Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Newspaper Articles and Advertisements

Contemporaneous newspaper articles and ads from selected towns and cities have been and continue to be gathered from microfilm copies in the North Carolina Collection to illustrate the ways that moviegoing and movie venues were represented in the local press. These documents reflect the process through which moviegoing became established as a social practice and movie venues as business, cultural, and social institutions in North Carolina communities from 1896 to 1922. Ads reflect theater managers' appeals to local audiences, attempts to allay moral and cultural concerns regarding movies and moviegoing, strategies for aligning moviegoing with civic, cultural, and religious priorities, and attempts to create competitive advantage (more comfortable surroundings, more frequent change of film program, live acts, etc.). Articles note theater openings and closings, management changes, special attractions, and the occasional newsworthy events occurring in and around local movie theaters (fires, in particular). We have attempted to reproduce these documents to suggest the contexts within which they would have been encountered by local readers at the time. The size and position of the ad or article on the page are retained to the extent permitted by the technology of reproduction and the need to produce a clear and legible image. It is instructive, we think, to read not only theater ads and notices but also the surrounding editorial and advertising matter. Newspapers of the early 20th century represent a unique window into everyday life in local communities. On a daily basis they form and constantly reform a mosaic of observations, opinion, interests, and concerns, of which movie theaters, movies, and moviegoing were all a part.

Our searches through these hundreds of thousands of pages are hardly comprehensive or exhaustive. A more complete search will be possible after more local newspapers have been digitized and made searchable. But even with technologically facilitated searches that would (theoretically at least) retrieve every mention of a given theater across every issue of a newspaper across decades of daily or weekly editions, we would be struck by the relative sparsity of newspaper real estate devoted to advertising and editorial coverage of early movie theaters and moviegoing. The earliest movie theaters in North Carolina were treated as what they were: new business ventures, not all that different from the hardware stores or dress shops that they might have replaced on Main Street and next door to which they operated. Especially in small towns with only one movie theater in operation at any given time, the incentive to spend precious funds on newspaper advertising was small. Film programs changed frequently (three times per week was not uncommon), and few films stayed around long enough to warrant paid promotion. Advertising the existence or location of an early movie theater was unnecessary: invariably located on or within a block of the town's main street, it was passed by everyone who went to town to shop, bank, eat, or worship. Many theaters did not regularly advertise until the advent of the feature film in the 1910s, when a theater's attraction was focused on a single film, and when advertising material was produced by Hollywood distributors for reproduction in local papers.

As movie theaters and moviegoing became parts of the experience of everyday downtown life, they faded even further into the reportorial landscape, seldom warranting a reporter or editor's attention unless something unusual happened: a fire (not uncommon in an age of highly flammable film stock and intensely hot open-flamed light sources), public disturbance, or managerial or structural change. The line between advertising and editorial matter in early 20th-century newspapers was seldom observed, and theater managers routinely attempted to attract (positive) notice to their programs. Religious subjects were frequently touted, and the cooperation of local clergy was routinely sought and proclaimed in the local press.

Clippings from the Reaves Collection

Many of the newspaper ads and articles for Wilmington are clippings that have been digitized from the Bill Reaves Collection in the North Carolina Room of the New Hanover County (N.C.) Public Library. William H. (Bill) Reaves (1934-2000) was a librarian and reporter for the Wilmington Star-News, as well as a local historian and prolific author of books and articles on the history of the Lower Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In the 1970s, he saved most of the contents of the newspaper's clippings "morgue" from destruction, and took custody of the collection himself. In the 1990s, he donated the collection to the New Hanover County Public Library. It comprises some 9000 folders of clippings on area families, buildings, individuals, and subjects, including folders devoted to all movie theaters in Wilmington in operation from 1906 through the 1970s. All of the many thousands of individual clippings relating to Wilmington movie theaters and moviegoing have been reviewed for inclusion in Going to the Show, and several hundred were selected. They include ads and articles from the Wilmington Star (the predecessor to the Star-News), as well as material from other newspapers that are represented in the Reaves Collection.