The Carolina Theatre’s

History

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Architectural History

Venturing to describe the Carolina Theatre when it opened in 1927, a Charlotte journalist declared, “It is alive, and the audience itself is a part of the alluring picture.” The belief that theatergoers could be transported to an exotic locale, and feel like active participants in a fantasy world, rather than passive, aloof observers, was a defining feature of the atmospheric theaters that became popular in the United States during the 1920s. Architects designed atmospherics like the Carolina—sometimes called “stars-and-clouds” theaters—to create the feeling of watching a film outside, under a starry sky, in such fanciful and enchanting settings as Italian gardens, open-air Persian courtyards and Spanish patios.

Mezzanine Lobby, 1927

In this vein, the original Carolina Theatre, created by Charlotte architect C. C. Hook and New York theater designer R. E. Hall, drew moviegoers into a richly drawn, make-believe world, blending elements of European décor to suggest an exotic—and above all, regal—environment. The theater’s eclectic exterior, replete with a wrought iron ticket booth and decorative tile roof, hinted at the marvels to be found inside. As described by the Charlotte Observer, the main lobby was imitative of a grand outdoor patio, surrounded by “picturesque facades of old world palaces, colonnades of graceful arches, romantic balconies, the tower of ancient castles and the mystical beauty of an old Spanish cathedral window.”

Balcony looking north, 1927

From these rich surroundings, audiences entered the theater itself, where they could gaze up into “the deep blue of the Mediterranean sky, with an occasional twinkle of a far-off star, and the restful tranquility of fleecy clouds slowly drifting by,” and admire the graceful white pigeons and brightly-colored parrots that were “perched here and there.” Climbing vines, tropical foliage, a bounty of flower arrangements and a proud peacock, surveying his surroundings from atop a high balcony, completed the illusion.

It is little wonder that a pioneer of the early motion picture industry famously declared, “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”

Sources: 
Richard Koszarski. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.
Ben M. Hall. The Best Remaining Seats: The Golden Age of the Movie Palace. New York: De Capo Press, 1988.
David Naylor. American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1981.
“Carolina Theater Places Charlotte in High Class As Amusement House Center,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.

A native of West Virginia, Hook came to Charlotte in 1890 as a young man, just graduated from college. He began his career in the Queen City as a teacher, but quickly began designing houses and by 1892 was working full-time as a professional architect. From then on, until his death in 1938, Hook designed residences and public buildings in Charlotte and elsewhere in North Carolina, becoming one of the most prolific architects in the state. While he is best known for his work in the Colonial Revival style, his designs spanned a variety of architectural modes, from Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival to shingle, Italianate, Renaissance and Neoclassical revivals.

By the 1920s, when the Carolina Theatre was built, Hook had added Beaux-Arts classicism to his repertoire. He was also a masterful publicist and took an active role in developing the architectural profession in North Carolina, helping to found the North Carolina Architectural Association and becoming one of the first persons to be credentialed as a licensed architect in the state. Hook designed more than two dozen houses for Edward Dilworth Latta’s new suburb of Dilworth in the 1890s and early 1900s, as well as residences for some of the most prominent business owners and industrialists in the state, including William Henry Belk, the founder of Belk Department Store, and James B. Duke, the tobacco magnate and leader in the development of hydroelectric power.

The Duke Mansion
William Henry Belk House

Hook’s relationship with the Duke family extended to his role as architect of several buildings on the campus of Trinity College in Durham (later Duke University), and he also designed buildings for several other college campuses, including Queens University in Charlotte and Davidson College in Davidson. Other civic and public buildings designed by Hook and his partners included several hospitals and Charlotte’s Masonic Temple, which was built in the Egyptian Revival style.

One of the striking features that housed the original Carolina Theatre was that it combined several architectural styles—Spanish Renaissance, Elizabethan and Art Nouveau—making it appear almost like four different buildings or stage sets, as it faced the corner of Tryon and Sixth streets. The theater’s Spanish Renaissance exterior featured a Mediterranean-inspired wrought iron ticket booth, decorative tile roof, stucco walls and clay tiles. All in all, the structure was deemed “the most attractive building in the city” at the time.

 

Sources:
http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/people/P000211 Accessed 10/15/2016 at 2:00 p.m.

Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).
“Carolina Theatre Places Charlotte in High Class as Amusement House Center,” Charlotte Observer March 6, 1927.

