Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Brooklyn Theatre (opened February 1914, presumed closed May 1928)

The Brooklyn Theatre was built as a vaudeville theater in 1914 at 1021 N. Fourth Street, near the corner of North Fourth and Davis Streets in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Wilmington. It appears as "moving picture theatre" on the Sanborn map of 1915 at that site, and measured approximately 50 feet by 80 feet.

Brooklyn was a neighborhood five blocks north of downtown Wilmington and separated from it by the railroad cut through which the main tracks into and out of Wilmington ran. Beverly Tetterton's architectural history of Wilmington, Lost But Not Forgotten (Tetterton 2005, pp. 109-110), notes that by the first decade of the twentieth century, Brooklyn had developed into a significant residential and commercial neighborhood, with many of its residents working for the nearby Seaboard Airline Railroad. Brooklyn was a racially, ethnically, and socially diverse community in North Carolina's most diverse city. Many of its small businesses were run by immigrants: Germans, Scotch-Irish, Jewish, Syrian, Greek, and Chinese, among them. African American businesses operated in Brooklyn as well.

"The Inventory of Black Historical Sites in Wilmington" prepared by Bill Reaves places it at 1019-1021 N. Fourth Street. There and in his book (Reaves 1998 , pp. 65-66), Reaves refers to the Brooklyn as a black theater, although it appears that it was planned as a white theater.

Two newspaper articles published on January 30, 1914, announce the construction of a new theater at this location. Both note that it will be managed by Morris H. Whippler, "who has been in the show business all his life," and has lived in Wilmington "for several years." The as yet unnamed theater "will be run as a vaudeville house." Maurice H. Whippler is listed in the 1913 Wilmington city directory as a "theatrical manager," rooming at the Princess Building. In the city directories for Wilmington (as, indeed, in all cities in North Carolina) black residents are designated with an asterisk (*) or with "(c)." No such mark appears by Whippler's name, so it is presumed that he was white. Whippler also owned another Brooklyn theater, the Lyric, which he sold in 1915.

The Brooklyn Theatre, Wilmington, N.C., Courtesy of The Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

Both articles also mention the new theater as joining the list of theater and movie venues in the city. No mention is made of its being intended for black audiences. It is very likely that if the Brooklyn had been planned as a black theater, this would have been noted in these articles, particularly since it was a purpose-built theater and not merely a renovated storefront.

An undated photograph of the Brooklyn from the Fales Collection at the New Hanover County Public Library shows five children and two adult men standing in front of a wooden building with "Brooklyn Theatre" and "High Class Moving Pictures and Illustrated Songs" lettered on it. All the figures in the photograph would appear to be white.

However, it does appear that at some point, perhaps as early as the summer of 1914, the Brooklyn did become a black theater. Reaves notes that in July of 1914 a benefit performance was held there for the black YMCA.

It is not known whether whites regularly attended the Brooklyn over the more than ten years during which it operated as a black vaudeville and movie theater. However, there is evidence that for some attractions of special appeal to both black and white audiences, special seating arrangements were made. In May 1927, an African American variety company, "The Stepping Along Company," appeared at the Brooklyn. The Wilmington Star noted that for this attraction, "The entire right side of the theatre will be reserved for white patrons, with separate entrance."

The building was offered for sale in May 1928 and the Brooklyn presumably closed at that time.