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Going to the Show

Moviegoing in Wilmington: A "Going to the Show" Case Study

The history of cinema in America cannot be understood apart from the experience of moviegoing—the more than one billion occasions on which people gathered in some place at some time to partake in something they understood as "the movies," or "the pictures," or, simply, "the show."

First introduced to paying audiences in the U.S. in 1896, moviegoing was by 1930 a part of everyday life for tens of millions of Americans in thousands of towns and cities across the country. All but a few of the places associated with moviegoing during the silent film era have long since been torn down or repurposed. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer people who can pass down stories of what it was like to see Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp or listen each week to an improvised piano score for a different film.

1940's Bijou - Ad, in The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

Our focus here is not upon individual films. In the first decades of moviegoing, any particular film was a part of that experience for only a day or two. Movie theaters changed programs as frequently as possible, especially in small towns. Once a given film's brief run in a particular theater was over, it quite literally left town and seldom returned. Most of the films that passed through the towns and cities of North Carolina in the years prior to 1930 no longer survive in any form. The relatively few extant versions of old films tell us nothing about who saw them, where they were seen, when they were seen, under what conditions, or to what effect. They tell us nothing about who was prevented from seeing them or who could see them only from a balcony or at midnight on an occasional Saturday. The films that have been preserved from the silent era of film history are souvenirs—mute tokens of one of the most important but least-documented cultural and social phenomena of the twentieth century: going to the show.

Ad for dancing at Lakewood Park. Bottom of ad mentions moving pictures., in The North Carolina Collection, Wilson LIbrary, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Movie production and distribution in the U.S. for most of the twentieth century was dominated by the handful of Los Angeles and New York-based companies that collectively were referred to as "Hollywood." Adapting principles of assembly-line production as much as possible, Hollywood strove for standardization: working small variations on familiar patterns in each new film, making hundreds of copies of it, sending it out to thousands of theaters for a brief time, then taking all of the copies out of circulation to make room on the screen for the next product. But moviegoing was anything but standardized in the U.S., and the experience of cinema was more varied during the silent period than at any time prior to the late 1970s. It was then that, thanks to the advent of the VCR, the site of our most frequent encounters with movies shifted from movie theaters to the home. Scholars have just begun to appreciate just how varied and local the experience of cinema has been throughout film history—from penny arcades to iPhones.

Advertisement announcing the change in the Palm to exclusively for blacks, in The North Carolina Collection, Wilson LIbrary, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"Going to the Show" is an experiment in re-locating the experience of cinema, of resituating movies and moviegoing within a few of the hundreds of thousands of places in tens of thousands communities where people went to the show. This project points to some of the places moviegoers in North Carolina experienced cinema in the early decades of the twentieth century. In doing so, it encourages a reconsideration of the role that movies and moviegoing played at a time when towns and cities across the state were taking their modern forms and when social conventions, particularly those regarding race, were hardening. We recover places some of our grandparents and great-grandparents spent hundreds of happy Saturday afternoons— the very places that were also haunted by Jim Crow.

"Going to the Show" began by asking "What evidence survives of the sites in which North Carolinians encountered movies during the years that moviegoing was becoming one of America's most important social and cultural pastimes?" No one had ever posed this question about an entire state. We knew it was worth asking about North Carolina because of the remarkable collection of printed and published material about the state contained in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's North Carolina Collection. From its collection of city directories and Sanborn ® fire insurance maps, we created an inventory of commercial movie theaters operating in the state through the 1920s. It grew to include more than 1300 venues spread across more than 250 communities.

These sources provided us with theater names, street addresses, and the names of the people associated with their operation. The division of every one of these 250-plus communities by race is carried over into the way that places, including movie theaters, are represented in them.

"New Picture Show for Colored People" Greensboro Daily News, in The North Carolina Collection, Wilson LIbrary, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

We noted every place identified as a "colored" or "negro" venue. Every resident of every town listed in a city directory in North Carolina in the early decades of the twentieth century is also identified by race. By adding to our inventory those black theaters that are listed in annual movie theater surveys published from the 1920s to the 1950s, we were able to assemble the first state-wide catalog of all known black theaters in operation prior to the desegregation of white theaters in the South in the early 1960s. In many cases, we were also able to identify the race of the theater's proprietor or manager.

