Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Bailey Theater, Wilmington, N.C. 1940

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Bailey Theater was designed for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the name used by the Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its properties in North Carolina. The Bailey was located at 16 North Front Street in downtown Wilmington. The lot was purchased as a site for a movie theater by George W. Bailey, who had managed several theaters in Wilmington since arriving in the city in 1915 from Asheville to manage the Academy of Music. He also managed the Royal and Carolina theaters. Bailey died in July 1940, a few months prior to the opening of the theater that bore his name for another forty years. The history of movie theaters in Wilmington is extensively documented in "Going to the Show."

New Bailey Theater Opens Here Monday, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

When Wilmington's first movie theater, the Bijou), opened in 1906, Wilmington was the state's largest city with some 25,000 residents. By the time the Bailey opened in December 1940, however, Wilmington's population was still less than 35,000. Charlotte, which had been the second largest city at the turn of the century, now had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Approximately forty percent of Wilmington's population was African American-a proportion that had not changed significantly in the intervening 34 years.

The Bailey was built to accommodate more than 1200 moviegoers: 818 in the auditorium and 387 in the balcony. Stillwell's design for the exterior followed now-familiar modern design principles, with strong vertical elements arrayed about the entrance and a marquee set against horizontal bands. A large upright (vertical sign) spelling out "Bailey" protruded from the facade so that it would be visible for several blocks up and down Front Street.

The building he planned for the Bailey also included space for two storefronts, as did those he had designed for several previous clients. Somewhat unusually, however, they were placed together on one side of the first floor of the property, with the theater's entrance located on the other side (shown on left of the elevation drawing).

White patrons purchased their tickets in the exterior box office lobby and then passed through two sets of doors into a foyer before entering from the rear of the auditorium. The Bailey was designed to accommodate both films and live performances, with a full stage, fly loft (for hanging scenery, lights, and rigging equipment above the stage), and dressing rooms. The modernistic style of the Bailey carried over into the auditorium, particularly in the curved side walls.

Stairs led from the foyer to the mezzanine with men's and women's lounges and toilets. Center stairs led to the lower balcony.

Stillwell segregated the space of the Bailey by race. A separate exterior entrance, shown to the left of the main box office lobby in the elevation drawing, led to a mezzanine level box office (physically and visually separated from the white mezzanine) and to the upper balcony. The upper balcony was separated by a half wall from the lower balcony, which was reserved for whites.

The Bailey opened on Monday, December 23, 1940. The Wilmington Star-News proclaimed that the opening of the Bailey marked "a new era in entertainment for the city of Wilmington." The grand opening ceremonies began with a parade, with local dignitaries arriving at the theater to officially open the box office, which, the paper noted, was made entirely of stainless steel. As had become customary when a Wilby-Kincey theater opened in North Carolina, the mayor was on hand to "receive" the theater on behalf of the people of Wilmington from the Bailey's manager. R.B. Wilby and H. F. Kincey were in attendance, as well.

Much of the paper's supplementary coverage of the theater's opening was recycled from press releases that had been prepared by North Carolina Theatres, Inc., for other theaters they had built in the late 1930s. Articles on the theater's construction, safety, air-conditioning, and the role of movies in American life are only slightly changed from earlier articles in newspapers in Charlotte, Concord, and High Point published on the eve of the opening of Stillwell theaters there. The Wilmington Star-News did provide information on the color scheme of the Bailey, the key tones of which were pastel rose, green, and pink. A photo appearing in the following day's paper shows the crowd assembling in front of the Bailey for the opening festivities.

The Bailey operated until 1980. After it closed, plans were put forward to demolish the theater and replace it with a parking lot. Historic preservation groups mounted a campaign to save the modernistic building, but managed only to get the developers to agree to preserve its facade and marquee. The marquee was eventually taken down, but a portion of the facade still stands.

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