Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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The Bijou (opened December 22, 1906; closed 1956)

The Bijou (pronounced "By-Jo" by Wilmingtonians) was the first movie theater to open in Wilmington and one of the first to open in North Carolina. For the first six years of its long operation, the Bijou was a tent. It was erected on a vacant lot at 205 N. Front Street, in the heart of downtown Wilmington.

It opened on December 22, 1906, the time of year when the downtown streets were packed from morning to evening with holiday shoppers from miles around the city.

Portrait of Percy Wells, Courtesy of The Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

The Bijou's proprietors, Percy Wells and James Howard, came from professional backgrounds in circus and carnival. Percy Wells (1880-1953) was an aerialist (a tightrope walker) who performed as "The Great Percino" in traveling shows around the country.

James "Foxy" Howard (1867-1938) also spent his early years traveling with various carnivals. Stories differ as to how and when they met. Wells had been based in Wilmington for several years, spending winters there when traveling shows were not active. In February 1905, he organized a performance of films and illustrated songs at a Wilmington fraternal organization, with his wife, Alice Fisher, providing vocal musical accompaniment. This suggests that Wells had access to a motion picture projector and some experience in putting on movie shows nearly two years before he and Howard opened the Bijou in December 1906.

Originally, Howard and Wells had planned to locate their theater in a converted men's clothing store a few blocks away at 122 Market Street, but they could not get permission from the building's owners to renovate the exterior of the building and install electric advertising lights.

Portrait of James Howard, Courtesy of New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

With no other downtown retail spaces available and with the busy holiday shopping season approaching, Howard and Wells decided to lease one of the few vacant lots along Wilmington's busiest commercial thoroughfares: the 200 block of N. Front Street.

Because of their experience performing under canvas, Howard and Wells were familiar with the use of tents as seasonal or temporary spaces for staging entertainment. To make the Bijou look a bit more substantial and to fit in with surrounding structures, they added a wooden facade to the tent.

The lot upon which the Bijou was built at 205 N. Front Street was one of the few remaining undeveloped downtown properties in Wilmington. Howard and Wells leased the lot from Joel W. Murchison, proprietor of a downtown hardware store, who had purchased it in 1905 as a possible relocation site for his business.With more than a 40-foot frontage on one of the busiest blocks of the city, it was an ideal location for any retail business, particularly those dependent upon pedestrian traffic. When Murchison purchased the property in 1905, the Wilmington Messenger noted that it was "among the most valuable in Wilmington and is an excellent location for business houses. . . . Lots on Front Street are getting extremely scarce and it will soon be that when new buildings are to be erected it will mean the tearing down of small buildings." Although it was anticipated that Murchison would build a new building on the lot (or part of it) for his hardware store, for some reason he did not, and the lot was still undeveloped in the fall of 1906. When Howard and Wells leased the lot from Joel Murchison, there was a billboard on the site.

The experience of the Bijou in its first years of operation as a wood-fronted tent (1906-1912) would have started on the sidewalk.

The first Permanent Moving Picture House in North Carolina The Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., Courtesy of The Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

One of the very few surviving photographs of the Bijou as a tent shows its wooden "sham" facade with "Bijou" in large letters atop an arched recessed box office area. "5 ¢ Theatre" curves above the box office and two flanking doors with "entrance" on the right, and "exit" on the left. "The Bijou Family Theatre" is lettered along the flat facade to the left of the entrance/box office. Lettered vertically between the two parts of the facade is signage announcing the opening and closing times. The photograph was taken from the opposite side of North Front Street, directly in front of Gaylord's Big Racket Store. In the foreground we can see the brick-paved surface of Front Street bisected by streetcar tracks. Against the far curb, a bicycle is propped against the side of a sign board that would have greeted passersby walking in either direction along the west side of North Front Street. A group of approximately 20 people are posed in front of the Bijou, all of them (with one exception?) men and boys. A caption tells us that the theater's two proprietors are in the group. James Howard stands with his hand on the back of his Great Dane, Caesar. Percy Wells stands beside him on the right. The caption also claims (erroneously, as it turns out) that the Bijou was "the first permanent moving picture house in North Carolina." Evidence of two earlier theaters in Charlotte deflate that boast.)

A concession stand was added in June of 1907. It appears as a tiny separate structure in the 1910 Sanborn map edition. Peanuts and popcorn were also sold inside the theater between reels by a boy who would walk up and down the Bijou's two aisles carrying his goods in a basket. The empty peanut shells were simply dropped onto the sawdust floor and swept up after the Bijou closed at 11 pm.

Howard's role in the Bijou's early days was to undertake the "ballyhoo" that would attract passersby to the theater. Part of Howard's spiel was phrase: "Never out and never over," shouted through a megaphone. He also attracted attention to the theater by playing songs on a wind-up phonograph. Percy Wells was the Bijou's first projectionist.

