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Varnville Theatres - Varnville, SC

VACO Theatre

The VACO Theatre in Varnville - photograph probably taken in 1915
Left to Right are Charley Connelly, Bert Ginn, Julian Welch
and Harrell Rentz. The theatre was located on Main Street.

An account of the movie theatres of Varnville
by Fay Rentz, granddaughter of William Harrell Rentz

The original theatre, the VACO (short for Varnville Amusement Company) was opened in 1915 by my grandfather, William Harrell Rentz. It was located on Main Street and burned in 1917, along with other buildings downtown.

Grandfather was a handsome man, brilliant artist, photographer, surveyor, and a Clemson graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering. He obviously learned the art of turning lemons into lemonade, when he offered the citizens an "outdoor theatre" after the fire, while a new theatre, the Strand, was being built across the railroad tracks from Main Street and completed in 1919.

Grandfather's own house just up Palmetto Avenue, a two-story Victorian home, also known as the Rentz Hotel, burned in January 1927. His daughter Betty remembers walking with her mother, Elizabeth Miller Rentz, to the post office just beyond the theatre on the same side of the highway, when the postmistress spotted the smoke and flames. They ran back home to find many people helping to get my father out. He was 6 months old and laying upstairs in his crib.

I was born in 1951 and only knew the Strand building to be a red dot liquor store during my lifetime.

Grandfather predeceased his own father by two months in August 1933, from tuberculosis, when my father, John Clifton Rentz, was only 7. My father's older brother, William Harrell Rentz, passed away in November 1993. My Aunt Betty Rentz Rhodes is his only daughter (another daughter, Fay, died in infancy). All three of his children inherited his gift as wonderful artists.

My father was told stories of his father by a man, Gerald Meeks, now deceased. Mr. Meeks knew, worked and mentored under Grandfather in Varnville. Gerald Meeks told my father that "William Harrell Rentz was the smartest, most talented man I ever knew."

I believe that my father is exactly like his father - handsome, brilliant, an incredible artist, superb electrical engineer, wood craftsman, designer, inventor and good father. My brother Harrell inherited his Grandfather's love of theatre.

Gerald Meeks told my father that Grandfather designed a flashing marquee for the Strand Theatre, which Gerald helped him complete after Grandfather became bedridden. When the alternating lights finally displayed over the Strand after much experimentation, he said he ran back to tell Grandfather it worked and what a beautiful sight it was to behold across the railroad tracks in downtown Varnville!

The VACO Theatre opened on October 4, 1915, on the west side of Main Street. In the photograph at the top of this column, one of the motion pictures being advertised is "Vagabond Love" which was made by the Victor Film Company and released on September 3, 1915. It is very likely that the photograph of the VACO Theatre was taken on opening day or shortly thereafter.

On March 10, 1917, a fire destroyed a large section of downtown Varnville. The destruction included the VACO Theatre.

The Augusta Chronicle of March 12, 1917, stated, “Varnville is a plucky little place, with a plucky people. Burned and charred, they, ever there, stopped crying before the smoke died down and began planning for bigger and better buildings. Varnville is all right – all the better for her trial by fire.”

William Harrell Rentz
Mr. Rentz operated movie theaters in Varnville and Allendale, SC.

Between the destruction of the VACO Theatre and the opening of the Strand Theatre, Mr. Rentz operated an "open air" theater in a vacant lot in downtown Varnville.

This self portrait adds credence to Harrell Rentz' reputation as a creative man with a sense of humor. In it, Mr. Rentz photographed himself in mirrors to create the effect that he was playing poker with himself.


We gratefully acknowledge the following sources for material included in our story of the movie theatres of Varnville.

"Railroads and Sawmills, Varnville, SC, 1872-1997 : the making of a low country town in the new South / compiled and edited by Rose-Marie Eltzroth Williams" Varnville Community Council, 1998.

"Both Sides of the Swamp: Hampton County" Hampton County Historical Society, Hampton, South Carolina:, 1970.