The company was established at the turn of the century, when Charlotte was beginning to expand from a good-sized town into a city of the New South, and had a hand in erecting many of its larger structures. While the building that housed the Carolina Theatre was not one of the firm’s biggest ventures, company owners took particular pride in its craftsmanship, noting the “nicety of construction demanded,” and declaring, “Every blue print was made with demands for comfort, beauty and elaborateness.”


Source:
“J. A. Jones in Pace with New Building Work,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.

Entertainment History

As they waited outside, the expectant crowd was so excited that police were reportedly necessary to maintain order at the box office. When everyone was safely seated inside the theater, the mayor of Charlotte and visiting luminaries from the Publix Movie Corporation took to the stage to kick off the night’s entertainment, which included a Vaudeville-style program of music and dance, followed by the silent film comedy, A Kiss in a Taxi. The crowd’s enthusiasm continued throughout the show, as men and women “clapped and shouted and even whistled in the more intense moments.” All in all, the theater’s opening was deemed a great success and “far-reaching step” forward for the city of Charlotte.

Sources:
Charlotte News, March 7, 8, 1927.
Charlotte Observer, March 6, 7, 8, 1927.
Charlotte Observer, September 29, 1998.

Original movie poster

A Kiss in a Taxi was a light-hearted farce filled with slapstick humor, romantic capers and assorted mischief. Daniels played the role of Ginette, a waitress working in a café in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris, who spent her days warding off the advances of her many admirers. Ginette’s determination to thwart her suitors resulted in numerous antics, including a fiancé felled by a wayward punch and a taxi crash caused by one wooer’s strenuous efforts to gain a kiss at high speed. Described as a “frothy light affair” by the Charlotte Observer, A Kiss in a Taxi delighted the Carolina Theatre’s opening-night audience with its abundance of “risqué and unusual situations.”

Ad insert of The Charlotte Observer, 1927

Sources:
“New playhouse Presented to City at Gala Ceremony,” Charlotte Observer, March 8, 1927, p. 5.

“‘Kiss in Taxi’ is Film Feast,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927, p. 11.
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/43927%7C161736/Bebe-Daniels/ Accessed March 9, 2016, 11:30 AM.

When it opened in 1927, the Carolina Theatre boasted a “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ. Thousands of these gigantic pipe organs were installed in theaters throughout the United States to accompany silent movies in the early 1900s. Designed by British inventor Robert Hope-Jones, theater organs could imitate the different instruments of an orchestra—from piano, flute, and violin to trumpet, drums, and cymbals—and create special sound effects, from train and boat whistles, car horns and bird whistles, to crashing thunder and pouring rain. The so-called “silent” movies were anything but noiseless, as audiences were absorbed in an extravaganza of sound and music.

The Carolina Theatre’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” had its debut on opening night as part of an elaborate program of live entertainment that brought the sold-out audience to its feet and made “the rafters ring and the welkin resound.” Over the following years, audiences at the Carolina Theatre enjoyed live musical productions from organ solos and sing-a-longs to jazz bands and the Carolina Grande Orchestra.

Wildly popular in the heyday of silent films, the manufacture of theater organs began to decline with the advent of “talkies.” The first feature-length film with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolsen, was released the same year that the Carolina Theatre opened, becoming a rapid box office success. Convinced of the potential for profitability, big movie studios began investing in the technology necessary to convert to sound. In the meantime, the country fell into the Great Depression, and theater owners could no longer afford to invest in elaborate organs. The era of the “Mighty Wurlitzer” came to a close.

Sources: 
“Crowds Jam Traffic in Rush to Carolina Theater Opening,” Charlotte Observer, March 8, 1927.
“Carolina Patrons to Enjoy Music by Miss Fae Wilcox,’ Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.
Mary K. Miller, “It’s a Wurlitzer: The Giant of the Musical Instrument Collection Makes Tunes Rootin’ Tootin’ or Romantic,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2002.
http://www.savetheorgan.org/kbase/radiostations/paul_norris.pdf.  Accessed on 2/6/2016, 11:00 AM.  

Norris played a variety of music on the theater’s Wurlitzer organ, including classic tunes and ballads as well as popular hits of the day, interspersed with engaging commentary about current and coming cinema attractions. The popular concerts made Norris a well-known personality in Charlotte. The Mecklenburg Times reported that he “quite captivated Charlotte radio fans with his sympathetic interpretations of their favorite musical numbers,” and staff members of the radio station joked that Norris might need to “engage the services of a secretary” to handle his fan mail.

