Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Rex/Carolina Theater, Hendersonville, N.C. 1924/1933

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

This is the second movie theater designed by Erle Stillwell, and his first designed and built specifically as such (his first movie theater project, the Queen was the renovation of an existing structure). Hendersonville, where Stillwell lived and conducted his architectural practice from 1915 to 1953, was a town of fewer than 5000 residents in the early 1930s, approximately twenty percent of whom were African Americans. Hendersonville is located in the North Carolina mountains, some twenty miles south of Asheville.

As William Mitchell notes in his Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchell 2006, p. 124), this was a project undertaken by Jake Wells and Ellison A. Smyth in 1924. Wells, a former professional baseball player turned vaudeville entrepreneur, moved to Hendersonville in 1919, and became involved in a number of real estate ventures in the area. Smyth was a textile mill owner and property developer. At the time the Rex was built, Wells operated theaters in Asheville, Norfolk, Atlanta, and Richmond.

Located at 529 N. Main, this was the second theater to bear the "Rex" name in Hendersonville. The first had operated out of a storefront in the St. Johns Hotel building a few blocks away (3-4 N. Main) and had closed prior to the fire that demolished the building in 1915.

Designing from the ground-up rather than fitting a theater into a pre-existing commercial building gave Stillwell the opportunity to design a two-story space, placing the projection room, and a small balcony on the second floor. Seating chart blue prints show a capacity of 714 on the lower level and 174 seats in the balcony. A stage (raised less than a foot from the floor level) extended twenty-six feet from the back wall, and there was space above the stage for curtains. However, there were no wings or stage entrances, and no dressing rooms or other provisions for live performance.

Stillwell gave the Rex few amenities or architectural flourishes. A shallow interior lobby separated the auditorium from the entry doors. But rather than a solid wall between the lobby and the back of the auditorium, the plans show a "screen": a wall pierced by four doors and seven large windows.

Two flanking stairways led to the balcony, each with a single toilet on an intermediate landing. In some cases the addition of a balcony signaled the proprietor's "accommodation" of African-American audiences, but this does not seem to have been the case with Stillwell's plans for the Rex: it was merely additional seating for white patrons. Had Stillwell been asked to design the balcony for use by African Americans, he almost certainly would have included a separate set of stairs and separate entrance for this purpose, as he did for other segregated theaters.

Before air-conditioning became a standard feature of movie theaters in the mid-1930s, ventilation was a key concern in the design of all movie theaters, especially those located in the South, where summer temperatures and humidity could make for an uncomfortable moviegoing experience. Indeed, it was not unusual for southern theaters to close their doors during the summer months. The drawings show that the Rex was designed with a complex air circulation system, with hundreds of "mushroom" vents located beneath the seats in the auditorium.

Outside, a free-standing box office occupied the center of the ticket lobby, topped by a marquee. The free-standing box office located in a recessed, exterior lobby had become a common feature of movie theaters by 1924. The most common shape was round or, as it was at the Rex, a roundish octagonal. A movie industry trade paper, Motion Picture News, noted that "The exhibitor came to the conclusion that the round ticket box was as essential to the motion picture theater as the mortar in front of a drug store or the striped pole in front of a barber shop." (Quoted in Herzog 1980, p. 36)

The facade was finished in pressed brick. A tiled hood projected out from roof line.

As was the case with many theater buildings from this period, the Rex was also designed to produce income for its owners from other sources. Two storefront spaces flanked the entrance to the theater, and a large "club room" ran along the front of the second floor. Such spaces, which could be leased to fraternal and other social organizations, were common features on the second floor of commercial buildings of all kinds.

The Rex opened on Monday, August 4, 1924. The Hendersonville News trumpeted that the theater had cost $100,000 to build and rivaled "any theatre its size in the world." (Hendersonville News, August 3, 1924, p. 1). It was common for newspapers to characterize new theaters in such grandiose terms.

The Rex Theater burned in the summer of 1932, destroying much of the interior of the building. Stillwell was hired to redesign and restore the theater. As William Mitchell notes in his book on Stillwell, this project launched a long and, for Stillwell, advantageous relationship with one of North Carolina's most important movie theater chains. Ellison Smyth was the building's owner. He and Jake Wells had opened the Rex in 1924. In 1932, he turned over management of the theater to the North Carolina Theatres Corporation, owned and operated by Robert Wilby and Herbert F. (Mike) Kincey. The Wilby-Kincey chain, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., built and operated movie theaters in cities across the South. In 1926 it became a subsidiary of the Paramount-Publix Corporation, which would become the largest exhibition circuit in the U.S. in the 1930s. Wilby-Kincey's theaters were roughly grouped into three classifications by size and construction cost. The Carolina name was frequently reserved for the largest and most elaborate theaters, followed by the Center, and then the State. This was not always the case, however--as when the company built a new theater in a city where one of these names was already being used, either by Wilby-Kincey or another company. For example, in 1938, Wilby-Kincey used the Center name for its new theater in Durham, North Carolina. A Carolina theater was already in operation there. In Hendersonville, the company changed the name of the Rex to Carolina when it took over management of the theater in 1932. Stillwell would design dozens of theaters for Wilby-Kincey from 1934 to 1950, both new buildings and renovations.

