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Apr 13

The Wizard of Wonders

Posted on April 13, 2022 at 10:11 AM by Ken Kocher

Gilbert and Roma Genesta with their motorhome“With the coming of good weather our picture show should be re-opened. The town needs a good picture show.” Thus was the lament thrown into the ether by the Madisonian in February of 1923. Little did they know that a man well attuned to the ether would answer that call a few short months later. By his own account, Gilbert Genesta and his family were making a third trip to Florida “via a neat little home on wheels” when he changed their route by jumping across from Augusta with the intention of going through Atlanta southward. Genesta claimed that one look at Madison caused him to feel there was no use going farther – a story not unfamiliar to present-day Madisonians. He pronounced himself “The Wizard of Wonders.” Locals soon came to learn that this was not only a stage name, but more like Genesta’s approach to life.

 opening ad Genestra Strand TheatreMr. Genesta, an experienced moving picture man and vaudeville actor, promised to bring good pictures to Madison noting that during his recent trip to New York he “took in all the newest pictures and got a line on the best and most popular ones.” He reopened the Genestra Strand Theatre, later just the Genestra Theatre, (currently Jim Boyd and Associates) Friday, April 6, 1923 with the Universal Picture, “Wolf Law.” Two weeks later he performed his vaudeville routine of magic tricks and mental telepathy culminating with his escape from a barrel of water where he had been handcuffed (provided by Chief Elder) and padlocked with locks provided by locals. This feat of escape closely mirrored Houdini’s Milk Can Escape. Chief Elder stated that they didn’t want anyone to drown and cautioned Genesta not to start anything he couldn’t finish, but Genesta assured them that his life had been devoted to taking chances.

Genesta in barrelThe act and the night were a success. The months that followed saw equal success. The denizens of Madison and Morgan County were pleased with the films Gilbert showed and he catered to his clientele expanding to six nights a week, reserving seats for out-of-town guests who wrote or called ahead, and accepting a challenge to perform the barrel escape again. He was also generous in sharing his place of business for fundraising, religious events, and lectures. In fact, by April of 1924 the library was showing a movie once a week at the Genesta Theatre to raise funds. Then in May the Madison Library rented the building for their fundraising signaling Gilbert Genesta’s departure from the business one year after reopening the theater. However, this was not a departure from Morgan County.

Genesta family, friend, and nannyGilbert Genesta bought a farm on Bethany Road. The next November he came to town driving his mule with a large bale of cotton, the first of several. On a visit to the farm, one would find a flock of White Leghorns, a good cow, a white mule (Genesta’s pride), a good-sized barn chuck full of home-grown feed for the stock, and a happy little family of three. It may have seemed that he had found his calling, but then he surprised everyone when they learned that “besides his many talents Genesta prides himself with being an expert tonsorial artist.” That’s a barber to you and me. Gilbert joined Roy Miller at the Ideal Barber Shop on W. Jefferson. Over a year’s time he moved among several shops until August of 1925 when he bought the Basement Barber Shop renaming it Genesta La Barberia.

During this time Gilbert Genesta was performing. He had a show at the Dixie Theatre in Eatonton, entertained the Kiwanis Club, and was a central attraction all three nights at the 1925 Morgan County Fair. Genesta was still bitten by the showbiz bug. He sold the barber shop in 1927 and immediately began touring starting with Athens and the Madison Square Theatre – the very theater that drew Gilbert to Madison. The show added a levitation act featuring his daughter Yvonne who would float in mid-air as her father passed a ring over her. The Genesta family was on the road again.

But there is a fuller story to be told about Gilbert Genesta. Stay tuned.


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