History of the Carolina Theatre
The Carolina Theatre opened with great fanfare on March 7, 1927, welcoming a large audience to see the silent film comedy, A Kiss in a Taxi. Moviegoers were awed by the sumptuous beauty of the new theater, which featured wrought iron chandeliers, intricate murals, and exterior balconies. “For sheer splendor and luxury, it is a creation that will provoke admiration throughout the theatrical world,” proclaimed the Charlotte Observer.
As a preeminent cultural venue, the Carolina Theatre hosted live shows as well as feature films. Elvis Presley’s appearance in 1956 stands out in local memory; the electric performer delighted audiences as he “shook, rattled and almost rolled on stage.” Capping off these highlights was the record-breaking run of the movie, The Sound of Music, which played to nearly 400,000 people (more than the population of Charlotte) in the mid-1960s. The long run of The Sound of Music was something of a swan song.
Like other Southern theatres the Carolina was segregated, with African Americans prohibited from attending for decades. That changed in 1963 when Charlotte theaters began a trial desegregation period. African Americans were admitted in small groups and were required to reserve seating in advance. Within a few weeks, theater owners dropped the reservation requirement and began admitting all patrons on the same basis.
Like many historic theaters of its era, Carolina Theatre went into decline as audiences gravitated to new cinemas in the suburbs, and its doors closed on November 27, 1978, after a final showing of The Fist, starring Bruce Lee.
In 1982, the theater—which had narrowly escaped a fire two years earlier—was placed on the Local Historic Register, and the city bought the property in 1986. In subsequent years, several efforts to restore and renovate the theater were tried and failed. It has remained mostly vacant and run-down, its dilapidated exterior an aberration in the otherwise vibrant center city.
The Carolina Theatre gained a new lease on life in 2012, when the city of Charlotte deeded the property to Foundation For The Carolinas. Construction to restore and renovate the theater began in 2017.
The Carolina Theatre will be located at Belk Place civic campus. Belk Place will serve as home not only to the Carolina Theatre, but FFTC’s headquarters, the Luski-Gorelick Center for Philanthropy and the Levine Conference Center.
When it opens, the new Carolina Theatre will be a vibrant center for civic engagement, hosting Town Halls, major speakers, symposia, and debates, as well as world-class arts and entertainment. Once again, the Carolina Theatre will be alive with the energy and excitement that marked its inception, 90 years ago.