NC Flix



The Stars Come Out at Carolina Theaters

text and photos by Renee Wright
©2005 ARR

It was a moment right out of the movies.

From 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.

Break out the Hand-helds

A 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 and towns.

Several sponsor film festivals that draw the stars of Hollywood to discuss their work.

The 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 March."

In 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.

Sissy 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.

Palaces for the People

In 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.

Equipped 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.

Wild combinations of Egyptian, Moorish and Tudor motifs, along with fanciful murals, Greek statues, and ornate chandeliers, gave patrons plenty to talk about.

Some Carolina Theatres did not fare well through the years.

Chapel Hill's lost its ornate lobby to a GAP store, although it continues as an art movie house.

Charlotte's 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.

Greensboro 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.

These revitalized theaters exert enormous economic impact on downtown revitalization.

According 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.

Small Town Survivors

The growth of heritage tourism encourages even small towns to restore historic theaters.

In 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.

In 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.

The Alamance Arts Council reopened the 1928 Paramount Theater in 1998 to provide a focal point for downtown Burlington.

Lumberton, Salisbury, Lexington, Hamlet, Goldsboro, Southern Pines, Wilson and Sanford turned their old vaudeville and movie houses into Centers for Performing Arts.

Other theaters across the state found different uses.

In 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.

In 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.

In other towns, the attempt to save historic theaters continues.

Shelby and Washington associations are raising funds to restore their downtown theaters.

In 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.

"I 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."

[originally published in North Carolina Magazine, 2005]

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Once & Future Theaters:

Links 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.


Fine Arts


Paramount Theater

Carrboro, NC

Cat's Cradle

Cary, NC

Galaxy Cinema


Charlotte's Theater Organ
"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 renovation/development plans.

The history of Charlotte's Carolina Theater

Eastern Federal Group
Chain of theaters based in Charlotte recently sold to Regal Entertainment

Columbia, NC/ Tyrrell County

Columbia 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.

Durham, NC

Carolina Theatre (

Starlite Drive-In


Carolina Theatre, (


Gem Theatre


The Rialto Group
Group of art theaters in Raleigh area. Rocky Horror every Friday at Midnight


Rogers Theatre


Stevens Center


Great Theater Websites

Movie Palaces are one of the nostalgia areas that flourish on the internet. Below are just a few of the websites devoted to them.

Theatre Organs page

Cinema Treasures
Lists over 48 theaters in the Carolinas

Cinema Tours
cinema history around the world; entries on theaters in Gastonia, Goldsboro, Asheville, Fayetteville, Greeneville, Hickory, High Point, Wilmington, Wilson

The Widescreen Museum
Exhaustive overview of cinema history

Dead Theatre Pages
Info on over 200 dead theaters

Ocean City, NJ Boardwalk Theaters

Theatre Historical Society of America
Great links page

National Trust names Historic American Movie Theaters to Endangered List

Rocky Horror on the Internet








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