He later worked as a “hop” at the Crescent Laundry on Second Street. Customers would pull into the parking lot, and Jim Burnham would pick up their dry cleaning and give them a claim ticket.
But the money was always greener on the other side of the block. When he was a sophomore at Lanier High School, he marched over to the Grand Theatre (now the Grand Opera House) and applied for a job as an usher.
“It was a better paying job,” he said. Then he laughed. “I got 33 and a third cents an hour.”
He ushered at the Grand and three other downtown movie theaters — the Ritz, Rialto and Capitol — until his freshman year at Mercer. The ushers wore blue uniforms and used tiny flashlights to escort movie patrons to their seats.
Jim was promoted to head usher at the Grand, then became assistant manager at the Ritz, which is now the home of Theatre Macon.
The Grand usually got the first-run films. The main attraction at the Ritz was cowboy movies.
Jim, now 88 years old and a retired physician, remains a big fan of Westerns to this day. But whenever his wife, the late Anne Burnham, suggested they go to the “picture show,” Jim didn’t always enthusiastically jump out of his chair and grab his car keys.
“I spent several years at the movies,” he would tell her. “I can still smell the popcorn.”
One movie stands out above the rest. “God is My Co-Pilot” was shown for the first time on the night of Feb. 21, 1945. It was the only world premiere of a major motion picture in city history. (“The Rose and the Jackal,” which was filmed scenes at the Hay House and starred Christopher Reeve, later had its first screening in Macon in 1990 but it was a made-for-TV movie.)
“God is My Co-Pilot” wasn’t filmed here, but it was the story of one of Macon’s most famous citizens, Gen. Robert L. Scott. The movie was based on the book by Scott, an ace fighter pilot with the Flying Tigers during World War II.
The line to get in the door at the Grand stretched down the sidewalk and around the courthouse. The attendance was estimated at 1,300. Jim said it was rare when the second balcony had to be opened. Folks were sitting so high up God really was their co-pilot.
The day before the movie, there was a parade on Cherry Street featuring Scott and many of the film’s major stars. Following the movie, a gala ball was held at the City Auditorium. The next morning, the Telegraph called the premiere “grand and glorious” and described the day for Macon as “perhaps the most festive occasion in its 120-year history.”
On Thursday, the iconic Macon movie will be shown at the Grand Opera House at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Grand’s ongoing classic series and to celebrate the movie’s 73rd anniversary.
Admission is $5, a bargain when you add the privilege of a shared movie experience at one of the city’s most beautiful venues. (If you mention the Museum of Aviation at the ticket booth, you will receive a discount.)
(Another classic, “Ben Hur,” starring Charlton Heston, is scheduled for March 23, just in time for Easter. The stage at the Grand once was the largest in the Southeast, and a play production of “Ben Hur” appeared on that stage in 1908 with live horses and a chariot on a treadmill.)
It should be noted that while “God is My Co-Pilot” won’t make many “Best Films of the 20th Century” lists, it was not a “B” movie. It was distributed by Warner Brothers. Producer Robert Buckner is best known for one of the greatest sports movies – “Knute Rockne All American.” Director Robert Florey did the first Marx Brothers movie. Dennis Morgan, who played Gen. Scott, was a handsome actor who appeared in more than 50 movies opposite such leading ladies as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Barbara Stanwyck.
The film opens with a message: “Out of the glory-streaked heavens … comes the story that inspired a nation!” Scott recites these lines: “This is the record of my experiences as a fighter pilot with Gen. (Claire) Chenault and the fliers under his command. The story is true, the events actual and Warner Brothers has filmed it as I have lived it – in the skies over Asia.”
Like Gen. Scott, Jim attended Macon’s Lanier High, which at one time had one of the largest Junior ROTC programs in the country. Jim graduated in 1947, so he just missed World War II. But he did enlist in the Navy in 1956, after graduating from medical school and doing his residency at the old Macon Hospital.
A typed copy of one of the original “God is My Co-Pilot” scripts can be found in the archives at Washington Memorial Library. And, of course, there is “God is My Co-Pilot” exhibit at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, where the stretch of Highway 247 in front of the museum is named in Scott’s honor. The night of the show, the museum will have a table on display in the lobby at the Grand with a typewriter Scott used to write letters during the war.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.