The Stars Come
Out at Carolina Theaters
and photos by Renee Wright
was a moment right out of the movies.
one end of the hall in Durham's Carolina Theatre came documentary
film's man-of-the-moment Michael Moore, just as Ken Burns,
mogul of PBS docs, emerged from the ornate ballroom at the hall's
other end. The two passed in the hall with a brief handshake and
greeting, on the way to panels discussing their work, but for a
film-buff this is a magic moment - an opportunity to see two of
today's top documentary filmmakers in action.
out the Hand-helds
special moment, but the scene is not unique in North Carolina. All
across the state, movie palaces of the past are coming back to life,
providing a vibrant heart for downtown revitalization in cities
sponsor film festivals that draw the stars of Hollywood to discuss
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, hosted each April by the
Carolina Theatre in Durham, is considered by many the preeminent
documentary film festival in the United States. Academy award-winning
director Martin Scorsese attended Full Frame in 2005. He
serves on the festival board along with Frank Capra, Jr., Ken
Burns and Ross McElwee, maker of the acclaimed North
Carolina docs, "Bright Leaves" and "Sherman's
Asheville, Ron Howard attended the Asheville Film Festival
in 2004 as it honored his father, actor Rance Howard who
starred in the 1972 hit "Where the Lilies Bloom."
The Fine Arts Theatre, with its glass brick art deco fašade, provides
a fine setting for the annual festival.
Spacek handed out awards during her appearance at 2004's RiverRun
Film Festival, produced by the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
The Stevens Center, formerly a Carolina Theatre, now restored to
its 1929 Neo-classical beauty, hosts the major events at RiverRun,
as well as hundreds of other events each year.
for the People
the late '20s, a string of opulent movie palaces stretched across
North Carolina, many bearing the name Carolina Theatre, others the
name of the film studio, Paramount.
with the latest technical advances, pipe organs capable of a wide
range of sound effects, a stage for live acts, and even, sometimes,
air-conditioning, these palaces of the people also offered moviegoers
of the time the fantasy environments we associate today with Disney
or the great casinos.
combinations of Egyptian, Moorish and Tudor motifs, along with fanciful
murals, Greek statues, and ornate chandeliers, gave patrons plenty
to talk about.
Carolina Theatres did not fare well through the years.
Hill's lost its ornate lobby to a GAP store, although it continues
as an art movie house.
Carolina Theatre, once most ornate of all, still stands but in a
dilapidated condition. Its magnificent Spanish Mission design, thick
with elaborate wrought iron, wood, and leather ornaments, fell victim
over the years to arson, vandalism and misguided renovation. Today
its ghostly remains stand on one of downtown Charlotte's most desirable
blocks, next to the Mint Museum of Craft + Design and the new art
deco Hearst Tower.
can boast the least changes of all the Carolina Theatres in the
state, retaining its Greek Revival exterior, its marble Italian
Renaissance interior and even its original Robert Morton Theatre
Pipe Organ, one of only two in state. The 1927 "Showplace of the
Carolinas" provides an important spur to downtown Greensboro's revitalization,
offering a wide variety of entertainment including the Eastern Music
Festival, the Piedmont Jazz & Blues Festival, and the Carolina Film
& Video Festival.
revitalized theaters exert enormous economic impact on downtown
to Reyn Bowman, President of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau,
a recent DCVB study revealed the Carolina generates direct spending
of more than $3.2 million annually. Including spending by visitors
elsewhere in the community, the total economic impact tops $12 million.
growth of heritage tourism encourages even small towns to restore
Kannapolis, the Gem, an art deco palace adorned with phoenix
birds, lives up to its name. Locals today call it the Crown Jewel
of Downtown, and movie fans travel miles to enjoy first run films
at discount prices.
the hometown of actor Andy Griffith, the historic Downtown
Theatre shows discount movies five nights a week, adding an important
component to Mt. Airy's booming tourism industry.
Alamance Arts Council reopened the 1928 Paramount Theater
in 1998 to provide a focal point for downtown Burlington.
Salisbury, Lexington, Hamlet, Goldsboro, Southern Pines, Wilson
and Sanford turned their old vaudeville and movie houses into Centers
for Performing Arts.
theaters across the state found different uses.
Columbia, NC, on the Albemarle-Pimlico peninsula, the Partnership
for the Sounds renovated the 1938 Columbia Theater as an environmental
and cultural history museum for Tyrrell County.
Elizabeth City, Bryan and Emily Edge converted the 1946 Love State
Theater into the Carolina Theatre and Grille, a dinner theater
showing first run films.
other towns, the attempt to save historic theaters continues.
and Washington associations are raising funds to restore their downtown
Spruce Pine, Bill Hudson and his partner Davis Godwin
are renovating the Carolina Theatre there, once home to the weekly
radio show "Carolina Barn Dance," an early rival to Nashville's
Grand Ole Opry.
remember seeing Tex Ritter and his horse on this stage,"
Hudson recalls. "I've got a lot of memories about this place, and
I want to bring it back."
published in North Carolina Magazine, 2005]
Read our NCFlix
& Future Theaters:
to the grand theaters of the Carolinas, some still showing movies,
some converted to other uses, some in sad states of disrepair. Plus
a drive-in or two and some art film emporiums.
"Don't lose it" a video presention on the
history of the Carolina, and the importance of restoring it. Info
on Charlotte's theater organ, an early Wurlitzer. Great theater
tour, plus exploration of the ornate movie palace of the past, including
rare photos of the theaters torn down in Charlotte. Updates on proposed
of Charlotte's Carolina Theater
Chain of theaters based in Charlotte recently sold to Regal
Theater Cultural Resources Center
A member of the Partnership for the Sounds, the center offers environmental
education and exhibits on hunting, fishing, farming and other coastal
NC traditions of the Pamlico-Albemarle Sounds region.
Group of art theaters in Raleigh area. Rocky Horror every Friday
Palaces are one of the nostalgia areas that flourish on the internet.
Below are just a few of the websites devoted to them.
Lists over 48 theaters in the Carolinas
cinema history around the world; entries on theaters in Gastonia,
Goldsboro, Asheville, Fayetteville, Greeneville, Hickory, High Point,
Exhaustive overview of cinema history
Info on over 200 dead theaters
City, NJ Boardwalk Theaters
Historical Society of America
Great links page
Trust names Historic
American Movie Theaters to Endangered List
Horror on the Internet