Documenting the American South

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Going to the Show

Address

Street address information is taken from city directories and Sanborn® Fire Insurance maps. This information has been used to determine approximate longitude/latitude coordinates for the physical location of the venue upon the maps.

Capacity

The seating capacity of a venue is noted if this can be determined from newspaper accounts or national theater guides.

Closing Date

We have indicated the date of the end of operation of the venue if this can be established. In some cases, this is established through newspaper notices. In others we have inferred the closing of the venue from its omission from city directory listings or from Sanborn® maps.

Companies Involved

We have noted company names associated with movie venues where this information is known. This information comes primarily from city directories and newspaper ads and articles.

Opening Date

We have indicated the earliest documented date of the theater's operation. Where we have been able to establish the actual date of opening (through newspaper ads or articles), this is indicated. Otherwise, this date indicates the first reference to the venue we have been able to find in a city directory, Sanborn® Fire Insurance Map, or national theater guide (Film Daily Yearbook, for example).

People Involved

We have noted individuals associated with movie venues where this information is known. This information comes primarily from city directories. The name of the manager or proprietor of a movie theater is sometimes included in business listings of theaters. Alphabetical lists of city residents frequently include businesses, including movie theaters, with the name of theater managers/proprietors indicated as a part of the listing. Because racial coding of city directories extended to individuals as well as businesses, it is possible to determine the race of many managers of white and African American theaters. We have also collected names of individuals associated with venues from newspaper ads and articles.

Performance Type

Movie venues frequently offered entertainment alongside movies.

Vaudeville or variety acts were common features of performances involving movies. Vaudeville was a modular performance form, with programs made up of 8-12 individual live acts: singers, magicians, dancers, jugglers, monologists, comics, etc. Vaudeville theaters predated the establishment of movie theaters in some North Carolina communities. They were common in larger American cities from 1890 to 1930 and attracted large audiences of men, women, and children across a broad social spectrum. When projected motion pictures were introduced in the U.S. in 1896, vaudeville provided the infant movie industry with a performance medium that could accommodate 10- to 15-minute programs of short films and an association with one of the most popular forms of live entertainment. Many Americans living in large cities saw their first movies in a vaudeville theater in the months following the debut of Edison's Vitascope projector at Koster and Bial's Music Hall (vaudeville theater) in New York City. Vaudeville acts, including movies, traveled by rail around circuits of theaters affiliated with the major vaudeville "chains." The B.F. Keith Company was the most important vaudeville circuit in the eastern U.S. at the turn of the century; the Orpheum circuit dominated "high class" vaudeville on the west coast. Movies would have been only one part of a larger vaudeville program.

Most North Carolina cities were too small or too far off mainline rail connection to support a vaudeville theater at the turn of the century. The most common theatrical venue in smaller towns throughout the U.S., including North Carolina, was the opera house. Usually having little or nothing to do with opera per se, the opera house was a general-purpose theatrical space usually located in the center of town on the upper floor of a commercial or municipal building. Opera houses in North Carolina ranged from the elaborate and purpose-built (Wilmington's grand opera house dates from 1853 and is still a performance venue) to the spare and simple — sometimes nothing more than a large room with an elevated stage at one end. The opera house typically would be leased to a manager who would book travelling entertainment of various kinds to play at the local opera house for a week or so.

Over the course of a year at the turn of the century, a local opera house might host minstrel shows, melodramas, choirs, musical theater, vaudeville companies, and, after 1896, traveling movie exhibitors. Exhibitors such as Archie Shepard and Lyman Howe toured North Carolina towns in the 1890s and early 1900s, bringing with them a projector and program of films for a few days or a week. Information on traveling movie shows performing in opera houses in North Carolina is taken from notices in local newspapers and from the state-by-state correspondence column of the weekly New York Dramatic Mirror. Covering all manner of live entertainment across North America, the New York Dramatic Mirror ran notices each week received from theater managers across the country chronicling the companies playing local theaters and commenting on their success (or lack thereof).

