Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Carolina Theater, Wilson, N.C. 1939

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Carolina Theater in Wilson, N.C., was built for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the company used by the Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its North Carolina operations. In 1939, Wilson was a city of some 23,000 residents, nearly half of whom were African American. It was the county seat of rural Wilson County (population approximately 50,000) and located some fifty miles from Raleigh in the coastal plain of North Carolina.

North Carolina Theatres, Inc., sought prime downtown locations for the theaters they built in North Carolina cities. The Carolina in Wilson was located at 129 S. Goldsboro Street, "in the heart of Wilson." ("Theatre Will Be Dedicated Thurs.," Wilson Daily Times, November 21, 1939, p. 2)

Front Elevation- Carolina Wilson, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

North Carolina Theatres, Inc., frequently used the "Carolina" name for its top-of-the-line theaters in North Carolina. However, Wilson's Carolina Theater did not command the budget or architectural elaboration of other Carolina theater projects Stillwell worked on in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was advertised as "the state's finest, most modern low-priced theatre," charging only twenty cents for adults and ten cents for children. (Wilson Daily Times, November 18, 1939).

The Carolina in Wilson was built for both films and live performance, with a full stage and three dressing rooms. At 61 feet wide and 74 feet from the back row to the footlights, the 700-seat first-floor seating area was shallower than the other theaters Stillwell had designed, reflecting the building's downtown footprint with existing buildings adjacent on both sides.

Press accounts of Stillwell's previous North Carolina theater, the Center in High Point, trumpeted its large and lavishly decorated lobbies on both the first floor and mezzanine- public areas that took up some forty percent of the total interior floor space.

Section of Basement and First Floor Plan- Carolina Wilson, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Carolina in Wilson, in contrast, had much smaller and more modest amenities. The exterior ticket lobby led to a small tiled vestibule. Beyond it was a shallow (10 feet) foyer running the width of the auditorium separated from the back row of seats by a standee rail and half wall. For female patrons there was a small cosmetic room off the lobby and only a single toilet stall. Men's toilet facilities adjoined it. There was no mezzanine.

Stillwell designed a 300-seat balcony for the Carolina. As William Mitchell notes in his Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Hendersonville, N.C. Friends of the Henderson County Public Library, 2006, p. 126) Stillwell provided access to the balcony via stairs leading from an entrance and box office some distance from the main box office lobby. The secondary entrance and box office are clearly indicated on the front elevation drawing. As Mitchell points out, they are made "unusually prominent" as a result of the vertical Art Deco treatment above them. The balcony was also accessible via stairs leading from the main box office lobby on the other side of the theater.

Section of Balcony Floor Plan- Carolina Wilson , Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

These design features taken together suggest that the Carolina's balcony had seating for both African American and white patrons: the former accessing the balcony (but not other parts of the interior of the theater) through the secondary entrance and stairway, the latter via the main box office lobby and stairs on the opposite side of the building. The balcony seating area is divided into two sections separated by an aisle and pipe rail. The upper section (probably reserved for African Americans) was bisected by the projection booth. Stillwell had designed two-section balconies with separate access in several previous theaters (Ambassador, Raleigh; Center, Durham; Center, Rocky Mount). Whether the balcony was actually employed in this fashion, however, is difficult to determine. The box office, stairway, and balcony toilets are not labeled "colored" as these features were on plans for some other theaters. Newspaper articles and ads accompanying the opening of the theater make no mention of a racial admission policy or the provision of separate seating or facilities for African Americans.

The facade of the Carolina was designed in a simplified Art Deco style. The marquee used blue and green neon tubes to spell out "Carolina."

The Carolina opened on Thursday, November 23, 1939. The dedication ceremony followed what had become a familiar pattern for the new theaters Stillwell designed in North Carolina for Wilby-Kincey: the mayor (in this case William M. Daniel) "officially receiving the theatre on behalf of the people of Wilson." ("New Carolina's Gala Opening on November 23rd," Wilson Daily Times, November 18, 1939)

As was also customary, the local press heaped praise upon the theater's design and amenities: "Among the beautifully decorated surroundings are many modern innovations, including outstanding features such as spring-edge upholstered seats, finished in soft shades of red and green, convenient and completely equipped lounging and rest rooms, and a large, colorfully draped stage." ("Theatre Will Be Dedicated Thurs.," Wilson Daily Times, November 21, 1939) In "presenting" the Carolina to the people of Wilson, its new manager, Ervin Stone, said that it not only represented the "ultimate in theatres," but also signaled his company's "faith in Wilson, its future, and its people." ("Mayor Daniel Accepts the Beautiful Carolina," Wilson Daily Times," November 24, 1939)