Howard and Wells tried to change their programs films as frequently as possible in order to attract return patronage as quickly as possible. For the first three months of operation (December 1906-March 1907), it appears that a program consisted of but a single one-reel film, shown repeatedly throughout the day for two days, when a new film succeeded it. Projected at 16-18 frames per second, a one-reeler lasted approximately 12 minutes. In April 1907, Howard and Wells doubled the number of films screened on each project, increasing the number of films audiences could see there in a week to six. For the next two years, two films were shown each day.

To fill out the program, give a local flavor to the performance, and to balance the unpredictability of early film distribution, Howard and Wells also featured live entertainment as a part of the Bijou experience. The first of many entertainers to perform at the Bijou was Percy Wells's wife, Alice Fisher Wells, who played the piano and sang along to projected slides "illustrating" the words of popular songs.

The Bijou's location in the heart of the busy downtown of Wilmington was ideal for a business that depended upon being able to attract passersby to come in for a brief interlude in their normal everyday activities. Open from early afternoon until late in the evening, the Bijou would have lured office workers, store clerks, and some of the thousands of men (and a few women) who worked in the rail yards and offices a few block further up Front Street. With a cost of only five cents and involving a commitment of less than an hour, the Bijou was a cheap, convenient diversion for thousands of Wilmingtonians who spent much of the day in and around downtown.

Even before they opened the Bijou, James Howard and Percy Wells marketed their new venture directly at Wilmington's women and children. In the first newspaper article published about the prospect of a movie theater in Wilmington - Howard's aborted lease of a storefront at 122 Market - he is quoted as being "especially anxious to interest the ladies and children and will bend every effort to please them, so as to make the place popular with them."

Similarly, when the Bijou opened in December 1906, the Dispatch predicted that the film program of movies and illustrated songs would "no doubt prove popular, especially with the ladies and children."

It seems that their efforts were immediately successful. The Dispatch reported "large numbers of ladies and children" in attendance the first week of January 1907. Two weeks later, it commented on the "scores" of women and children visiting the theater every afternoon and evening.

A Bijou ad in 1911 targeted parents, suggesting that the "mirthful pictures and pleasing songs at every show will tickle the children. They will be happier children after having been to see the kind of moving pictures we show."

Howard and Wells, like movie theater managers elsewhere, actively sought out ways of cultivating good relationships with the city's business, civic, social, and religious communities. They sponsored charity events, hosted visiting religious speakers, gave special screenings for orphans, etc. Befitting their role as downtown business proprietors, they joined and participated actively in several fraternal organizations.

By the fall of 1910, the Bijou was so successful that Howard and Wells were able to purchase the valuable Front Street lot on which their tent theater was located. The price was reported as "in the neighborhood" of $20,000.

The Bijou Reconstructed In late 1911, Howard and Wells announced plans to build a permanent structure to replace the tent they had used since 1906. They continued to operate the Bijou while construction was under way. On the morning of Sunday, February 11, 1912, a freak snowstorm collapsed the roof of the Bijou, hastening the completion of the new Bijou structure by a month.

The Bijou reopened on May 30, 1912, and drew, according to the Wilmington Star, "probably the largest crowds that have ever attended a photoplayhouse in Wilmington on a single night." The new Bijou benefited from being a purpose-built theater rather than merely the renovation/redecoration of an existing storefront. The new structure featured an elaborate two-story facade with a recessed ticket office. Space was left on either side for small retail operations (the one on the left was the Bijou's candy store). Inside there was seating for 600 white patrons in "comfortable opera seats" with 37-inch clearance between each row. The seating was arranged so that there were good sightlines throughout the house. Dozens of revolving electric fans were placed throughout the theater to provide ventilation during the hot and humid Wilmington summers.

The Bijou as a purpose built movie theater, Wilmington, N.C., Courtesy of The Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

This photo shows the facade of the Bijou. Percy Wells and James Howard stand in front of their new theater on the right.

The "new" Bijou was designed by Burett H. Stephens, who also designed the Victoria Theater as well as the movie theater - the Royal - that Howard and Wells would build in Wilmington in 1915.

Like Erle Stillwell, whose plans for more than 30 N.C. movie theaters are included in "Going to the Show," Stephens was hardly a specialist in theater design. Before moving to Wilmington from Chicago in 1907, Stephens had designed railroad shops in Idaho, county jails in Wisconsin, and meat-packing plants in Illinois. He was sent to Wilmington by the Swift Company of Chicago to supervise construction of a huge fertilizer plant on the Cape Fear River, two miles above the city of Wilmington.