By assembling all this information about the places North Carolinians encountered movies in the early twentieth century, "Going to the Show" enables users to ask a wide range of questions about moviegoing, the social, cultural, and racial geography of early twentieth-century N.C., and the historical development of towns and cities.

Some 100 towns and cities in North Carolina were mapped by the Sanborn ® Map Company from 1896 to 1922. Movie theaters appear on more than 150 individual map pages in this date range. These maps help us answer important questions that directories cannot help us with. For example:

"Nash Street at Night, Wilson, N.C." Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
See Also: "Broad Street, Dunn, North Carolina"

Because the North Carolina Collection possesses all the Sanborn ® map sets produced for a given town or city from 1896 to 1922 (usually at four- or five-year intervals), it is possible to see how downtowns evolved in many North Carolina communities around the turn of the century and how movie theaters became a key downtown social and cultural institution. Sanborn ® map sets also allow us to see that in almost every case, early movie theaters in North Carolina were located in spaces that had been "repurposed": what appears on a 1904 map as a grocery, clothing, or hardware store appears on the 1912 map for the same block as the Bijou or Regal theater. We can also see how theaters expanded, how and where competition emerged, and where and when the first buildings were constructed specifically to be used as movie theaters.

The critical connection between the experience of moviegoing and the experience of downtown informs our display of the data contained in "Going to the Show." We stitched together individual map pages showing the downtown of a given city to form a full, seamless representation of these areas. By aligning the composite maps with their coordinates in space, we were then able to superimpose them over contemporary satellite and map images. In most cases, the Bijou and the Regal have long since closed as moviegoing has relocated to the suburban mall, but "Going to the Show" reveals that in many cases, the downtown buildings in which North Carolinians saw their first movies have survived, their important role in the cultural history of the town now exposed as if from excavated layers in an archaeological dig.

Our state-wide inventory of the places associated with moviegoing in early twentieth-century North Carolina is broad in geographic scope but necessarily limited in the detail it can represent about that experience in any given place. Commercial theaters are more likely to be documented on Sanborn® maps and in city directories than other places movies were shown. To rely only upon these sources would overlook the hundreds of other places North Carolinians encountered movies from 1906 to 1930: amusement parks, YMCAs, seasonal open-air venues, social clubs, etc. From 1896 and the advent of commercial movie theaters beginning in 1906, occasional film exhibitions were given in opera houses, on vacant lots, as a part of street carnivals, and in other locations that were not documented in city directories or on Sanborn® maps. Black theaters are noted in city directories and on Sanborn® maps, but they don't tell us what the racial policies of white theaters would have been.

Sanborn® Map for Wilmington 1915, housed in the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC

As useful as Sanborn® maps and city directories are in revealing the social geography of any particular downtown, their capacity to represent social experience from a century ago is limited, especially where the landscape of that experience is divided, fenced, and gated according to race, and in ways that usually don't result in marks on a map. They tell us little about what going to the show might have meant for a farm family in town to sell their tobacco; for the young cotton mill worker living in a mill village on the outskirts of town with a dime in her pocket to spend on a show and a bag of peanuts; or for the black carpenter and his children who have to climb the outside stairs of the theater to reach the balcony and for whom the concession stand and restrooms are strictly off-limits.

Hard as we might try, we can't reconstitute that experience. But in trying to understand it better, we can draw upon other sources that provide additional historical perspectives and different angles of vision. The extent and availability of these additional sources influenced our decision to focus on Wilmington as the site of our first fine-grain study of moviegoing in early twentieth-century North Carolina.

We benefited greatly from the extraordinary documentary resources that have been developed by the New Hanover County Public Library, including the Reaves Collection, a massive archive of newspaper clippings on every aspect of everyday life in Wilmington from the nineteenth century through the 1940s. We also drew upon the library's extensive photographic documentation of early twentieth-century Wilmington.