When movie theaters were established in North Carolina towns and cities beginning in 1906, movies were always accompanied by, and were frequently supplemented with, other forms of entertainment. Music always accompanied silent films, whether provided by a pianist, band, or orchestra. Movies were seldom the only attraction at movie theaters. Theaters featured singers (sometimes the manager or manager's spouse), illustrated songs (popular songs sung to magic lantern slides illustrating it), vaudeville acts, and lecturers (who narrated some films). How strongly live acts were emphasized in early theaters depended upon the level of competition, access to local talent, theater size and potential profitability, and local tastes. The mix and prominence of performance types changed frequently in the early years. Reliance upon live acts decreased following the ascendance of the feature film as an industry standard around 1913-15. Instead of programs of one-reel (6-minute) or two-reel (12-minute) films and live performers, the feature film occupied an hour or more or program time.

All movie venues listed in the database showed movies at least once. Where other entertainment forms were also presented, this has been noted. Information comes primarily from newspaper ads and articles.

Racial Policy

Racial admission and/or seating restrictions applied in ALL movie venues in North Carolina from 1896 through the early 1960s, so far as we can determine.

Exclusion on the basis of race
So far as can be determined, no movie venue in North Carolina in operation from 1896 through the early 1960s admitted and seated whites and non-whites on the same basis. Many "white" theaters refused admission to all non-whites.

Occasional screenings for non-whites
Some theaters that normally excluded non-whites would schedule special late-night screenings for them, commonly called "midnight shows," one day out of the week (Fridays or Saturdays were most common).

Segregated seating
White theaters that did admit non-whites allotted spaces for them. The most common arrangement was for the balcony or a section of the balcony to be set aside for this purpose. There is also evidence that in some theaters that did not have balconies (the Bijou in Wilmington, for example), a rear section of seating would be roped off and used for non-white patrons. In theaters with segregated balconies, non-whites were usually excluded from lobby, restroom, and concession areas of the venue, and reached the balcony by way of separate, usually exterior, stairs. In some cases, the venue had separate box offices for white and non-white patrons. Because the earliest movie theaters in North Carolina were in most cases converted retail store spaces on the ground floor of multi-story commercial buildings, it is unlikely that very many of these early theaters would have been able to accommodate a balcony. In some cases, balconies were added later, as theaters flourished and expanded into adjacent spaces. Balconies were more common features of purpose-built theaters (1912—). Some architectural plans for purpose-built theaters show "colored balcony," "colored lobby," and "colored entrance" as features of segregated theaters. In tri-racial Robeson County some theaters had two balconies (for African-American and American Indian patrons, respectively), a main floor for white patrons, and three box offices and entrances.

African-American theaters
As early as 1909, commercial movie venues were established for African Americans in North Carolina. African American theaters were typically not located in the town's central business district, but rather as a part of an African American commercial and/or residential neighborhood some distance from "Main Street." African American theaters are noted in city directories with a * or "C" (for "colored") beside the entry. Similarly Sanborn® maps indicate African American theaters with the notation "negro" or "colored," as they did all African American businesses, schools, churches, hospitals, and other institutions.

Our database attempts to document all known African American theaters in operation at any time through the 1950s. White theaters in North Carolina were not de-segregated completely until the early 1960s. Information on African American theaters is taken from city directories, Sanborn® maps, and national theater listings, particularly Film Daily Yearbook, which began including "colored" theater notations in its state-by-state list of movie theaters in 1925, and began compiling a separate list of "colored" theaters by state in 1929. It stopped listing African American theaters in 1955. The resulting inventory of African American theaters in our database is certainly incomplete, and it will remain difficult to document African American theaters in North Carolina and in other states. Few African American theaters advertised in white newspapers, and coverage of African American theaters in them is sparse. African American newspapers were published in local communities in North Carolina in the early decades of the 20th century, but none has been preserved or microfilmed.

Establishing the racial policy in effect at a "white" theater at any given time is difficult. Most white theaters did not advertise their racial policies in newspaper ads, although these can sometimes be inferred from admission price scales ("25 cents; 20 cents colored balcony") or from announcements of special screenings for non-white audiences. The absence of information about racial policy for a given venue in the database should not be read to mean that it admitted non-whites, only that the racial policy in effect is unknown.