Also in the 1930s, the theater hosted “The Charlotte News-Carolina Theatre Pop Eye and Mickey Mouse Club,” a Saturday morning children’s program that was sponsored by the Charlotte News. Admission was a dime and engaged local children in an amateur stage show, a movie, and entertainment by Big Chief Wimpy (played by Norris), Big Chief Pop Eye and Olive Oyl.

 

Sources:
Michael Johnston, “Paul Norris, Organist,” Theatre Organ 51, no. 4: 42-44.  
http://www.savetheorgan.org/kbase/radiostations/paul_norris.pdf.  Accessed on 2/6/2016, 11:00 AM.  

When The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, opened with a gala premiere at the Carolina in March of 1965, local advertisements boasted that the theater was just one of twenty five in the country—and the only movie house in the Carolinas—where the movie was being shown. A film adaptation of a Broadway musical, The Sound of Music was based on the true-life story of the Von Trapp Family Singers in Austria on the eve of World War II.

A huge hit with audiences around the country, the film drew moviegoers to Charlotte from throughout the surrounding area. In October of 1965, mid-way through the movie’s run in Charlotte, local officials announced that the Carolina was receiving an outstanding achievement certificate from the 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, for being the first theater in the world where attendance at The Sound of Music had exceeded the population in the city where it was being shown.

Surpassing 247,000, attendance at the film numbered tens of thousands more than were living in Charlotte at the time, and it was estimated that 100,000 audience members traveled to the Carolina from outside the city to see The Sound of Music. Additionally, it was announced that The Sound of Music had broken three records at the Carolina—for length of run, dollar gross and total attendance. And its record-breaking run wasn’t over yet. The Sound of Music did not wind down until a year later, in October of 1966, making its 79-week run the longest for any film shown in the history of the Carolina Theatre.

 

Sources:
Charlotte Observer, March 28, March 31, November 18, November 21, 1965; October 2, October 4, 1966.  

Members of the fledgling Charlotte Symphony Orchestra had been practicing together for just three months when they took the stage for a debut performance at the Carolina Theatre on the evening of March 20, 1932. The night’s feature presentation was the premiere of a symphony written by Spanish composer and violinist Guillermo de Roxlo, who also served as conductor for the concert. de Roxlo began composing the symphony in 1931 while living in Cuba and completed the work upon arriving in Charlotte. As described by a local journalist, the work’s three movements, “splendidly interpreted” by the musicians, carried listeners through “the many great emotions of a human being.”

In addition to de Roxlo’s symphony, the orchestra also performed arrangements by Mozart, Debussy, Grieg, and Wagner, all of which were reportedly met by “splendid applause” from the appreciative audience. “A new music era for Charlotte” had begun. 

 

 

Sources:
Charlotte Observer, March 20, 21, 1932.  
Charlotte News, March 20, 21, 1932.  

When Elvis Presley stepped onto the stage at the Carolina Theatre in February 1956, he was only 21 years old and just emerging as a national phenomenon, propelled by extensive touring, appearances on national television and the recent release by RCA Records of the hit song, “Heartbreak Hotel.”

American audiences were still figuring out how to classify Presley’s singular music style, which blended elements of country ballads and rhythm and blues into a new concoction that would eventually become known as rockabilly. Even Presley himself was hard-pressed to define his technique: “I don’t know what style I have,” he stated to a reporter backstage at the Carolina. “I never have known how to answer that question.”

While many adults in Charlotte had yet to hear of the brash young singer, who was becoming known for his onstage gyrations as well his unique musical style, local teenagers withstood long lines that stretched for blocks for the chance to see Presley “shake, rattle, and roll,” with more than 5,000 attending the four sold-out shows and an additional 1,000 disappointed fans being turned away. Young girls were especially ardent in their enthusiasm for Presley, jumping up and down in their seats and attempting to push their way backstage after the show for a chance to meet the young performer.

 

In preparation for the big event, a “Gone With the Wind” ball was held at the Charlotte Hotel, and a local woman was crowned as the city’s own “Scarlett O’Hara.” The following day, Charlotte’s “Scarlett” visited local businesses on a “thrilling Shopping Tour of Charlotte stores,” as billed by the Charlotte Observer. Chauffeured in a late-model Ford Mercury provided for the occasion by a local car dealer, “Scarlett” made stops at clothing stores, a dry cleaner and a candy shop featuring “Scarlett Chocolate,” among other Charlotte retailers.

