Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

The Ambassador Theater, Raleigh, N.C. 1938

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Ambassador Theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, was Erle Stillwell's fourth movie theater project in North Carolina. When the theater opened in 1938, Raleigh, the state's capital, had approximately 46,000 residents, some 34% of whom were African Americans. The Ambassador was one of the largest and most elaborate theaters Stillwell would design. The Ambassador was built by N.C. Theaters, Inc., the company the Wilby-Kincey theater chain used for their theater operations in the state. The entrance to the theater was located at 115 Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, less than a block away from the State Capitol Building. It extended through the block to South Wilmington Street. The Ambassador was designed for movies and live performances, and featured a full stage, fly lofts, and six dressing rooms.

The 1477-seat theater was named in honor of Josephus Daniels, who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico when the venue opened. Daniels was also the owner and publisher of one of the state's most important newspapers, the Raleigh News and Observer. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Daniels had used the newspaper to champion the cause of white supremacy and the state's Democratic Party.

An undated photograph shows the alcove at the foot of the stairs leading from the foyer to the mezzanine above.
Image Courtesy of Raleigh City Museum.

The Ambassador was built on the site of an earlier movie theater, the Grand, which operated from 1910 until it burned in January 1928. Thus Stillwell had to work within the footprint of this downtown site and its narrow twenty-foot frontage on Fayetteville Street. The 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance map for Raleigh shows that, like most early movie theaters, the Grand had been "repurposed" from a small retail space—in this case, a tailor's shop. Existing commercial buildings flanked it. Presumably, as the Grand flourished, its proprietors were able to buy the building and expand it across two vacant lots behind, creating a much wider space for the theater's auditorium and allowing the addition of a balcony. This expansion of the site can be clearly seen on the 1914 Sanborn map. This situation was not unusual. Many large downtown movie theaters had narrow frontages on a main commercial thoroughfare: property in any downtown was valued by the frontage foot. Movie theaters could take advantage of the much cheaper land that lay to the rear of downtown commercial buildings- what developers and architects called "backland"— by placing the theater's auditorium, stage, and support facilities there. (Herzog 1980, p.83)

The narrowness of the Ambassador's facade did not give Stillwell much of a design canvas. As William Mitchell notes, he chose a "simplified Art Deco style" using white stucco—a style he would employ in dozens of subsequent theaters throughout the rest of his career as a theater architect. His spare and flat design for the facade of the Ambassador also reflects the importance of the marquee on 1930s movie theaters. The marquee extended the space of the theater well beyond the front of the structure in which it was housed, making it visible to pedestrians and motorists from either direction. Signage on the marquee was illuminated by incandescent or neon lights or a combination of the two, making the theater visible even at night. In addition to advertising the theater itself, marquees also included "attraction boards" along the sides and front, on which current attractions could be displayed using changeable letters. (Mitchell 2006, p. 119); (Herzog 1980, pp. 94-96). On the architectural drawings, Stillwell has noted "marquee by others," suggesting that its design and installation were handled by separate sub-contractors.

This photograph of the Ambassador facade, taken in 1947 clearly shows how visually dominant its marquee was.
Image Courtesy of Raleigh City Museum.

A large mezzanine contained more lobby space, toilets, a women's "cosmetic" lounge and a men's smoking room. Here also was the manager's office, complete with secretarial anteroom.

The Ambassador was the first Stillwell-designed theater in North Carolina to feature air conditioning. As Douglas Gomery notes in his history of movie exhibition in America, early theaters in the South used a system of fans to try to circulate air during the summer months, but many theaters simply closed their doors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Advances in air conditioning technology developed for the Chicago meat-packing industry were adapted for use in movie theaters in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, a more compact and cheaper air conditioning system was developed for use in commercial and public buildings, and was installed in thousands of movie theaters from 1935 to 1942, in an attempt to lure moviegoers back into theaters during the Great Depression. Gomery notes that well into the 1950s--particularly in the South--movie theaters were one of the few places that middle-class and working-class people could go to escape the summer heat for a few hours. (Gomery 1992, pp. 75-76) The Raleigh News and Observer noted that "one of the most important installations that will attract the public to the Ambassador Theatre is its comfortable coolness during the hot summer months . . . the guest entering the new playhouse enters an atmosphere of manufactured weather, a scientifically healthful atmosphere maintained at the ideal condition." ("Even Temperature Assured in Theatre," Raleigh News and Observer, February 20, 1938, p. 6).

