Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Carolina Theater, Chapel Hill, N.C. 1942

Stillwell designed the Carolina Theater in Chapel Hill for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the name used by the Wilby-Kincey chain of theaters for their properties in North Carolina. The Carolina was located at 108 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill's main commercial thoroughfare, near the intersection with Columbia Street. Situated in the piedmont region of the state twenty miles east of Raleigh, Chapel Hill was and is a college town: the site of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to the 1940 census, Chapel Hill had 3,652 year-round residents, some thirty percent of whom were African American.

Carolina Theater Elevation, Chapel Hill; Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stillwell began work in November 1941 on drawings for what was to become the Carolina . In his book on Stillwell's drawing, Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchell 2006, p. 123), William Mitchell notes that Stillwell's original design carried over elements from the modernist style he had used for all of his late-1930s movie theaters in North Carolina. He calls the original design for the facade "disjointed": "the right half a stark brick wall holding up a modern marquee, the left a street-friendly building with arched doorways." The interior design called for modern elements as well, including curved walls, which Stillwell had used in a number of other theaters. Over the next three months, however, Stillwell radically revised his plans for the Carolina, making it into "a handsome Colonial Revival building." The marquee was replaced with a porch and columns; dormer windows gave the steep roof a colonial look; and the design called for molded period brickwork to frame display windows. Mitchell notes that the working drawings for the Carolina are lost, and that Stillwell made further revisions.

It is likely that changes in the design for the Carolina were prompted by requirements imposed by the Town of Chapel Hill on new construction on the town's main street, Franklin Street. An article in the Chapel Hill Weekly published shortly before the theater's opening in the fall of 1942 specifically indicates that the facade of the Carolina was "re-designed . . . to fit in with the plan to have buildings of Colonial design in the business section. E. Carrington Smith, the manager, cooperated with the Town Planning Commission in this project." ("New Theatre to Open Oct. 16," Chapel Hill Weekly, September 4, 1942)

Carolina Theater Women's Toilet, Chapel Hill; Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Patrons entered the theater through its covered porch and exterior ticket lobby, passing through a double-door vestibule into the foyer. Toilets were located on a mezzanine level. Reflecting the predominantly male student population at the university until the 1960s and the theater's primary clientele, the men's toilet was much larger than the women's, although there was a small "powder room" adjacent to the women's toilet. The Carolina accommodated 1,141 moviegoers in its auditorium. It had a shallow stage, but no other amenities for live entertainment (dressing rooms, fly loft, etc.)

With no balcony and no other provision for segregated spaces in the theater, the Carolina was not designed for the admission of African Americans under the terms of Jim Crow segregation—at least for the same screenings at which white patrons would be present.

Construction of the Carolina began a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States in World War II (December 1941). By June of 1942, the building was eighty-five percent complete when construction was halted by the imposition of war-time regulations halting the building of places of public entertainment. Permission was granted to finish the project, and it was completed in October, 1942, a month later than originally scheduled. ("The New Theatre," Chapel Hill Weekly, June 12, 1942).

The Carolina opened its doors on Thursday, October 15, 1942. It joined two other theaters in town also operated by North Carolina Theatres, Inc.: the Pickwick and another theater called the Carolina. The latter had been built in 1926 and was located across the street at 123 East Franklin Street. With the opening of the "new" Carolina, the older theater was renamed the Village and later became the Varsity. Sadly, the Varsity Theatre was set to close in June, 2009.

By the fall of 1942, Chapel Hill's population had swelled not only by students returning to fall classes but also by military personnel enrolled in the naval pre- flight school. Opening ceremonies were officiated by Robert B. House, then Dean of Administration for the Chapel Hill campus of the university. Also participating were Chapel Hill Mayor R.W. Madry and H.F. Kincey, general manager of North Carolina Theatres, Inc. It was announced that the Carolina would present five shows daily, beginning at one p.m., with admission price set at 33 cents. ("New Theatre Is Open," Chapel Hill Weekly, October 16, 1942).

Chapel Hill's Carolina Theater was the last of Stillwell's North Carolina movie houses to open before the full impact of wartime regulations and material shortages hit the U.S. construction industry. This development also led to Stillwell's decision to join with five architects in Asheville, N.C., to form a larger practice, Six Associates, that would be more competitive in seeking military and related government projects. Between 1942 and 1945, Stillwell would work on preliminary designs for a few movie theaters, but none would be built until after the war's end.

Protests outside the Carolina Theater, Roland Giduz Photograph, North Carolina Photographic Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In the winter of 1961, the Carolina became a focal point for efforts to de- segregate local businesses. When African Americans were denied the opportunity to see the film Porgy and Bess —which featured an all-black cast—on the same basis as white patrons, civil rights groups in Chapel Hill launched a protest campaign. Within a few weeks, picketing also began in front of the other downtown theater, the Varsity.

E. Carrington Smith, who had served as the Carolina's manager since its opening in 1942, refused to negotiate with community groups urging the integration of local theaters on the grounds that white patrons would refuse to sit with blacks. Protest organizers suspended picketing in April 1961 after meeting with William Enloe, the regional manager for North Carolina Theatres, Inc. Enloe, who had been the first manager of the Stillwell-designed Ambassador Theater, was at the time also mayor of Raleigh. The organizers left the meeting believing that Enloe would work toward de-segregation of the Carolina over the coming months.

When classes resumed at the university in the fall of 1961, the Carolina quietly implemented a "limited" integration plan by agreeing to admit African Americans university students. As there were very few such students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1960s, this plan had little effect except to further anger thousands of non-student African American residents of Chapel Hill. This move also prompted the university's student government to pass a resolution urging both theaters to open admission to all and on the same basis. Picketing of the theaters resumed.

In December 1961, the Varsity, which was not operated by North Carolina Theatres, Inc., quietly implemented full desegregation. The Carolina followed suit in March 1962. (Payne 2005), (Gomery 1992)

In 1971, the Carolina was divided into two screens. In the 1990s, it re- opened as a single-screen cinema. The lobby area on Franklin Street was turned into a storefront, and the theater entrance relocated to the back of the building. The Carolina closed in July 2005. In 2009, the interior of the building was gutted and work begun to convert it to retail space. The Varsity also closed in 2009. For the first time in a century, there is no movie theater in operation on Franklin Street.

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