Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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The Grand (opened Dec. 24, 1910; closed April 1923

The Grand Theater was located at 25 N. Front Street in downtown Wilmington, just north of the Masonic Temple Building. The three-story commercial building that housed the Grand was built in 1878. Its cast-iron columns led many to call it the "iron-front" building. It still stands.

The first floor of the renaissance-style building was for many years a clothing store, leased in the early 1880s by Louis Otterbourg for his "Iron Front Men's Wear Depot," and in 1899 by S.H. Fishblate for his men's clothing store. The storefront space was fairly large by local standards: it was 36 feet wide and extended approximately 75 feet to the rear.

Bijou Theater, Wilmington, N.C. in The Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

The upper floors of the building were occupied by a variety of professional offices and social organizations, including the Knights of Pythias and the Carolina Club. Local businessman Hugh McRae later used the first floor for the sales and business departments of the Wilmington Gas Light Company (later the Tidewater Power Company, operator of the streetcar line that took Wilmingtonians from downtown to Wrightsville Beach). In June 1910, the building was purchased by dry goods merchant J. M. Solky, and the building became known as the Solky Building.

The Wilmington Star announced the opening of the Grand on Christmas Day (December 25), 1910. It appears that Solky had extensively renovated and redecorated the first floor of the building for use as a movie theater. The Star claimed that "a large amount of money" had been spent by Solky on the project and that "for beauty and grandeur, it can have few equals in the entire country."

The program at the Grand when it opened consisted of films (changed daily), illustrated songs, and music by "an orchestra engaged specially for this house." While other movie theaters operated from early afternoon until late evening, the Grand was open only at night (7:30-11 p.m.). It is likely that African Americans were not admitted.

In 1914, Solky renovated the theater interior and built a 25-foot extension onto the rear, making the theater 36 feet x 100 feet. A comparison of the 1910 and 1915 Sanborn maps clearly shows the addition. A Wilmington Star article reported that the renovations had cost $3000.

In April 1915, Solky leased the Grand to R.H. DeBruler, manager of the Montgomery Theatre in Atlanta. Later that year, he leased the Grand to James Howard and Percy Wells, who already controlled the Bijou and Royal Theaters in downtown Wilmington. At this time, Solky also leased the Victoria Theater to Howard and Wells, giving them control over all movie theaters in downtown Wilmington. Howard and Wells purchased the building in which the Grand was located in 1923.

Shortly after purchasing the "Iron Front Building," Howard and Wells announced that the Grand would close and the building would be renovated to accommodate McLellan Stores, a chain of dime stores.