These materials illuminate a rich and fascinating urban history. Wilmington was the state's largest city in 1900 with some 25,000 inhabitants, nearly half of them African Americans. It was also the state's principal port and a major southeastern rail hub. As a result, Wilmington's white population was more socially, religiously, and ethnically diverse than any other city in the state. Unusual for cities in North Carolina, Wilmington had a commercial theater in operation more or less continuously since before the Civil War. Wilmington has a keen sense of its own architectural history, and many of the downtown buildings erected around the turn of the century survive. Wilmington was the site of a political insurrection by white supremacists in 1898, the repercussions of which were felt across the south. Wilmington also occupies a significant place in the state's film history. The Bijou was one of the first movie theaters in the state and its longest-operating movie theater (1906-1956). One of the first black movie theaters in the state operated here. Since the 1980s, Wilmington has been a major film and television production center. Fine-grain studies of other communities are needed before we can determine which patterns of film exhibition and moviegoing found in Wilmington can be seen elsewhere—in North Carolina, the South, and the country as a whole. If our case study of Wilmington demonstrates anything about cultural history, it is that all cultural history is local. Similar forces might be at work across a region or a state, similar issues might arise, localities are connected through national and international networks, but the experience of culture, including the experience of cinema, unfolds as particular groups of people in particular places interact at particular moments within the environments they inhabit. We hope that our Wilmington case study might encourage the development of others.

The Wilmington case study is an exercise in spatial and historical unfolding. "Wilmington's First Movie Theater: the Bijou, 1906-07" is organized around the historical moment in which it can be said that moviegoing first became a social and cultural practice in Wilmington. Using newspaper ads and articles, photographs, postcards, and first-hand recollections, we attempt to suggest something of the character of Bijou experience in its first few months of operation, and how moviegoing there was situated in the experience of the downtown world around that simple tent theater.

"The Wilmington Moviegoing Timeline" represents movie exhibition in Wilmington as it unfolded in time, from the first documented experience of cinema in Wilmington in 1897 to the closing of the Bijou in 1956. Every place people experienced movies in Wilmington (of which we can find documentation) is profiled, the people associated with its establishment and initial operation identified, the size and nature of the space involved described, and its history (as recorded in local newspapers) chronicled. We also attempt to establish the racial admission policy of each venue. We then array these profiles and their accompanying documentation across a time line.

Explore the Joyland Ledger Expenses & Receipts

Courtesy of The Cape Fear Museum of Science and History

We also take advantage of two special types of historical artifacts produced as a consequence of film exhibition in Wilmington. We have used a manager's ledger (preserved by the Cape Fear Museum of Science and History) from a 1910 storefront theater, the Joyland, to illuminate the daily operations of an early movie theater in Wilmington. At the other end of the historical timeline, we examine the original architectural drawings of the Bailey Theater, one of the last movie theaters to be built in downtown Wilmington (1940). Hendersonville-based architect Erle Stillwell, who also designed thirty-three other movie theaters in North Carolina during his long career, designed the Bailey. Samples of drawings for all of Stillwell's North Carolina theaters are incorporated in "Going to the Show."

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, NC.

The Wilmington case study is also an exploration of the challenges involved in trying to represent the experience of cinema in any community at any point in the past. Newspaper ads and articles provide only fleeting glimpses of the places people experienced movies at one moment in time. Most of Wilmington's early theaters were never photographed. Few people recorded their experiences there. Most white movie theaters did not specifically advertise their racial admission policies—especially if they excluded black patrons entirely—and we have had to infer these practices from what we can tell about the theater's architecture and from common practices in similar locations. We do not have the recorded experiences of the thousands of African Americans who were turned away from movie theaters in Wilmington from 1897 to the mid-1960s. Black theaters in Wilmington (and elsewhere in North Carolina) typically did not advertise in white newspapers, and there are no extant black newspapers to chronicle their operations. The tragic irony is that in 1898 Wilmington boasted the state's only daily black newspaper, the Daily Record. Its printing press, offices, and archives were all destroyed by a white mob on November 10, 1898. Only a few torn and tattered pages from a few issues of the paper survive.