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Sol Abrams, 92: Cinema owner loved movies, music, family and fairness

Growing up in Avon Park, Fla., Sol Abrams had only one sister but an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins were like brothers and sisters to him. Most were descendants from his mother’s family from Igliauka, Lithuania.

They loved all kinds of music, from opera to classical to jazz. Years later, when Abrams’ home in Athens, Ga., became a haven for even more distant cousins as well as for restless teenagers who needed the comfort and kindness of a loving adult, music was part of any occasion. “Our home was alive with music, laughter, and love,” said his daughter Denise Abrams Gorham.

Big Band hits, Gershwin tunes, and songs by Elvis, Little Richard and Bing Crosby blared from Altec A-Seven Voice of Theater speakers, about the size of refrigerators, in the living room.

Solomon Zolman Abrams, 92, who made movie theaters his living but made his family the center of his life, was listening to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” the morning of Aug. 31, 2016, when he died at his home from complications of Alzheimer’s, surrounded by his family.

His uncle gave him a movie projector when he was eight. “He would run movies for his friends for a penny,” said his daughter Mimi Abrams. “He fell in love with movies and entertaining people.”

Throughout his life, he helped those in need and championed civil rights, becoming one of the first theater owners in Georgia to integrate.

His daughters said his sense of fairness came in large part from being the son of immigrants in the wave of Jewish merchants in small Southern towns who understood the injustice of discrimination. Abrams was the first Jewish male born on record in Highlands County, Fla., on June 10, 1924 to Doris Kahn Abrams and Philip Abrams in Avon Park.

“My dad had an innate ability to connect with people and never met a stranger,” said Mimi Abrams. He was a natural jokester and “always said that everyone deserved to be entertained and uplifted,” said Mimi Abrams.

During World War II Abrams was a Navy motion picture photographer, making training films for new sailors. One of his happiest memories was meeting Eleanor Roosevelt – twice. The White House hosted dinners for servicemen, and he went two nights in a row. “He was so surprised when,” on his return visit, “she kindly looked at him and said ‘Oh, I see you liked us. You’re back,’ ” Mimi Abrams recalled.

After the War, he enrolled at the University of Georgia and played baritone horn in the Dixie Redcoat Marching Band. He set up a movie projector and ran movies on Sunday afternoons in the Fine Arts Auditorium, and he hosted a radio show, “Dancing in the Dark” on WGAU. Students requested love songs for their sweethearts, and Abrams played them all.

“He always said it was love at first sight,” said Mimi Abrams, when he met the love of his life, Jean Chastain, at the Snack Shack Restaurant on Broad Street. She became his wife.

In 1951, he built and opened the Harlem Theater, a place of entertainment for the African-American community in a segregated era. Live entertainment on weekends included an unknown from Macon known as Little Richard, Piano Red and western movie stars like Ken Maynard and Lash LaRue. He hired African-Americans in all capacities to help him run the business. His twin projectionists, Lloyd and Floyd Johnson, worked for him for over 60 years and became part of the extended family, too, said Mimi.

She said he achieved another important goal in his life when by building affordable housing at Magnolia Terrace and West Hancock Street in Athens. “He always said that every person deserves a decent place to live.”

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, he hosted one of the most popular radio shows at WRFC, called “The Hive of Jive.” His on-air name was “Power Drive.” In 1962, Abrams opened a second theater at the new Beechwood Shopping Center, calling it the Beechwood Cinema.

He was criticized by many for admitting African-Americans. “The sheriff called and told Sol that he’d heard that blacks might try to buy tickets there,” his cousin David Kahn recalled. “What are you going to say?” the sheriff said. Abrams’ reply: “I’ll just ask, ‘how many tickets, please?”

Through boycott threats, “Daddy stuck to his principles, and ultimately everyone came, and his business continued to thrive,” said Mimi Abrams. He expanded the Beechwood in 1972, making it one of the first multiplex theaters in the country.

Kahn said Abrams’ testimony in the ’70s at the Georgia Capitol also helped stop the practice of blind bidding for movies, where distributors tried to prevent theater owners from viewing films before contracting to show them. He sold the Beechwood Cinemas in 1987 and bought the Alps Cinema in 1988, showing second-run movies and art films there until 1998. The National Association of Theater Owners, Show South, gave him a Lifetime Achievement Statesman Award in 1999, Kahn said.

Judaism was an integral and driving force in his life, his daughters said, and informed his desire to heal the world and to serve. In 2013, his synagogue, Congregation Children of Israel, honored him with a lifetime membership in recognition for more than 60 years of continuous membership and support.

In addition to his daughters, Abrams is survived by three grandsons and a granddaughter.

A memorial service is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. at Bernstein Chapel in Athens.

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