Sidney Fuhrmann: Renaissance Man

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If Charles Sidney August Fuhrmann were a spice, he’d no doubt be Tabasco. This turn-of-the-century Renaissance man seasoned the life of Covington with drama, movies, semi-pro baseball, art, food and more. Today, The Greater Covington Center’s Fuhrmann Auditorium, named for him, carries on his legacy as the city’s venerable venue for art, speakers and theatre.

Born in 1890 in Goodbee, Fuhrmann was reared on the family’s rice farm and educated in New Orleans. As a child, he exhibited artistic talent but, because of the untimely death of his father when Fuhrmann was only nine, he was not able to take formal art lessons. Instead, the spunky lad schooled himself by drinking in the natural surroundings of St. Tammany while hunting and fishing.

In 1912, at the age of 22, “Sid” Fuhrmann, as he was called, moved to Covington to manage the city’s first movie theatre, the Parkview Theatre. More than just a silent movie house, the Parkview was a veritable performing arts center, featuring a variety of on-stage entertainment such as magicians, amateur nights, musicians and plays.

It was in producing this entertainment that Fuhrmann showcased his own artistic talent, painting scenery, presenting comedy shows and even writing, producing and acting in plays. Indeed, Fuhrmann was as at home on the stage as he was fishing and hunting in the cypress-lined bayous he so loved.
The same year he opened the Parkview Theatre, Fuhrmann opened his heart to Pauline Frederick, the eldest daughter of Emile Frederick, one of Covington’s best-known citizens. Two years later, the couple wed in the most novel of venues—the Parkview Theatre—complete with scenery painted by Sidney himself. In her book Family Circle of Pauline and Sidney, a biography of her parents, Patricia Clanton includes the description of the headline event as reported in the St. Tammany Farmer:

“…The center aisle, leading to the stage on which the marriage ceremony was performed, was arched with foliaged bamboo, while the stage represented a garden scene…At 2:35 p.m., the bride arrived in an automobile accompanied by her father and sister…who wore a costume of brown brocaded silk trimmed with fur. The bride was dressed in a dark blue traveling suit and wore a black velvet hat with a blue plume…Rev. Father O. Brisay proceeded with the wedding ceremony…

“After the ceremony, more than the authorized speed limit was made in an attempt to get rid of old shoes and rice; and the effort to get baggage to the train without the usual distinguishing labels of newlywed property proved a failure…Just before the train started, the auto glided to the train and the party alighted amid a shower of rice that not only covered them but everybody around them. The trunks bore placards announcing, ‘We have just married.’ ‘We will telegraph if we are lost.’

“As the train drew out, the screech of the whistle, reinforced by that of the steamer, Josie, awakened pandemonium until the echoes died in the distance.”

In her book, Patricia says, “It has always delighted me to say my mother and father were married on the stage of the Parkview Theatre. Mama, I’m told, wore peacock blue. I think she was very brave—a good Catholic girl marrying on the stage, in a theatre, to a Lutheran. Why, it must have been the talk of the town.”

The Fuhrmanns’ first home was on the corner of New Hampshire and Rutland streets. There they had four children: Sidney, who died at birth; Brandon, who died in World War II; Rosemerry Hanian, who performed on Broadway and returned to Covington to open a school of dance; and Patricia Clanton, who was the mother of two sons and served on Covington’s City Council for twelve years.

A haunting landscape by Sidney Fuhrmann. Courtesy Patricia Clanton.

A haunting landscape by Sidney Fuhrmann. Courtesy Patricia Clanton.

In this excerpt from her book, Patricia recalls an informative peek into life in Covington in the early 1900s that her mother shared with her:

“There was a defined business section surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Much of the land was still wooded and in the spring, it was ablaze with wild azaleas blooming and colorful wildflowers. Cascading lavender wisteria was everywhere and the fragrance of honeysuckle permeated the air. There was no electricity and when night descended, if there was no moon, it was very dark.

“Most people had flower gardens in their front yard and a vegetable garden in the back yard. It was common for households in downtown Covington to have chickens, a cow and horses, of course. Even owning pigs and goats was not unusual. Most streets were dirt, though some had gravel and a few had shell. Uptown streets had wooden sidewalks.

“A commuter train chugged through town every day with its whistle shrieking on its arrival. The excursion boats, Madison, Camellia, and Susquehanna, brought passengers from New Orleans and docked at Old Landing, which was at the foot of Jahncke Avenue.

“Arriving at Columbia Street Landing, whistles blowing, were the steamers and schooners and oyster luggers. The townspeople knew when the luggers were coming in, for the boatman made a horn of the conch shells and it could be heard up and down the river.”

It was into this environment that Sid Fuhrmann infused his love for the theatre once again when, fourteen years after opening the Parkview, he closed its doors. He, more than anyone else, knew that the new movie house on the block, the Majestic, an affiliate of the Saenger Amusement Company, had bested the Parkview. Owners wasted no time in hiring Fuhrmann to manage the new showplace, and he was zealous in assuring that every detail was perfect. He also used his artistic talents to embellish the movie house, painting large murals of St. Tammany.

