Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Carolina Theater, Lexington, N.C. 1948

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stillwell designed the Carolina Theater in Lexington, N.C., for Wilby-Kincey, the regional chain of movie theaters for which he had designed dozens of theaters over the previous decade. The Carolina was located at 217 S. Main Street in downtown Lexington. The county seat of Davidson County, Lexington is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, thirty miles south of Winston-Salem. A textile and furniture manufacturing town, in 1948 Lexington had approximately 13,500 residents, eight percent of whom were African American.

Stillwell's firm began work on plans for the Carolina in April 1947. In December 1945 the building in which the "old" Carolina was located- the largest in Lexington- was partially destroyed by fire. Dan Austell, who had arrived in Lexington only a few days before to become the Carolina's manager, found himself without a theater. He negotiated with the local high school to show movies in its auditorium- an arrangement that lasted from March 1946 until the opening of the "new" Carolina on its old site in December 1948. ("Manager in Home After Three Year Wait," Lexington Dispatch, December 11, 1948)

Section of Elevations & Other Details - Lexington Carolina Theater, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stillwell's plans called for a complete renovation and expansion of the site. The Carolina's downtown footprint was limited by surrounding commercial buildings. As Stillwell had done in his design for the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh, he made the long, narrow storefront space facing South Main Street into an extended entry passage. He placed the box office near the sidewalk in front of a deep exterior ticket lobby. A double- door vestibule led to a foyer and large concession stand. Beyond the lobby, the Carolina opened into a space the full width of the lot behind the storefronts (65 feet). The auditorium seated 779 moviegoers. The Carolina featured a deep stage (27 feet), complete with fly loft and dressings rooms beneath the stage.

Central stairs from the "standee" lobby at the rear of the auditorium led to a large mezzanine with another lounge and toilet facilities. Here also were a dressing room for ushers and (a first for a N.C. Stillwell theater) a popcorn storage room. One level beyond lay a balcony with more than 400 additional seats.

For the Carolina Stillwell designed the most elaborate and elaborately segregated facilities for African Americans of any of his North Carolina theaters. African American patrons would have entered the Carolina through a separate door on the far right side of the ticket lobby.

Inside, stairs led to a separate mezzanine, which Stillwell had stacked on top of the ticket lobby, vestibule, and concession lobby below. Here was a second box office and separate amenities for African Americans: a (smaller) lounge, concession stand, and toilets.

Stairs from the African American mezzanine led to the balcony. A newspaper article published two days prior to the Carolina's opening highlighted the "fine facilities" provided for African American patrons. The lobby was "lavishly furnished," it claimed. "It is expected that the Negro balcony with its 204 seats, will have capacity audiences." ("Negro Patrons Provided with Fine Facilities," Lexington Dispatch, December 12, 1948, p. 3). Plans for the theater show access to the balcony via stairs from the white mezzanine level.

Another article published the next day pointed out that E.H. Geisler of the Wilby-Kincey organization had supervised the furnishing and decorating of the theater. He boasted that the "facilities for Negro patrons of the new Carolina are decidedly the finest in the entire South." After describing the "ultra- modern" features of the Carolina, the article noted that "Similar facilities are provided for the Negro section, where a special box office, concession stand, roomy lobby and lounges are provided. Negro entrance is at the right." ("Most Modern Equipment and Materials Used Throughout New Carolina Theatre," Lexington Dispatch, December 12, 1948).

Newspaper coverage of the Carolina's opening also provides details about the theater's style. The narrow facade of the Carolina does not appear particularly impressive in the elevation drawing, showing another variation on the spare, modern style Stillwell had relied upon for a decade. However, the Lexington Dispatch remarked on the "glittering marquee," with its hundreds of lights set against a building front "faced with Moi-Sai stone in tones of green and coral, depicting the general color scheme of the building interior." In the auditorium "the graceful fleur de lys is the key to the interior decor." The foyer and lounges featured "comfortable chairs and sofas, handsome lamps, silver-framed mirrors in harmony with the silver trim at doorways." ("Most Modern Equipment and Materials Used Throughout New Carolina Theatre," Lexington Dispatch, December 12, 1948)

Opening day festivities were also elaborate. Wilby-Kincey had arranged for the first film shown in the new Carolina Theater to be a "world premiere" of the latest Bob Hope comedy, "The Paleface." A parade preceded the opening of the box office led by the Dairy Bowl Queens and the newly crowned Mr. and Miss Lexington High School- all of whom rode in open cars accompanied by the Boyden High School Band. When they arrived at the theater, the parade court distributed souvenir programs "to the first night theatre-goers." While the band continued to play for the throng assembled in front of the theater, local radio station WBUY interviewed some of them. The station also carried live coverage of the dedication ceremony, with speeches from manager Austell and Lexington Mayor Cloyd Philpott. By 1948 Lexington was already becoming famous in the region for its barbeque (pit-cooked pork). Walter Stamey, Lexington's most prominent barbeque entrepreneur, provided the pre-parade supper. ("New Theatre Opens Monday," Lexington Dispatch, December 12, 1948).

The Carolina closed in the late 1970s, but reopened a few years later as the Edward C. Smith Civic Center. It still serves this role in 2009. The marquee was eventually taken down, but a portion of the facade still stands.