A photo probably taken in 1938 (the date of the release of Daredevil Drivers, the film advertised on the marquee) shows that Stillwell did not significantly change the facade of the theater. New seating was installed, which was described in a newspaper article as "luxuriously comfortable." A new ventilated system was added. Synchronous sound motion picture technology had been introduced in movie theaters across the country from 1927 to 1930, and Stillwell paid particular attention to acoustics in his design for the auditorium. (Hendersonville Times, March 4, 1933, pp. 4, 5)

Stillwell converted the upstairs club room space in the Rex into a mezzanine for the Carolina, creating expanded toilet facilities, a lounge, manager's office, and poster storage room.

In keeping with the status afforded the "Carolina" brand in the Wilby-Kincey scheme, Stillwell transformed the spare interior of the old Rex into a classical Italian garden, complete with elaborate murals and sculptured mythological figures in niches along the side walls. On the eve of the Carolina's opening in March 1933, Stillwell wrote an account of his design scheme for the Hendersonville Times-News. He said he had drawn inspiration from formal gardens of the "great country seats" of European nobility, particularly those in Italy, a "country where the deep azure of the sky seems ever in competition with the fathomless cobalt of the Mediterranean landscape."

Right Side Elevation- Rex Hendersonville, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

This style of interior design for movie theaters was called "atmospheric," and involved the creation of an exotic historically-themed exterior landscape surrounding the auditorium through the use of murals, color, lighting, plaster, and bas-relief elements. Some atmospheric theaters even used hundreds of tiny lights in the auditorium ceiling to imitate stars (the Carolina did not have this feature, however). Chief among American architects employing the atmospheric style was John Eberson, who designed more than 100 atmospheric theaters. Historian of movie theater architecture, Charlotte Herzog, noted that in atmospheric theaters, the side walls of the auditorium were as visually interesting as anything that might appear on the screen. Stillwell claimed that the Carolina was the only atmospheric theater in North Carolina.(Quoted in Herzog 1980, p. 6)

By the time the Carolina opened in March 1933, however, the atmospheric theater trend had waned in most other parts of the country. Its imitation of historical buildings (especially European palaces and mansions) and architectural styles was being challenged by modernist schools of design. Stillwell designed only two subsequent atmospheric theaters, the State in Kingsport, Tennessee (1935) and the Center in Rocky Mount, N.C. (1936). By 1937 he had joined the trend toward art deco and moderne architectural styles, and these would dominate his designs throughout the 1940s. ( May 2000, pp. 101-138)

The Carolina project is the first one for which Stillwell designed specific "accommodations" for African-American moviegoers. The balcony, which appears to have been used by whites prior to the 1932 renovation, was reserved for "colored" patrons. This also entailed creation of a separate street entrance and stairway. A single toilet for use by African Americans was located off a stairway landing. Space for the separate entrance, ticket booth, and stairwell was carved out of one of the two storefronts in the building. The stairway led directly to the "colored balcony," and did not allow access to the facilities on the mezzanine level.

The Carolina opened on Monday, March 6, 1933, announcement of which shared the front page of the local newspaper with accounts of the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Hendersonville Times-News, March 4, 1933, p. 1) Among a number of articles on the theater's opening, one was devoted to its staff. This gives a good idea of the size and nature of the workforce needed to operate a theater of the Carolina's size in the mid-1930s. In addition to a manager and a projectionist, the Carolina employed an assistant manager (responsible for advertising "and other details"), two cashiers in the box office, two ushers, and a janitor, who also was responsible for "the colored department in the gallery." (Hendersonville Times-News, March 6, 1933, p. 1) On opening night, Hendersonville's mayor welcomed the return of the theater to the city's main street.

In 1940, the Carolina burned yet again and the building was severely damaged. Stillwell, hired to plan the theater for the third time, designed a spare, modern facade, and did not attempt to recreate his elaborate faux- classical garden inside. Mitchell notes that there are no surviving drawings of Stillwell's 1940 re-design of the Carolina.

According to Mitchell, the Carolina continued in operation until 1986, when it was demolished and replaced by an office building.