Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Dilworth Theater, Charlotte, N.C. 1939

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Dilworth Theater in Charlotte, N.C., was built for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the company used by the Charlotte-based Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its North Carolina operations. The Dilworth was one of four Wilby-Kincey theaters operating in Charlotte. Located in the Piedmont region of the state, Charlotte had surpassed Wilmington as the state's largest city in 1910, and by 1940 had a population of more than 100,000, approximately thirty percent of which was African American. Charlotte was also the county seat of Mecklenburg County, the most populous county in North Carolina, with more than 150,000 residents. The Dilworth was located at 1609 South Boulevard in the neighborhood of the same name in South Charlotte.

In his book on Stillwell's drawings, Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchell 2006, p. 132), William Mitchell describes the Dilworth as an exercise in "economical theater design".

Construction was concrete block, covered with stucco at the street front. The roof framing was steel bowstring trusses, clearly expressed in the front elevation. The Art-Deco design of the front was achieved solely by grooves in the stucco, forming pilasters on each side of the ticket lobby, a pattern of squares above, and two horizontal bands extending outward.

Plans for the Dilworth illustrate Stillwell's use of steel roof trusses, a construction technique common to movie theaters by the late 1930s. Such trusses enabled architects to design auditoriums capable of seating thousands of people and still provide unobstructed views of the screen from all parts of the house. Charlotte Herzog notes that in 1919, Thomas Lamb, architect of the Capitol Theater in New York City, employed a 170-foot steel truss, at that time the longest ever used in a building. (Herzog 1980, p. 85)

The Dilworth was the first North Carolina theater Stillwell had designed to be located outside of downtown and the first intended to be used as a second- run house- showing Hollywood films some months after their initial release in downtown theaters at cut-rate prices.

Front Elevation- Charlotte Dilworth Theater, Courtesy of Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Dilworth was one of Charlotte's first "street-car" suburbs, planned in the 1890s and built out over the next four decades. The Dilworth Theater was approximately 1.5 miles from the center of downtown Charlotte.

The Dilworth had no mezzanine or balcony and little in the way of lobby or lounge amenities. Patrons bought their tickets from the box office in a recessed exterior lobby and entered the lobby, off of which were located toilets and a small cosmetic room for women. The shallow lobby led directly into the 600-seat auditorium. The screen was set into a small stage, but the Dilworth had no provisions for anything but the simplest forms of live entertainment (no fly loft or dressing rooms). The absence of a balcony suggests that the Dilworth was not designed to accommodate African Americans. Newspaper articles accompanying the opening of the theater make no mention of segregated spaces, and no "colored" admission prices are given in ads for the theater.

The Dilworth opened on Saturday, July 15, 1939. As had become customary, a dedication ceremony was held, attended by the mayor and open to the public. Much was made in newspaper coverage of the Dilworth Theater's contribution to the neighborhood, with local merchants taking out congratulatory ads and reminding readers of their convenient location in Dilworth. ("New Dilworth Theatre Opens, Filling Need for Large Section," Charlotte News, July 16, 1939, p. 10-A.)

The theater was destroyed in a fire in 1984.