Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Center Theater Hickory, N.C. 1941

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Stillwell drawings for the Center Theater in Hickory are labeled "A Theatre for Messrs. E.E. and C.L. Whisnant." The theater was located at 215 First Avenue, N.W., in downtown Hickory. A furniture manufacturing center in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in 1940 Hickory had 13,500 residents, fifteen percent of whom were African American.

The Center was planned for both movies and live performance. There was a full stage with dressing rooms behind. The auditorium accommodated 814 moviegoers and the balcony an additional 192. The front of the theater was some fifty feet wide. For the facade, Stillwell chose the spare, modern style that he had used for all of his North Carolina theaters since 1938.

This 1959 photo shows the small sign that was hung above the door, reading "Entrance to Colored Balcony." The film advertised is a Walt Disney production, Darby O'Gill and the Little People., Courtesy of Don Barker

After purchasing their tickets in the box office lobby, patrons entered the foyer to the left side rather than from the direction of the street. This was unusual for Stillwell theaters. Stairs in the center of the foyer led to a mezzanine, where a lounge, cosmetic room, and toilets were located.

Stillwell designed the Center to allow for the admission of African Americans to segregated spaces within the theater. An entrance to the left of the box office lobby led to a second box office and, beyond it, to stairs up to the balcony.

A second set of toilets was located on the balcony level. It is unclear from the drawings whether the balcony was designed to accommodate both whites and African Americans. There are no physical barriers between sections of the balcony seating as there were in some other Stillwell segregated theaters. However, there was a second set of stairs on the opposite side of the balcony

Local newspapers for this period were not preserved, so information about the theater at the time it opened is not available.

William Mitchell notes in his book Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Reaves 1998, p. 129.) that the Center closed in 1984.

This photo, taken in 1959, shows the exterior of the theater decorated for the run of the film The Big Circus. Another 1959 release, The Legend of Tom Dooley, is advertised in the poster frame. The entrance for African Americans can be seen to the right of the poster. At this time, the stucco facade was trimmed in maroon., Courtesy of Don Barker

This photo shows the Center in 1971., Courtesy of Don Barker