Stephens moved to Wilmington in 1908. He designed and built houses in one of Wilmington's streetcar suburbs, Carolina Heights. However, he went bankrupt in the fall of 1909 and was hospitalized for a time as a result of "nervous collapse." By year's end he was working as a draughtsman.

The Bijou project, which Stephens took on in 1911, would have been important in his attempt to re-launch his architectural career. In 1914 he was hired to design "one of the most modern and best equipped slaughter houses and quarantine pens in the South" just outside the Wilmington city limits. By 1917, his career was once again on track. In an article announcing his commission in the Corps of Engineers during World War I, the Wilmington Star calls him "one of the most prominent architects in the city." Also like Stillwell, Stephens had a very long career: when he died at the age of 86 in 1956, he was one of the oldest practicing architects in the U.S.

The Bijou was the first movie theater in Wilmington to add a balcony specifically for African American patrons. The Wilmington Star announced that "There are seats for 600 people on the first floor, and this will be exclusively for the white patrons. On the balconies 200 colored people may be seated." We can find no further references to the Bijou's racial admission policy in newspaper ads and articles for decades after its construction in 1912. Presumably, it continued to admit African Americans but to restrict them to the balcony. There is evidence that the Bijou occasionally used another common racial strategy: the so-called "midnight show." Film or stage attraction of particular interest to African Americans might be shown exclusively for them, usually on Friday or Saturday night following the final regular screening. The Bijou did this on several occasions. In December 1940, for example, it advertised a screening of "Feud Maker," a western film starring "Fast Ridin', Straight Shootin'" Bob Steele as a benefit for the Star-News Empty Stocking Fund. This "midnight show" was "reserved for negro Patrons Only."

In 1916, a "mammoth" Seeburg pipe organ and orchestra was purchased for the Bijou at a cost of more than $4000. The organ could reproduce "every imaginable drum trap, train whistle, exhaust, baby cry, and a multitude of other effects."

The Bijou was renovated and redecorated a number of times over its long life. In 1918, when all theaters in Wilmington were closed because of the influenza outbreak, Howard and Wells took advantage of this enforced idleness to replace the theater floor and update the heating system.

The Bijou was renovated again in 1922, when the balcony was raised and enlarged.

Ad for "The Vagabond Lover," at the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., Courtesy of The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

The Bijou was once again renovated in 1932. At the same time, a venerable tradition came to an end: since 1906, part of the experience of the Bijou was purchasing a bag of roasted peanuts and eating them during the show. Patrons simply dropped the empty shells on the floor. By the early 1930s, however, "a steady stream of complaints" from patrons caused the management to discontinue the sale of peanuts. Only a few hundred feet from the Cape Fear River, the Bijou was a magnet for some of Wilmington's enormous wharf rats. A 1953 article on the Bijou noted that "no show was complete without a few hungry rats moseying along the floor, scavengers for peanuts."

Talking pictures came to the Bijou on April 16, 1929.

By the early 1930s, Howard and Wells effectively controlled movie exhibition in Wilmington, owning the Carolina, Grand, Royal, and Bijou theaters. In 1933, they were unable to make mortgage payments on their holdings and lost all their theater property in Wilmington.

Percy Wells left the movie business in 1933, but Howard continued to manage, but not own, the Bijou, for another year.

The Bijou closed its doors in 1956, and the building was torn down in 1963. The City of Wilmington acquired the site and turned it into a small park. A mosaic spelling out "Bijou" in the sidewalk is all that remains of Wilmington's first and longest-running movie theater.

For more than a quarter century - from 1906 to 1933 - James Howard and Percy Wells dominated the film exhibition market in Wilmington, and the Bijou was the mainstay of their enterprise. With the profits from its first six years of operation as a tent, Howard and Wells were able to purchase the lot on which it stood and construct the Bijou as a permanent theater in 1912. Its success also enabled them to build the Royal in 1915. Their chief competitor in the 1910s, J. M. Solky capitulated to them in 1915 when he leased Wilmington's two remaining theaters, the Grand and the Victoria, to them. They bought the buildings in which the Grand and the Victoria were located from him in 1923.

Howard and Wells were active in the North Carolina Moving Picture Theater Owners Association. Percy Wells served eight consecutive terms as its president. Over-expansion and the Great Depression combined to bring an end to the empire that the Bijou had helped to found. In a twist of fate, J.M. Solky acquired all their theater property again when it was sold at auction in 1933.

James Howard contracted tuberculosis and moved to Asheville, N.C., in 1934. He died there in March 1938. (James Fox Howard File, Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library). Percy Wells also moved to Asheville following the demise of their business. In 1938, he was operating a "roadside place" near Asheville. Wells died on May 1, 1953. He is buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington (Section Annex 4-A, Lot 1, Space 2 *). (Percy Wells File, Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library).

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