The Hampton County Guardian

The Augusta Chronicle

“The Julius Cahn – Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory” 1921

Thanks to Fay Rentz for providing family photographs of her grandfather.

Strand Theatre

The Strand Theatre in Varnville, built by Harrell Rentz opened in 1919, on East Carolina Avenue (Hwy 278) across the railroad tracks from Main Street. The curtains were adorned by woodland scenes that he painted.

During World War One, Hampton County held a “Victory Liberty Loan Campaign” similar to the “Buy War Bonds” efforts used during World War Two. An automobile tour of Hampton County was organized that included prominent speakers, singers and entertainers from Camp Jackson. At each scheduled stop, the people who gathered were entertained “in oratory and song” and appeals were made for money for the Victory Liberty Loan drive. On Friday, May 9, 1919, the movie “The Price of Peace” was shown at both the matinee and evening shows at the Strand Theatre in Varnville. This movie was the “official picture which purports to cover our part in the Great War from the day it was declared to date.” The movie, which was part of the Victory Liberty Loan Campaign, was shown free of charge. The campaign ended on Sunday in Hampton with a demonstration of a military tank and a monster basket picnic on the courthouse square.

On February 11, 1920, The Hampton County Guardian wrote, "Varnville as had a new moving picture theatre for several weeks. Mr. W.S. Rentz erected the theatre and the town folk swarmed to the movies every night until operation was suspended a few days since on account of the "flu" - not because of an epidemic, but in order to avoid one."

Gerald Meeks, Harrell Rentz's young protégé, ran the Strand Theatre from 1924 through 1930. Shows were presented three nights a week. During this time, Angele Eltzroth sold tickets. Gertrude Meeks, Gerald's mother, played piano to accompany the silent films. Mrs. Meeks was also the school music teacher. Emily Griffin and Mrs. Frank A. McClure also played piano at the Strand.

Gerald Meeks wrote a letter to Betty Rentz Rhodes, daughter of William Harrell Rentz, recalling her father and the Strand Theatre.

"Harrell Rentz was the greatest influence on my life. He and I had the same ambitions and hobbies. I tried to become as good at doing things as he was, but I never reached that goal; he was just too talented for me. He taught me everything I knew about radio at that time; he inspired me to try my hand at sign painting, pen sketching, building radios.

I was crazy about the Strand and movie operating. I finished the large electric sign he built, but didn't get to finish because of his illness. He got the bulbs and paint and I finished it for him and hung it in front of the theatre. I wired the lights up and built an electronic flasher and connected it up. On a cold Christmas night at show time, I had it all working. The lights on the border looked as if they were moving around and The Strand flashed off and on.

Harrell braved the cold winter night to come down and see his theatre all lit up. That was a great time for both of us. Harrell set the pace and I tried to follow his example. He was the greatest."

William Harrell Rentz died on August 10, 1933, after a long illness.

Advertisement for the Strand Theatre from The Hampton County Guardian, May 9, 1934.

In 1936, Norris (Pee Wee) Mills and Geddes Sinclair rented the Strand Theatre. Pee Wee was only fifteen years old at the time. He got a job showing movies at Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Tennessee. His parents, Archie and Hettie, and his brother, Lee Murray Mills took over operation of the Strand Theatre.

The Mills family also traveled to Ellenton where they showed movies two nights a week. In Varnville, westerns were the most popular films. People traveled from miles around to see movies on the weekends. During the week, the Mills offered "Bank Night" or "Pot 'O Gold Night" to bring an audience. You had to be present to win the jackpot.

Varnville Theatre

The Varnville Theatre was the name given to the Strand Theatre around 1940. The building was last used as a movie theater in 1947.

Advertisement for the Varnville Theatre from The Hampton County Guardian, October 15, 1941.

In 2000, the roof of the building that was once the Strand Theatre collapsed. Shortly after that, the building was demolished.

See the profile on William Harrell Rentz - CLICK HERE

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