Charleston’s Garden Theater For Sale

posted by JohnColes on October 10, 2003 at 3:05 pm

The Garden Theater, which opened on January 14, 1918 in Charleston, South Carolina, is for sale. When it opened, one entered across a tile floor, under a huge ornate arch, into a garden of hanging flower baskets, caged singing canaries, trellises and crystal chandeliers.

Silent movies were shown at first accompanied by Margaret Dengate on an American Footplayer which was a piano-organ complete with sound effects. Mrs. Dengate said in an interview in 1993, “I could make the sounds of shooting pistols, slamming doors, creaks and others.”

In 1929 the Garden Theater began a policy of showing only films made in the Vitaphone process. The first film of this type was On Trial with Pauline Frederick. After the demolition in 1946 of the nearby Victory Theater, at which stage attractions had been presented in addition to films, the Garden Theater presented both film and stage shows.

The City of Charleston leased the Garden Theater in 1977 and made substantial renovation including extending the stage and installing new heating and air conditioning systems. The 650 seat theater reopened in 1978 with live stage shows and motion pictures. Until recently, Spoleto Festival USA used the theater for performances that required a smaller venue.

In 2002, the City of Charleston did not renew its lease. The Beach Company, a Charleston real estate company that owns the Garden Theater, placed it for sale. A related story can be found in the Post and Courier newspaper at

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Comments (7)

Farkas on October 17, 2003 at 3:39 am


What is the asking price for the theater? Please post a pic.

JohnColes on October 20, 2003 at 6:23 pm

The asking price for the Garden Theater is $1,650,000. It has 14,000 square feet. I’ve been waiting for the “post a picture” feature of theatertreasures to be activated to post a photo of the Garden Theater. I’ll post a photo on our little web site about movie theaters of South Carolina at I won’t be able to do that until I get home tonight.

JohnColes on October 21, 2003 at 6:27 pm

The photo of the Garden Theater can be viewed at

JohnColes on December 9, 2003 at 2:36 pm

The interior is grim. Neglect is the biggest contributor. The balcony has been used only for lighting instruments in recent years. The stage is shallow and the rigging is hemp. I would say it’s in typical condition for a theater that has not been maintained for thirty years. Restoration would probably cost more than the asking price. Beneath the dirt and dust, it’s interior is very close to it’s original appearance. A good cleaning and painting would bring back the fine old visual quality. I’d be more concerned about structural intergrity, HVAC, roofing, electrical and water services.

JohnColes on January 20, 2004 at 7:10 pm

A brief update on the Garden Theater. Cynthia Jenkins, Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, informed me that the Garden Theater has been purchased. The new owner plans to convert the interior to condominiums. LHAT member, Ralph Hicks, was seeking ways to preserve the Garden as a theater but it seems time, money and local support are not on his side. Perhaps those who purchase condos in the Garden will hear the distant sounds of shooting pistols, slamming doors and creaks from the long absent American Footplayer theater organ. The more of these theatrical treasures we lose, the more precious are the remaining gardens of our dreams.

RedDawg on February 27, 2004 at 4:57 pm

A minor correction to above posts: The term “Footplayer” is a misnomer, perhaps confused with “foot pumper”, a generic term associated with foot-pumped player pianos. The multi-instrumented devices produced by the American Photo Player Company, used to provide musical accompaniment in smaller theatres were called “Fotoplayers” (a trademarked term by APPC.) More information about these amazing gadgets is available in Q. David Bowers' “Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments”, Vestal Press, 1972, ISBN 0-911572-08-2. Google also produced over 1000 hits for “Fotoplayer”

JohnColes on March 8, 2004 at 8:18 pm

Thank you RedDawg, you’re absolutely right. Mrs. Margaret Dengate played the American Fotoplayer at the Gardent Theater until she began playing organ at the Gloria Theater when it opened in 1927. She said her worst day at the Garden was Saturday. While she watched the screen and played, children would hit her in the back of her head with “spit wads.”

The closing on the sale of the Garden Theater is Thursday, March 11. The new owner said he would consider ideas about use of the theater for live entertainment or movies if anyone can show him an achievalbe plan. Otherwise he still plans to develop the property as condominiums. No one has come forward with such a plan.

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