When the movie opened, local film critics declared Gone With the Wind to be “the greatest motion picture drama of screen history” and an “experience that few moviegoers will ever forget.” During its first two weeks at the Carolina Theatre, the movie drew thousands of fans, and Gone With the Wind continued to play to sold-out audiences throughout its run in Charlotte.

Long after the film came and went, the thrill of seeing Gone With the Wind at the Carolina Theatre lived on in Charlotteans’ memories. Author Tom Wicker fondly recalled the excitement he experienced as a young child, traveling by train with his family to Charlotte to watch the movie: “I well remember riding with my mother and sister on a local train derisively called the Boll Weevil along the old Seaboard Air Line Railway to Charlotte, N.C., where at the Carolina Theater (sic) on Tryon Street we had mail-order tickets for the great event. Every seat was taken, though the movie had been showing for weeks. I loved it.”

 

Sources:
The Charlotte Observer, January-February 1940.
The Charlotte Observer, September 29, 1998.
Mary Kratt, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Brief History. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.

Sponsored by the Will Rogers Memorial Committee, the proceeds benefited a charity established in honor of Will Rogers, a popular humorist and actor who had died earlier that year in a plane crash.  

Sources:
“Rogers Fund to go to Children,” Charlotte Observer, December 3, 1935.

Stage actress Ethel Barrymore garnered high praise for her performance as an English schoolteacher, struggling against ignorance and indifference in a remote Welsh village. Written by British dramatist Emlyn Williams, The Corn is Green had a two-year run in London before wartime bombing forced the closing of playhouses. After coming to the United States, it quickly became a Broadway hit and earned numerous awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best foreign play of the year.

On the road in the U.S., the show enchanted audiences around the country, and Charlotte was no different. At the Carolina, Barrymore and supporting cast members performed before an avid crowd that packed the theater “to the walls,” with even the standing-room tickets sold out. The night’s performance got started an hour after the scheduled curtain time, due to the cast’s late arrival from Asheville, but Charlotteans pronounced The Corn is Green to be “worth the wait,” especially Barrymore’s performance, which was said to cast a “brilliant glow” over the entire show.

 

Sources:
Charlotte Observer,
 March 7, 14, 18, 1943.
Charlotte News, March 18, 1943.

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.

Chicago native Sam Katz was president of the Publix Theatres Corporation (later Paramount Publix Corporation) and the driving force behind the company’s explosive growth. To Katz, the purpose of a well-run theater went far beyond entertainment in its value to the public. He declared, “A properly conducted theater is of the same importance to a community as a school or church. Such a theater contributes to the general welfare of the community, because wholesome recreation is essential to its well-being.”

By 1930, there were approximately 1,200 Publix movie houses in the U.S. and Canada, and more than two million people went to Publix theaters every day to see the biggest and best movies Hollywood had to offer. Under Katz’s leadership, the company prided itself on providing a consistently high level of entertainment in an environment of utmost civility and comfort, as reflected in the advertising slogan: “You don’t need to know what’s playing at a Publix House. It’s bound to be the best show in town.”

Other famous theatres in the Publix chain include The Tampa Theatre, Brooklyn Paramount Theatre,  Carolina Theatre Greensboro, Olympia Theatre at Gusman Center in Miami and many more.

 

Sources:
Jim Lewallen and Douglas Gomery, “Chronicling the Carolinas’ Theaters,” Marquee 18, no. 3 (1986): 3-6.

Douglas Gomery, “The Movies Become Big Business: Publix Theaters and the Chain Store Strategy” Cinema Journal V. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1979): 26-40.
Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States, 1992.
“Samuel Katz Realizes Dream With Gigantic Movie Merger,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.
“Katz Will Give Public Service,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927, p. 3 (quotes).

Social History

Longtime resident Dallas Richardson fondly recalled going to the movies during their heyday in the city. The cowboy movies that were featured at the Alhambra (later the State theater) were especially captivating to a young boy. “We went downtown . . . to see our favorite cowboys . . . the Alhambra had them . . . I always went on a Saturday morning. I’d walk two blocks to catch the streetcar, go down town to the movies, and, I think, for 25 cents I could go see that movie. That would be my streetcar fare down and back . . . and buy a 5 cent box of popcorn or some candy and see the movie, all for 25 cents.”

