semester.

Seeing as how there is a projection screen giving The Cameo the ability to play movies, there are a million ways to turn that into a fun place for Bristoleans to go on the weekends.  There could be a different theme every month;  Romantic “chick-flicks” in early Spring time and  Christmas movies all December long!  Superhero movies in September!  There could be a Monster Madness (such as the one found at Cinemassacre.com by the incredible James Rolfe) during every day of October.  It could showcase all of the old nostalgic horror movies that are incredibly corny by today’s standards.  Even the really old scary movies like the ones they would play and hook up a pulley system to swing skeletons, bats, and spiders out over the audience.  I think they call that “Ye Olde Timey 3-D”.  It would be a blast!  Not only that, but it could play newly released movies.  It’d be nice to see a new movie in a vintage art-deco theater.  There would be an air of prestige that cinemas like Tinseltown or the Abingdon Theater couldn’t bring to movie-goers.  Local children could put on plays there and charge a discounted admission to raise money for their schools.  It would be a whole lot better than their parents trying to sell those stupid candy bars at their work place for the same reason.  It would be perfect for local up-and-coming bands, or stand up comedians.  I know there are probably a few handfuls of aspiring film-makers in the Tri-Cities, without a way to show off their work.  With a little finagling of the equipment The Cameo already has, I’m sure there could be a time where once a month there could be an independent film shown before the feature presentation of the evening.  I could go on and on, the possibilities of that theater are seriously endless.

If it were up to me, I would market The Cameo more towards younger crowds.  The Paramount is right down the street and is very sophisticated, and you only see the dapper-est of the dapper (mostly older crowds) coming out after a performance.  Besides, there should be more things for teenagers and twenty-somethings to do in Bristol besides go to Johnson City for entertainment.  And with a calendar full of movies, local college and grade school performances, along with seasonal artists, a few comedians, local bands, and poetry readings, maybe an “open mic night” every once in a while, who wouldn’t attend?  It could open doors for many talented young men and women around the Tri-Cities, as well as add some culture to an otherwise stale demographic.  Isn’t that what we want?  Shouldn’t Bristol be proud of the youth that is born and raised here?  Wouldn’t it be spectacular to see a crop of varied artists break into the culture scene across the nation representing Bristol and the Tri-Cities?  I know I’d love to see it, and I can see it, slightly.  Every time I walk by The Cameo, hold my hand up to the door and peer in through the dusty glass I see a tiny glimmer of what could be.  And it could be epic.