Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Center Theater, Greensboro, N.C. 1949

The Center Theater in Greensboro was located downtown at 117 S. Elm Street. A textile manufacturing center and the county seat of Guil ford County, in 1949 Greensboro was the third largest city in the state with 74,000 residents, some thirteen percent of whom were African American.

Movie theaters had occupied the site at 117 S. Elm Street since 1914, when the Piedmont Theater opened there, presenting vaudeville and motion pictures. In 1919, it was remodeled and opened as the Victory Theater . In 1921, the theater was renamed again, this time as the Imperial.

The drawings, which do not indicate the name of the client, were updated and revised the plans numerous times from 1946 to 1949. The footprint Stillwell had to work with was only forty feet wide, but it was 150 feet deep. The entrance to the theater was just nineteen feet wide, leaving room for an adjacent storefront, occupied at the time of the theater's opening in August 1949 by Bine's Jewelers.

For the facade design, Stillwell returned to the spare, modern look he had used on nearly all of the North Carolina theaters he worked on from 1938 to 1942.

Past the exterior box office lobby and double-door vestibule, white patrons entered a modest lobby. An ad for the Center at the time of its opening lists among the features of the theater a "modern concession stand" in the theater lobby, although this is not labeled as such on the first floor drawing. Beyond the foyer was the 450 seats on the floor level. the Center had a shallow stage, but no other provisions for live entertainment.

A central stairway led to the mezzanine where white toilet facilities were located. Above it was a balcony with an additional 310 seats.

Stillwell designed the Center with segregated spaces that could be used to "accommodate" African Americans. A second entrance was located in the box office lobby side the main doors. This led past the mezzanine and up to the balcony. Seating in the balcony was divided into upper and lower sections, although there was no physical barrier between them.

Street view of South Elm, Greensboro N.C., Courtesy of the Greensboro Historical Museum

The Center opened on August 1, 1949. Mayor Ben Cone was on hand to sell the first ticket and roses were handed out to the first female patrons. Carl Dobbins was the Center's first manager. ("New Center Opens Monday," Greensboro Daily News, July 31, 1949, p. 5).

This photograph, taken in 1965, shows the Center Theater's "upright": the vertical signage frequently used atop theater marquees. It also shows that theaters were not the only downtown businesses to use uprights.

An article in the Greensboro News and Record from 1993 notes that the Center fell on hard times in the 1970s, "when it was reduced to showing martial arts and X-rated movies." It closed in October 1981, ending a sixty-seven-year run as a cinema venue. In 1993, the theater's entrance and lobby areas were remodeled as a gourmet coffee store and cafe. (Scism 1993, p. D-1)

In 2009, the building was being used as a nightclub. The marquee has been covered with other signage, but its underlying structure is the same. The upright (which would have been attached to the stone section of the facade on the left) has been removed. The buildings on either side are probably those shown in the 1919 Sanborn map view, when this was the site of the Victory Theater.

Current Google street view of Center location:

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