But of all the theaters in Charlotte, it was the Carolina Theatre that left the greatest impression. “To me there was really only one big [theater]; that was the Carolina. That was the queen of them all, the flagship.”

South Carolinian Walt Morton, who traveled up from York County to see movies at the Carolina when he was a young boy, similarly marveled at the theater’s unrivaled elegance and beauty. It was simply “one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen—I thought it was a palace.”

 

Sources:
Jim Lewellen and Douglas Gomery, “Chronicling the Carolinas’ Theaters,” Marquee 18, no. 3 (1986): 3-6.
Dallas Richardson, “Reminiscences of Movie-Going in Charlotte, NC” Marquee 18, no. 3 (1986): 7.
Lawrence Toppman, “’Kong’ 2nd film at ‘rilly cool’ Carolina,” Charlotte Observer, August 17, 1996.

Most early movie houses had to close down or run on an abbreviated schedule during the summer months, as temperatures in auditoriums became intolerable, a problem that was especially acute in the South. As technologies for cooling equipment were developed in the 1910s and 1920s, a handful of the bigger movie houses began installing “manufactured weather” systems to keep their auditoriums at a comfortable temperature year-round. Such venues, like the Carolina Theatre, boasted that patrons would enjoy “weather that is ideal; weather such as you have experienced only during rare spring days . . . regardless of outdoor conditions.”

Sources:
Douglas Gomery, “The Movies Become Big Business: Publix Theaters and the Chain Store Strategy,” Cinema Journal
18, No. 2 (Spring 1979): 26-40.
“Carolina System Makes its Own Ideal Theater Weather,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.

1920s: In the spring of 1927, local high school student Henry S. Cowell became an usher at the newly-opened Carolina Theatre, a job he loved.  

Decades later, he recalled with evident pride the exacting standards set by the theater’s management. The ushers were expected to be “neat in our light blue uniform, or the white one for summer.  No excuses for dirty white gloves, which we washed at home.” There were rules to be followed: “We could only answer patrons’ questions; we had to stand at attention with our backs facing the side wall; we could never glance toward the stage—our eyes had to focus straight in front of us.  No funny business.”

1950s: The job of an usher at the Carolina Theatre was a plum assignment for a high school student like Harold Quinn, who worked at the theater in the early 1950s.  Quinn walked from Central High School on Elizabeth Avenue to the theater, where he changed into a dapper uniform—a black waist coat, white shirt and black bow tie—before assuming his duties, which memorably included keeping an eye on young couples in the darkened back-row corner seats of the balcony.  

Sources:
1920’s: Henry S. Cowell, Jr., “Carolina Theatre was a class act,” Charlotte Observer, 
June 2, 2002.
1950’s: “Old Carolina Theater gets new attention,” Charlotte Observer, n.d., Vertical File in the Research Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

In Charlotte, five movie houses catered exclusively to African American moviegoers. The largest black cinema, and the only one whose building remains standing to this day, was the Grand Theatre. The Grand operated in a small brick building at the heart of the Biddleville neighborhood, a thriving African American enclave that was home to Johnson C. Smith University as well as many black-owned businesses, churches, schools and residences.

Upon opening in 1937, the Grand quickly became a significant social and cultural fixture. Other theaters held a similar place in black communities around the city. Hortense McKnight, who worked at the Lincoln Theater, located in the African American neighborhood of Brooklyn, stressed the importance of cinemas to black Charlotteans. “These were places where mostly everyone would go and enjoy themselves . . . It was the major form of entertainment that people looked forward to daily and on weekends.”

 

Sources:
“Gone Today, Black Theaters Were One Time the ‘Place to Be,’” Charlotte Post, 
June 5, 1986.
Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Mary Kratt, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Brief History. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.
Survey and Research Report on the Grand Theater for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 10/8/2000.

These short films included a variety of topics and were typically shown prior to the feature presentation at movie houses across the county. Once Americans entered World War II, the significance of newsreels such as The March of Time and Paramount News became even greater. For many families in Charlotte and elsewhere in the country, the documentary footage shown in the films was the most direct link they had to their loved ones fighting halfway across the world.

As Charlotte businesses began to integrate in the spring of 1963, local leaders turned to the task of integrating movie theaters with a degree of trepidation. Theater owners began a trial period of desegregation on Tuesday, June 11, with eight downtown movie houses—including the Carolina—accepting a limited number of black patrons by reservation only.

