Sites to See: The Palace Theater
If you have been anywhere near Gallatin’s historic square after dark, you have probably seen the Palace sign lighting up the night. How much do you know about this storied movie palace?
You might not be able tell by looking at it today, but the Palace Theater is more than a century old. In fact, it is the oldest silent movie theater still standing in its original location in the State of Tennessee, and it has a well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early days of film exhibition, movie theaters were situated as close to the center of downtown as possible. In the case of the Palace Theater, that site was on a vacant lot next to Roth Jewelry, run by the Roth family since 1887. Gallatin businessman Bill Roth, Sr. opened the Palace in 1913 and the theater quickly became a focal point on the city’s historic downtown square.
While white moviegoers entered the theater through the spacious lobby during the theater’s heyday, African Americans had a different experience. During the height of racial segregation in the South, African American patrons entered the Palace Theater through a back door and were seated in the balcony. Before the films, the Palace showed silent movies for a nickel. In those days, Roth was known to add his own special effects by breaking glass, blowing horns, and drumming.
After Bill Roth, Sr. passed away, Bill Roth, Jr. managed daily operations until 1977 when the theater closed. The building sat padlocked, empty, and untended for years. Cobwebs draped the plastic poinsettias in the lobby and pigeons called the auditorium home.
In 1993, 80 years after the Palace Theater opened its doors, both the Palace and the adjacent Roth Building were sold at auction to Johnny and Sonny Garrott, who donated the theater building to Greater Gallatin, Inc. (now Historic Downtown Gallatin, Inc.) for renovation. Through generous donations, $90,000 was raised and the building was stabilized. However, as the project dragged on, interest waned. In 1996, hope arrived in the form of a $350,000 government grant.
In September 2000, the Palace opened its doors once again, showing first- and second-run family friendly movies. For a few years, the Palace was the only place to see movies in Gallatin. Then, in 2018, Historic Downtown Gallatin, Inc. gave the Palace a facelift, with upgrades to the lighting, flooring, and countertops.
As a historic theater, the Palace has few of the amenities of the modern megaplex. There is no stadium seating or reclining chairs. There are no cup-holder armrests. However, the Palace has something that no Imax theater can ever hope to have, and that’s character. The seats are nearly a century old. The wall sconces are originals, fashioned by Roth from tin and cut glass. The building next door housed a saloon in the 1800s, and one of its painted walls peeks through the Palace’s renovated lobby.
To this day, the Palace Theater still entertains and delights guests with movies, concerts, and stage productions. The theater also plays hosts throughout the year to private events and parties. The Palace is a definitely a site worth seeing in Gallatin.