Historical Curtain Raiser: James Zimmerman
More than anything, The Strand is known for memories. They drift in faster than the aroma of buttery popcorn can drift onto the sidewalk on a Saturday night. In tribute to patrons’ memories, The Strand is proud to present the first “Historic Curtain Raiser,” taking a deeper look at memories about the first inductee, the late Mr. James Zimmerman.
It was 1953 and The Strand was in disrepair. The energy and excitement had melted like ice cream on a hot summer’s day. Enter James Zimmerman, a budding theater manager working for Martin Theatres, The Strand’s owner. First thing’s first: clean up the place. According to his wife, Bonnie, he spent countless hours scraping gum from the carpet and shepherding the rowdy boys straight through the exit doors.
The Strand’s main fare was film, but Zimmerman created memories. From “best lip print” contests during the premier of It Started With A Kiss to serving punch from a bathtub for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie to hiring a statuesque woman to pose in front of the theatre for the opening of The House of Wax, there was always a unique twist that made going to The Strand more than just going to the movies.
Zimmerman had an ear for music and is credited with helping Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, and Cotton Carrier get a leg up in the music business. Royal, a crooner known best for his ‘60s hits “Cherry Hill Park” and “Down in the Boondocks,” got his break when Zimmerman risked opening the theatre for a Saturday night rock-and-roll show at 11:30 PM.
According to Royal, Zimmerman practiced very unusual marketing tactics. One promotion involved a moving billboard of sorts: a gorilla in the back of a truck, which promoted a jungle-themed movie.
“He was just born with this ability to promote movies and he hobnobbed with the stars,” Bonnie, his wife, remembered. Celebrities who walked The Strand’s red carpet included Alfred Hitchcock, Maureen O’Hara, Linda Evans, Fess Parker, George Stevens, among many others.
As Letha Cash Jordan, a relief cashier at The Strand under Mr. Zimmerman pointed out, “Behind every great man is a great woman, and that woman was his wife, Bonnie.” Bonnie supported her husband’s 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week career, spending countless hours at The Strand by his side. Jordan remembers Bonnie getting into the action, passing out tissues to weepy patrons at the premier of Imitation of Life. Mrs. Zimmerman remembers James counting dollars late into the night, when she would fall asleep in the theatre’s mezzanine, which at the time, was just outside of his office.
Zimmerman was well-loved by the patrons, the employees, and nearly everyone in the community. One time, he was greeting the audience from the stage when he tripped on a cord and fell. He popped up and took a dramatic bow to heavy audience applause. Mr. Zimmerman eventually came to be known as the “movie man,” but he was a star event planner, a bold business man, and a marketing guru. He eventually was promoted to supervise theaters in five states, retiring in 1995 after a 47-year career. Years after he left The Strand, the theatre closed and eventually fell into disrepair. After the 2008 $5.7 million renovation, the carpet he so lovingly de-gummed is but a memory, but his legend will live on.
When Bonnie re-visited the restored Strand for Billy Joe Royal’s New Years Eve show in 2008, she felt overcome with emotions and memories. “I felt youthful again, just being inside The Strand,” she remembered. “Those years are at the top of the best years of my life.”
Content and photo provided by Bonnie Zimmerman and excerpts from “The Lost Legacy of James Zimmerman,” an article published in Who’s Who Atlanta NW magazine in Spring/Summer of 2008 by Michael Price.