As he had done with the Center Theater in Rocky Mount, Stillwell created a racially-divided balcony for the Ambassador: a front section reserved for white patrons and a smaller "colored" balcony behind it. The first floor drawing notes capacities for the theater's three seating areas: auditorium 969; white balcony 272; colored balcony 256. Stillwell also used the same system for segregating black patrons more generally: they entered the theater through a side door and climbed a separate set of stairs to a mezzanine landing where a "colored" box office was located. A further flight of stairs took them to the balcony and toilets. There was also a small room for the use of "colored ushers." The downstairs lobby and main mezzanine, with its lobby, larger toilets, and cosmetic and smoking rooms, were inaccessible and invisible to them. A railing separated the two seating areas in the balcony and prevented black patrons from entering the section reserved for whites. Stillwell's front elevation drawing shows the (unmarked) "colored" entrance to the Ambassador on the other side of the adjoining storefront. Among the forty-seven sheets of drawings Stillwell produced for the Ambassador was one showing a detailed drawing of the "colored box office."

This photograph from the 1940s, taken from the Ambassador's stage, shows the auditorium and balconies, a half wall separating the lower (white) balcony from the upper (African American) area.
Image Courtesy of Raleigh City Museum.

Not surprisingly, Ambassador Daniels's newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, (which he took over again when he gave up his post in Mexico in 1941) gave lavish coverage to the opening of the theater in February 1938: "A vast new world of modern pleasure will be revealed to the movie-going public here tomorrow afternoon at 1 o'clock when the quarter-of-a-million-dollar Ambassador Theatre officially opens its doors to receive its first patrons into its luxurious interior . . . Beyond the attractive entrance into the new theater lies a realm of luxurious elegance matched only by the largest metropolitan picture theatres." The formal dedication ceremony began with a parade from the Wake County Courthouse to the theater, led by Governor Clyde Hoey, Mayor George A. Iseley, and various other local dignitaries. The N.C. State College band accompanied the procession. Hoey accepted "the new place for the State" from W.G. Enloe, the Ambassador's manager. The feature film chosen as the first to play the Ambassador was a musical, "Radio City Revels," starring Bob Burns.

Descriptions of the Ambassador's interior suggest that Stillwell had abandoned the atmospheric style he had employed in his previous two designs ( Rex Theater in Hendersonville and the Center in Rocky Mount.) for a spare, modern style. The walls were "expertly decorated with modernistic designs and colors," illuminated by soft indirect lighting. The vestibule and entry lobby featured "round, octagonal and square mirrors, and a "glistening chromium railing" was used on the main staircase leading to the mezzanine. The ladies' cosmetic room was also "modernistically furnished." The Ambassador had taken nearly a year to build, and operating it would require a staff of twenty-five. An advertisement for the theater's opening listed its "ultra modern innovations," including the latest sound equipment, "finest leather spring-edge upholstered seats," the latest Motiograph projectors, Carrier air conditioning, a "brilliantly illuminated marquee," "modernistically designed plush carpets," and special earphones for the "hard-of-hearing."

This undated photograph (late 1940s) was taken during a cooking demonstration. Piggly Wiggly is a regional grocery chain. It shows the elaborate Art Deco proscenium, wall treatment, and door moldings that Stillwell designed for the Ambassador.
Image Courtesy of Raleigh City Museum.

The Ambassador was "by far" the largest theater in Raleigh. Despite its size and status, however, manager W.G. Enloe announced that "prevailing" local prices were charged: twenty-five cents for matinees and thirty-five cents in the evening. Children were admitted for ten cents at all times. Nowhere in the press coverage of the Ambassador's opening is any mention made of its racial policy. (Raleigh News and Observer, February 20, 1938, p. 6; February 21, 1938, p. 2)

The Ambassador's segregated admission and seating policy lasted for twenty-five years, until May 1963 demonstrations led by students from Shaw University and St. Augustine's College helped to spur integration. It closed in 1979 and was demolished.