Over the years, the original architecture of the Carolina Theatre was altered significantly to accommodate new technologies and entice audiences to downtown entertainment venues in an era of increased competition from television and suburban development. In 1953, a large, panoramic screen and stereophonic sound system were installed at the Carolina. Lauded by theater manager Kermit High as an “important event in local theatrical history,” the new technology, known as “Cinemascope,” promised to give audiences the experience of “complete engulfment and participation in the action.”
Eight years later, the theater was closed for a period to undergo a major reconstruction and installation of yet another advancement, called “Cinerama.” To optimize the audience members’ experience of Cinerama, the theater’s seating capacity was reduced from 1,400 to 668 seats. Installation of an enormous curved screen, multiple projectors, and complex sound system also required significant alterations to the stage and surrounding area. At a cost of approximately $250,000, the Carolina’s owners deemed the renovations a good investment, declaring “The Carolina Theatre will be the exclusive home of Cinerama in the Carolinas” and “one of the most beautiful theaters of its size in America.”
To showcase the new technology, the theater held multiple showings of a full-length film entitled This is Cinerama, which featured such scenes as a roller coaster ride, the canals of Venice, a Spanish bullfight and views of Niagara Falls. “You’ll be swept out of your theater chair,” promised promotional materials, “as you are surrounded by beauty, spectacle, and adventure.”
North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and his family were on hand for a special preview showing of This is Cinerama on December 21, 1961, and the new technology was deemed a spectacular success, with advance orders for reserved tickets coming in from more than 100 miles away. Despite the initial excitement, the popularity of Cinerama was relatively short-lived and did not sustain audience interest for long.
In retrospect, many Charlotteans regret the significant alterations to the historic theater’s original design. Looking back on the advent of Cinerama, longtime resident and theatergoer Dallas Richardson recalled, “They butchered that theater something awful. That’s when they modernized it, took that beautiful box office [and] put it over on the side [with] . . . kind of an art deco kind of thing. Oh, it was hideous! It didn’t blend with the original interior. They chopped up the interior . . . put those huge drapes all around the side and that big, curved screen. Cinerama was nice; that . . . big screen was just a thrill to watch, but I would prefer the old theater the way it was.”
Sources for Cinemascope and Cinerama:
“Cinerama Coming to Carolina Theater,” Charlotte Observer, November 3, 1961.
Dallas Richardson, “Reminiscences of Movie-Going in Charlotte, NC” Marquee 18, no. 3 (1986) 7.
“From Vaudeville Days to Dusty Disrepair” Charlotte Observer, August 13, 1989.