Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Broadway Theater, Fayetteville, N.C. 1950

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, NC.

Stillwell designed the Broadway Theater in Fayetteville for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the name used by the Wilby-Kincey chain of theaters for their properties in North Carolina. The Broadway was located at 215 Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville. Located southwest of Raleigh on the state's coastal plain, in 1941 Fayetteville was a city of 17,500 residents, approximately forty percent of whom were African American. Fayetteville's modern history has been shaped by the presence of nearby Fort Bragg. Originally established during World War I as a small artillery training camp, Fort Bragg expanded dramatically after the entry of the U.S. in World War II in late 1941. At the height of the war, more than 150,000 soldiers were stationed there. The area continued to grow after World War II. At the time the Broadway Theater opened in 1950, Cumberland County (of which Fayetteville was the county seat and principal urban center) had 96,000 residents.

The Broadway project was the complete rebuilding of an existing movie theater that had been in operation on the same site since the 1910s. In 1915 H.T. Drake converted a dime store into a storefront movie theater at 215 Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville and called it the Broadway. The Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1914 still shows the site as a dime store. The building housing the Broadway was a typical commercial building of the early twentieth century: narrow (only thirty feet) but deep (110 feet) and three and one-half stories tall. North Carolina Theatres, Inc., took over operation of the Broadway in 1926.

Stillwell became involved in the project in late 1948, when North Carolina Theatres, Inc., decided to demolish the old building housing the Broadway and rebuilt a theater on the site. The "old" Broadway closed on November 30, 1949.

As was the case with several other projects Stillwell worked on with North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the challenge here was fitting a new theater into an existing downtown footprint, with existing buildings on either side. Given the relatively small size of the Broadway's footprint, plans called for the seating capacity to remain the same- 575 seats.

An article announcing the opening of the theater detailed a number of improvements Stillwell's design brought to the Broadway. Its first paragraph disclosed that a new balcony "for Negro patrons" had been added. New construction had made the building "completely fireproof." Air conditioning had been added along with upgraded sound equipment. The interior was decorated in coral, light green, and brown. "Huge floral designs decorate the walls and ceiling- sketches, the artist says, of an Australian water-lily." The Broadway was to feature two sets of "spacious" rest rooms: those for the white patrons on the mezzanine floor and "similar facilities" for African Americans were located "just off the stairway leading to the balcony." The new Broadway, the paper said, would not be "gaudy or ornate," but rather "startling in its simplicity," achieving "beauty through its use of color and design" (Fayetteville Observer, July 3, 1950, p. 6).

Section of Floor Plan First and Balcony Floor Plans- Broadway Fayetteville, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, NC.
See Also: Floor Plan Mezzanine, Front Elevation- Broadway Fayetteville

The article's praise of the Broadway's simplicity might well have been a reflection of the fact that as a small theater intended as a second-run and B- list house by its owners, the Broadway did not warrant a large budget for its reconstruction and upgrade. For the narrow facade of the Broadway, Stillwell returned to the modernist style he had employed on most of his theaters since the late 1930s. Rather than a free-standing box office positioned in the center of an exterior ticket lobby, Stillwell placed the Broadway's box office on one side of the lobby, adjacent to the side door through which African Americans entered the theater. A single box office attendant could sell tickets to both audiences without whites and blacks having to line up together. Stillwell included a detailed drawing of the box office.

This is not the only box office Stillwell designed to serve both white and black patrons. Among his drawings is this detail for another such box office, in this case showing ticket windows placed directly across from each other and serviced by a single attendant thanks to a swiveling stool.

Front Elevation- Broadway Fayetteville, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, NC.

White patrons entered through a double door vestibule into a small foyer, and from there into the 374-seat auditorium. The Broadway had no provisions for live performance. Above the vestibule and foyer was the mezzanine level. Stairs from the foyer took white patrons to a lounge, toilet, and cosmetic room. A separate area on the mezzanine level contained smaller toilet amenities for African Americans, accessible only via the side stairs.

The balcony was served by two stairways: one leading from the white mezzanine lounge, the other from stairs on the opposite side leading from the African American entrance. The crossover at the top of the stairs divided the balcony into an upper and lower level, which could have also served to divide the space by race (as was the case in some other Stillwell theaters), but the newspaper article referenced above would seem to suggest that the initial plan, at least, called for the entire balcony to be seating for African Americans.