Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Center Theater, Lenoir, N.C. 1941

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

In 1940, Lenoir was a city of some 7,500 residents, twenty percent of whom were African American. The county seat of Caldwell County in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Lenoir was a city dominated by furniture manufacturing. Erle Stillwell's drawings for the Center Theater are marked "A Theatre for Lenoir Theatres, Inc." North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the subsidiary of the Wilby-Kincey theater circuit, frequently partnered with local individuals or companies in theater-building projects. The theater was located 209 West Avenue in downtown Lenoir, opposite the town's post office.

portion of Front Elevation- Center Lenoir, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

For the design of the exterior of the 855-seat Center Theater, Stillwell used the spare, modernist style he regularly employed in plans for his theaters in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The asymmetrical facade was finished in white stucco with vertical elements rising above the triangular projecting marquee. This was balanced by a grid of rectangular stucco panels above door-sized poster frames on the other half of the building's front.

White patrons entered through an exterior box office lobby, through a small vestibule and into a shallow foyer, off of which were located men's and women's toilets and lounges. Beyond the foyer was the 522-seat auditorium. The Center had a shallow stage (fourteen feet deep) and footlights, but no dressing rooms or fly loft. Stairs from the foyer led to the theater's 333-seat balcony.

The Center was clearly designed to admit African Americans to segregated spaces within the theater. Plans called for a separate entrance on the box office side of the building (shown in Stillwell's longitudinal section plan and indicated by a canopy on the front elevation drawing). Inside was a second box office. Stairs led African American moviegoers to the balcony level of the theater and to men's and women's toilets.

The balcony was racially divided. White patrons entered the balcony level on the left side of the balcony (facing the screen). The stairs for African Americans ran up the opposite side of the building. Stillwell's plans show a movable railing separating approximately one third of the seats on the right- hand side of the balcony. A gate blocked the aisle that ran along the center of the balcony, separating it into upper and lower sections.

The Center opened on Monday, March 3, 1941. The local newspaper, the Lenoir News-Topic, devoted its entire front page to the theater on the Friday prior to the grand opening (February 28, 1941), and ran a number of other articles over the next week, including barely reworked press releases from North Carolina Theaters, Inc., which already operated two other theaters in Lenoir (the State and the Imperial). Dan Austell, who supervised operations in all three theaters, announced that the Center would be used for both first- run and "return engagement" (second-run) presentations. Admission prices were twenty-five cents for the auditorium seats during the day and thirty-five cents in the evening. No mention of a separate balcony section for African Americans is made in the press reports or ads accompanying the Center's opening. Balcony prices are listed as fifteen cents for matinees and twenty- five cents for evening shows. Children were admitted for ten cents at all times. One novel programming feature of the Center was its Kiddie Klub, a three-hour stage and screen program to be offered every Saturday morning. The article announcing this innovation does not indicate whether or not African American children were admitted.

In late 2009 the building was still standing although it is no longer in use as a movie theater

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