As with the Parkview, Fuhrmann made certain that the Majestic provided live entertainment of various genres—plays, vaudeville acts and regular Tuesday night talent shows. He also opened the theatre as a forum for talks by civic officials and as a venue for fundraisers. Newspaper accounts detail two such benefits, one featuring local talent to help a church, and the other, a Sunday matinee, to help the starving children of Armenia. About the latter, the St. Tammany Farmer dramatically stated: “Everyone who buys tickets will know that he or she has helped to maintain life in the starved body of some poor unfortunate child without food or clothing.”

Fuhrmann was ingenious in promoting his theatre, using billboards and banners to spread the word of coming attractions. He also cleverly gave out passes to the theatre to schoolchildren, thinking that their parents would pay to accompany them to the picture show. Often, he took to the streets by automobile to announce his movies, using a loudspeaker while pulling a billboard on a trailer through the neighborhoods. Daughter Pat recalls accompanying her dad on such missions as a child, occasionally singing songs over the loudspeaker with the gusto of an exuberant theatrical wannabe, much to the amusement of her proud father. Over time, Fuhrmann opened three other theatres, the Deluxe in Covington, the Madison in Madisonville and the Lake in Mandeville.

While theatre, the outdoors and art were indeed passions of Sid Fuhrmann, his love of baseball rivaled all three. In the 1920s, he formed Covington’s first semi-pro baseball team, aptly named The Majestics. The team played for years at St. Paul’s field on Sunday afternoons, attracting townspeople to the games in large numbers.

Fuhrmann’s life in the 1940s was dramatically changed when his son Brandon was declared missing in action during World War II. In 1943, the government confirmed that Brandon had endured the infamous Bataan death march and ultimately succumbed to malaria and dysentery in a Japanese concentration camp.

The agony of that time took a terrible toll on Sid Fuhrmann and the rest of the family. To make matters worse, a new, plush theatre moved into Covington. Named the Star Theatre, it was larger and grander and posed a threat to Fuhrmann’s income, as did the plummeting attendance at theatres nationwide as the war wore on. As a result, on Oct. 29, 1943, the owners sold all interest in both Covington theatres to their newest competitor, W.J. Salles, owner of the Star.

Pat Clanton’s recollections of the event illustrate how emotionally taxing this time was on her father. “I have a vivid memory of sitting with my Dad in the middle of the empty Majestic one afternoon after [the sale of the theatres was announced]. He cried, and I cried with him over the loss of the Majestic and the Deluxe. Fortunately, Dad owned the Lake and the Madison, and then he opened Sid’s Hot Dog Stand, a small place that served coffee, Mission Orange, sandwiches and hot dogs. It became famous in the area for the delicious chili sauce that was Mother’s recipe.”

Sid Fuhrmann took out weekly ads for his stand and used these ads as a platform for his thoughts. The following text, which balances his sadness with his trademark wit, is excerpted from his ad after closing the Majestic.

“After 25 years in the show business in Covington, I have finally succeeded in winding up with a good Hot Dog STAND for the moment.

“I’m awful blue over the sale of the Majestic Theatre, but I’ll use the lemons that fate throws my way and start a lemonade stand. It may be better than my Mission Orange. I’ve been going to the dogs anyway—10 cents apiece.”

His ad on New Year’s Eve 1943 reflected the tenor of the times as well as the solid patriotism of a man whose only son was killed in the war.

“…as the sun rises on the first day of 1944, millions more are going to face it with heavy hearts and anxious faces…Let us hope and pray for the best…There is only one solution—total, complete victory. It is the only way to keep faith with those who have paid the price. There is no alternative—we must carry on, unmindful of the dangers ahead, in every walk of life, every store, every business, every office, everything that it takes to operate America, because behind the armed forces is the greatest battlefield of all. Only sweat and toil can keep your army on its feet. It’s a privilege to be proud of. Keep on your job and stick to your guns. Every man overseas is depending on you to do your part. He’s not laying down so many hours of work with pay and overtime. He’s making a target of himself and laying down his life that you might continue to live and prosper in the greatest land in all the world, America, our home—the only place under the sun where a poor man can make an honest living selling hot dogs and making friends. Sid.”

It is interesting that, despite his years of success in the theatre business and his winning semi-pro baseball team, today Sidney Fuhrmann is celebrated for his artistic ability. Not only did he produce magnificent scenery and murals for his theatres, he was also a landscape artist in his own right. His paintings of river scenes, swamps, trees, the Madisonville lighthouse and his favorite, the Old Landing in Covington, were well known in the area. His appreciation for the parish that provided such inspiration is evident in the tribute he attached to the back of every one of his oil paintings. Entitled, “A Breath of St. Tammany,” it extols the area’s great pine forests, beautiful bayous and rivers, moss-draped trees and brilliant sunsets. Fuhrmann concludes by saying that the artist “offers you a Breath of St. Tammany…restful scenes of truly God’s Chosen Country.”

Indeed, after 72 years on this earth, Charles Sidney August Fuhrmann has left a legacy to be admired. Actor, theatre mogul, entertainer, artist, baseball enthusiast, restaurateur—he was a living dash of Tabasco, just the right spice in the gumbo we call northshore.

From Sept. 11 through Oct. 1, 2010, the St. Tammany Art Association honored Sidney Fuhrmann with an exhibit of his landscapes at the Greater Covington Center’s Fuhrmann Auditorium. Included in the exhibit were excerpts from Patricia Clanton’s biography of the Fuhrmanns.

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