Local civil rights leaders organized 30 or 50 black patrons to attend the theaters each day. “We saw a lot of bad movies,” one participant quipped.

Within a few weeks, theater owners dropped the reservation requirement and African Americans in Charlotte were free to go to the movies without prior arrangement.

Sources:
Marianne Bumgarner-Davis, Rending the Veil: Desegregation in Charlotte, 1954-75. Chapel Hill: UNC Dissertation, 1995.
Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care About Jews, The South, and Civil Rights. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Mary Kratt, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Brief History. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.
Damaria Etta Brown Leach, Progress Under Pressure: Changes in Charlotte Race Relations, 1955-1965. Chapel Hill: MA Thesis, 1976.
Randy Penninger, The Emergence of Black Political Power in Charlotte, North Carolina: The City Council Tenure of Frederick Douglas Alexander, 1965-1974. Charlotte: UNCC MA Thesis, 1989.
L.M. Wright, Jr., “A Different Way: Charlotte Has Built Its Integration Road” Charlotte Observer, July 14, 1963.

The first Carolina Theatre, designed in the Beaux-Arts style, opened in Durham in 1926. It closed in 1978 but was reopened a decade later after an $8.3 million dollar renovation. Currently, the city-owned theater’s programming includes performances by the local symphony and opera, as well as dance, theater and musical acts.

Charlotte’s own Carolina Theatre, featuring a multi-faceted Mediterranean design combining elements of Spanish, art nouveau and Elizabethan architecture, opened in the spring of 1927, followed by the construction of a Carolina Theatre built in the style of a Greek temple in Greensboro later that year.

Completing the North Carolina foursome was an Art Deco-style theater constructed in Winston-Salem, which opened in 1929. Like their sister theaters in Charlotte and Durham, the Greensboro and Winston-Salem venues suffered periods of decline in the 1960s-1970s, but they have since undergone renovations and reopened as performing arts centers hosting a variety of music, dance and theater productions as well as films.

The renovation of the Carolina Theatre here in Charlotte is a welcome addition that completes the work, bringing the final North Carolina “Carolina Theatre” treasure back to life.

Carolina Theatre, Greensboro, NC.
Carolina Theatre, Durham, NC.
Carolina Theatre, Winston-Salem, NC. 1950’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:
http://carolinatheatre.org/about.  Accessed August 25, 2016, 10:00 AM.
http://carolinatheatre.com/about/history.  Accessed August 25, 2016, 10:30 AM.
http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/728.  Accessed August 25, 2016, 11:00 AM.

What opened with such fanfare and was labeled throughout its glory days ended unceremoniously on November 28, 1978 with the Charlotte Observer proclaiming the Carolina Theatre’s closing the end of “51 Gaudy Years.”

The final showing at the Carolina Theatre was The Fist, a Bruce Lee action movie.  Like other downtown businesses and entertainment venues, the theater fell victim to social forces of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly suburban development and the decline of the inner city.  

Sources:
Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975.
“After 51 Gaudy Years, Carolina Theatre Closes,” Charlotte Observer, November 28, 1978.

The fire severely damaged the stage area.  Likely started by vandals, the flames would have caused far more destruction had it not been contained by the old fire curtain, which worked just as it had been designed to do, dropping at the front of the stage and preventing the blaze from burning further into the auditorium.  

 

Sources:

“Suspicious Fire Hits City’s Once-Famed Carolina Theatre,” Charlotte Observer, November 14, 1980.

“Old Fire Curtain Saved Carolina Theatre from Ruin,” Charlotte News, November 14, 1980.

“Fire Guts Carolina Theatre,” Charlotte News, November 13, 1980.

The revitalization of the Carolina Theatre would not have been possible without critical contributions from the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. In June of 2013, the city transferred ownership of the 36,000-square-foot historic Carolina Theatre to the Foundation For The Carolinas for one dollar. Two years later, Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed unanimously to award $4.2 million toward the theater’s renovation, matching the value of the property deeded by the city ($3.7 million), with an additional gift of $500,000 to help recreate the marquee signs on the building’s exterior. In the final months of its campaign with estimated construction ballooning to $51 million, Charlotte’s City Council members awarded the Theatre project an additional $4.5 million to ensure the Carolina Theatre fundraising campaign would reach its target.