Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Varsity Theater, Raleigh, N.C. 1939

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Varsity Theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, was located at 2406 Hillsborough Street, near the campus of what is now North Carolina State University. When the theater opened in 1940, Raleigh, the state's capital, had approximately 46,000 residents, some thirty four percent of whom were African Americans. Stillwell designed the Varsity for North Carolina Theaters, Inc., the company the Wilby-Kincey theater chain used for their theater operations in the state.

For the design of the exterior of the 505-seat Varsity, Stillwell used the modernist style he regularly employed in plans for his theaters in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Seven vertical panels rose above the box office lobby and marquee, flanked by short horizontal bands, defining the two-story center section of the facade. One-story wings sat on either side. A newspaper photo taken the day of the theater's opening shows "VARSITY" spelled out in large letters above the marquee.

Inside, the theater resembled other smaller theaters Stillwell had designed shortly before the U.S. entered the second World War. Past the exterior box office lobby and double-door vestibule, patrons entered a shallow foyer, off which were located toilet facilities. Doors led from the foyer directly into the auditorium. Where the stage might have been, Stillwell located the mechanical rooms for the Varsity. There was no mezzanine or balcony.

The Varsity opened on November 22, 1941. It joined four other Raleigh theaters operated by the Wilby-Kincey (North Carolina Theatres, Inc.) chain: the Ambassador, the State, the Palace, and the Capitol. Like the Dilworth, a Charlotte theater Stillwell had designed for the chain in 1939, the Varsity was intended as a "neighborhood" theater: located in an inner suburb outside downtown and showing second-run films at cut-rate prices. An article appearing in the Raleigh News and Observer on the day the theater opened claimed that the Varsity was Raleigh's first neighborhood house. Admission prices were fifteen cents for matinees and twenty-five cents in the evening. The Varsity ran continuous shows from 1 p.m. until 11 p.m. (Monday-Saturday) and a Sunday matinee. ("New Varsity Theatre Will Be Opened in Raleigh Today," Raleigh News and Observer, November 22, 1941, p. 8).

The absence of a balcony and segregated spaces within the Varsity suggest that it was not designed to admit African Americans.

William Mitchell notes that the Varsity closed in the 1980s, but the building Stillwell designed continues to be used as a book store. (Mitchell 2006, p. 152)

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