Demos restaurant founder got start in movie business

Jim Demos, 77, who started Demos family restaurants with his late wife, Doris, gained much of his business and entrepreneurial acumen while managing movie theaters for nearly 20 years in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. The Lebanon Demos' Steak & Spaghetti House opened in 2001.

I spent a lot of time in the theater business, and without that experience I dont feel like we could perform the way we are performing, Demos said during an interview this past month at the Lebanon Demos' restaurant. I learned how to make financial statements, how to deal with customers, movie-goers, and how to move large crowds efficiently. I learned a lot about advertising and marketing. I owe a lot to the movie theater business.

And, while he cannot pick just one favorite movie or movie star, he confesses, I dearly love movies. As managers we were required to sit and screen every movie. Lord knows how many movies Ive seen.

For about 17 years, the native of Birmingham, Ala., worked for the Wilby-Kincey Company, which during its heyday was one of the largest independently-owned theater chains in the United States with movie houses across the Southeast.

I got a lot of good business training from that company, Demos recalled. Every week we would do a profit-and-loss statement. I did my own advertising, hiring, and everything necessary to run a movie theater business.

Not only did helping manage movie theaters gain him valuable experience, but it gave him his wife, Doris, the daughter of Alabama-Georgia sharecroppers who worked as the candy girl behind the concession stand when Demos was assistant manager at the Paramount Theater in Atlanta.

I was 17 years old when I got into the theater business. I started as an usher at the Ritz Theater in Birmingham and worked there until I was 19 and went into the Army, said Demos, the son of a Greek immigrant.

Raised in Pratt City, a community on the other side of the tracks in Birmingham, Demos began earning his keep during World War II as a boy of 10 in his fathers Pratt Station Cafe. (The Demos name first headlined a restaurant in 1920).

I was the oldest. I went to work at 6 a.m., making the coffee, getting the store ready. After school was over, I came back to work. A lot of our customers were coal miners and iron and steel workers. The caf went out of business when I was 17, and Dad went up North to get a job and save his money.

After military service, Demos went back to work at the Ritz while attending Birmingham Southern College. From that time on he began his rise in the ranks of management.

The years I spent in movie business was making a living, doing a job, he said. The company transferred me to work at the Paramount in Atlanta, just for the summer of 57. Thats where I met my wife. She was working two jobs, one as a secretary at the Southern Bell organization during the day, and at night she worked as the candy girl at the Paramount. We were married in March of 58.

The new bridegroom remained a year-and-a-half shy of completing his business administration degree.

In those days at the theater my schedule was 60 to 70 hours a week. I would go to class from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and was out of school at 12:30 and would go to open the movie theater by 1 p.m., he noted.

The move schedule for the manager was 12:30 to 4 p.m., and then there was a two-hour break from 4 to 6, then back to work from 6 to 11 p.m. The big attendance show time was around 7 p.m. During my two-hour break I would sleep and study.

I was so worn out at end of the day. If it were not for my wife, I probably would not have graduated. She would say each time for one year, Just 10 more weeks, you can do it. After I took my last final exam and knew I was going to graduate, they sent me to Atlanta the next day.


Chauffeuring Sal Mineo

In the late 1950s, when I was assistant to the city manager of the Paramount Theater in Atlanta, I recall that he did not promote the public appearance of hot, young teenage star Sal Mineo other than with a sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of the theater. The publicist was mad, but the manager said we didnt need to do anything special to promote him, and he was right, Jim Demos reflected.

The lobby was filled up with teenagers, ala Elvis Presley. They were rabid fans. I had a dark complexion, similar to Mineo, and at first the fans thought I was Sal Mineo. That was a memorable experience. When he came on the stage, the crowd was surging and holding their heads with their hands like he was Elvis.

After he got off the stage, the fans were all on Peachtree Street at side exit doors waiting for him to come out. I had an old jalopy of a car. We sneaked him out of the mechanical room entrance. His entourage of two guys threw him onto the floorboard of my car and jumped on top of him. I was the driver, and some of them saw me. There I was driving down the middle of Atlanta with a mob of young girls following me right down Peachtree Street.

I took him to his hotel, and I said a word of thanks that he was out of my care. I was not celebrity enthralled and had a job to do.

Being an usher

Back in the 1950s, movie theaters showed a feature, newsreel, short subject and cartoon. They were run continuously, and people were coming into the theater the entire time, Demos said.

There were four doors into the theater, and there would be an usher outside and inside at each door. We opened door to let movie-goers in. The usher inside would ask them how far down they wanted to go and shine his flashlight on the floor and take them down the aisle and direct them to their seats.

