Ward managed movie theaters for 35 years

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Kermit E. Ward was responsible for providing Sumter with quality movie entertainment on Main Street for more than three decades.

He helped improve Sumter's motion picture-viewing experience by assisting in upgrading the viewing facilities, renovating the buildings and turning them into some of the finest theaters in the South. He did not limit his efforts just to the theaters, but also assisted in starting the first Iris Festival as well as helping with numerous projects and supporting our nation's war effort.

Ward moved to Sumter from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to become manager of The Rex Theatre in 1932, replacing J.R. Resley, who was transferred to Columbia. He had formerly managed theaters in the Kincey chain located in Rocky Mount and Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was deemed fully qualified to manage the local theater, and his pleasant personality helped him gain instant acceptance into the community.

The first responsibility Ward undertook was to oversee a thorough cleaning of the theater's interior and make all the necessary repairs. This included new drapes, new carpets, new lighting fixtures and new stage settings, as well as repair work on the theater seats. He also announced that the best pictures produced by the film industry would be shown at The Rex and that children up to the age of 15 would be admitted to all shows for 10 cents; theater hours were to remain 1 to 11 p.m. Ward kept the staff intact, with Robert Gardner as assistant manager, Eugene White as doorman, C.D. Moka as chief projectionist and Misses Dorothy Hester and Frankie Carr as cashiers.

August of 1936 saw Ward selected as the new manager of the new Sumter Theatre, identified by many as one of the finest theaters in the South. By June of 1950 he was required to remodel the facility, a task conducted at night to keep from disturbing the theater patrons. The 912-seat theater received a new lobby in addition to newly painted walls and new carpet, display frames and shadow boxes. The combination popcorn-candy bar was in the inner lobby and featured a thermostat control, which kept the popcorn fresh. The refurbished upstairs lounge and restrooms included the addition of cosmetic tables and mirrors in the ladies' restroom. The auditorium and balcony seats were cushioned back and bottom, and additional space allowed every person in the house an unobstructed view of the screen.

Ward ceased managing the Sumter Theatre in 1967 after the purchase of the facility by the Winyah Bay Trading Co., which owned and operated the new Wesmark Cinema in Wesmark Plaza. He had managed the Rex and Carolina theaters from 1932 to 1942, and he controlled operation of the Sumter Theatre since its inception in 1936.

During his tenure as manager of the theaters, he was constantly involved in numerous community and national projects. He was involved in selling war bonds, collecting clothing for war orphans, helping stage the first Iris Festival, raising money for the Sunset Country Club swimming pool, giving Bibles to service inductees during World War II and helping the Red Cross in numerous projects. On May 31, 1945, theater patrons purchased $82,375 worth of U.S. War Bonds to gain admission. Articles of clothing were the price of admission for the United Nations Clothing Collection Drive. These and countless other examples of his dedication to serving the people of the Sumter area add to his legacy.

Ward recalled that the most popular movie ever shown at the Sumter Theatre was "Gone With the Wind." This film required him to sell reserved seat tickets for the first performance; however, "The Sound of Music" enjoyed the longest continuous run in the theater's history, running for eight consecutive weeks.

Kermit Ward was an individual who possessed a passion for his work, and through his efforts, Sumter developed an outstanding movie theater industry.

Source for information and photographs: Sumter Item Archives

Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at waysammy@yahoo.com or (803) 774-1294.