You had to be there movie after movie, day after day. There were times I learned the entire dialog for all the characters in a movie. As an usher, you saw the same movies so many times that you looked for mistakes to help fill the time.

Demos served as assistant manager at the Paramount in Atlanta until mid-1958 and as manager of the Roxy until 1959 when he was transferred to Kingsport, Tenn., as city manager.

City manager meant you were in charge of all their theaters in that city, and they had one, grinned Demos about taking on his first management role on his own.

During that time, from 1959 to 1962, I began to fine tune my business skills. The company let you be semi-autonomous. You got a feather in your cap, but no more money.

In 1962, he was made city manager in Savannah, Ga., where the chain had two movie houses, the Lucas Theater and the Avon Theater, and was constructing a new one, The Terrace.

Later, the movie business wasnt fun. It happened to me when I was in Savannah. That was the time my entrepreneurial spirit began to unfold, Demos said. I knew I wanted to get out of the shackles of corporate. I began to look around.

In 1969, Demos returned to Atlanta as city manager of the Fox, the Paramount, the Roxy and the Phipps Plaza theatres.

That was the highest management position they had in the company. The Fox was the queen of the South. It seated 4,500. The Roxy was more upscale (compared to the Paramount). When I went to the Roxy, it was like being in heaven, and we didnt have ushers, we had usherettes, he said with another smile.

Back then the Paramount showed different features, mainly sci-fi and action movies. The Roxy showed what we called road shows, which meant reserved seats for big-budget movies like South Pacific, The 10 Commandments, Ben-Hur, My Fair Lady and Cleopatra. There were similarities to Broadway shows with a limited number of showings and advanced ticket sales, reminisced Demos, who stuck it out for three months in 1969, realizing how much Atlanta had changed.

Making a deliberate decision, he left movie marquees, box offices and theater seats behind and took on the task of directing the premier Charles Town Landing complex as South Carolina celebrated its tri-centennial.

That was a great experience. I was in an environment where the Tri-Centennial Commission allowed us to make the kind of decisions that would let visitors have a good experience. I accepted the job because I wanted to get out of corporate. I knew it was time, but mostly because I knew I would be going into the restaurant business with my dads approval from up on high (his father died in 1958).

Thats funny because as much as I didnt want to go into the restaurant business, there I was. I remember vividly telling him, Dad, this business is not for me, when he suggested we go in together with a restaurant after I got out of the Army in 1955.

At the same time I was there (in South Carolina), I was able to work on putting together plans for a restaurant in Nashville, a Western Sizzlin on Gallatin Road in Inglewood/East Nashville.

On June 12, 1972, Jim and Doris opened the 35th Western Sizzlin restaurant in the chain, selecting Nashville because it was one of the Southern cities not taken, and he wanted a large city that had potential for more than one restaurant.

After 17 years of solid business, the couple sold their interest in the Nashville restaurant in 1989. Soon afterward, they bought the building in Murfreesboro that was to become the original Demos Steak & Spaghetti House.

My kids didnt want any part of the business. Doris and I wanted to open the store and to travel. That didnt last very long. My entrepreneurial spirit is almost like a cancer, you have to keep spreading, he said. Our kids decided to come into the business afterward. Doris and I got to semi-retire.

Their 51-year marriage came to an end when Doris died in December 2009.

The Demos restaurants remain strong today, and a fifth-generation Demos, Jims grandson, Jamey, 9, helps greet and seat patrons at the Murfreesboro site.

The four later restaurants opened in Nashville in 1992, in Lebanon in 2001, in Hendersonville in 2005 and in Florence, Ala., in 2008.

Jim at age 77 routinely checks out all five restaurants and plans to keep on, he said, as long as my health holds up. (He recently had rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder.)

What I do now, I visit all the restaurants frequently, more or less, to be in the dining rooms to be sure customers are being taken care of, and in the kitchen to observe cooking and preparation procedures. And I handle all the marketing and advertising. I know Im semi-retired because instead of working 80 hours a week, Im working 40.

While his movie theater management days are long past, he remains an avid movie buff, going to see a first-run film about once a month and subscribing to Netflix.

Jim was not the only Demos in his family who went into show biz. His sister, Mary Demos, retired in Las Vegas, was a runner-up in the Miss Alabama beauty contest one year and sought her fortune in Hollywood. She worked in television and films, appearing in movies with Elvis Presley, Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse, among others, was in a national Heinz Soup commercial and became a personal assistant to piano legend Liberace.

And somewhere along the way one of the restaurateur's children also turned into a movie fanatic.

My son, Peter, who did not grow up in the movie business, is a movie nut, smiled Jim Demos, pleased with the thought.

Story and Photos by Ken Beck