Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Lumina (opened as movie venue July 1905; presumed closed as movie venue 1930)

It is difficult to pin down in a single term exactly what Lumina was. Lumina (not "the" Lumina, according to Wilmingtonians) was a dance pavilion, beach resort, special events venue, bowling alley, penny arcade, lunchroom, and, beginning in the summer of 1905, a place many Wilmingtonians watched movies.

The construction of Lumina was undertaken in 1904-05 by the Tidewater Power Company, which owned and operated the streetcar line from Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach, and was an important force in the development of Wrightsville as a residential beach community and summer recreation destination for Wilmingtonians. It opened on June 3, 1905. It was designed by prolific local architect Henry E. Bonitz.

"Movies 'Over the Waves' at Lumina Theatre, Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington, N.C., 1931" in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Like many other amusement parks constructed and operated by local streetcar, trolley, and power companies, Lumina was designed as a seasonal destination: an attraction to draw riders to the end of the line and to encourage residential and commercial development along it. Asheville ( Riverside Park), Durham ( Lakewood Park), and Charlotte (Lakewood Park) all had such amusement parks in the first decade of the twentieth century, which typically opened around Memorial Day and operated until the fall.

As a project of the local power company, Lumina was also an advertisement for electrical power itself. As Henry McKoy puts it in his memoir, "Lumina began in a blaze of lights and continued so during my youth and young manhood. Literally thousands of incandescent lights outlined its shape and ran up the ridges of the roof, capped with the brightest lights around the cupola which was on the first building. By night it could be seen by ships far out to sea, as well as from all the nearby Sounds." It was from this spectacular light display that the Lumina took its name.

The attractions offered by amusement parks varied from city to city, depending in part on the natural or man-made setting. Riverside Park in Asheville took advantage of its location on the French Broad River and offered canoe rentals and swimming. Some amusement parks had outdoor or enclosed performance venues, frequently named the Casino (although no gambling occurred there), where traveling acts- including film exhibitors- would perform or local bands would play.

The main attractions of Lumina were its position on the beach and its 6,000-square-foot dance pavilion, featuring a huge dance floor and seats ringing it for spectators. For decades, Lumina was a popular dance venue for young Wilmingtonians and summer visitors to the area's beaches.

Henry McKoy remembered Lumina clearly and fondly:

"There was always good order at Lumina, and the best and most select society felt free and safe to use it, knowing that public opinion and custom only governed and controlled its decorum. The waltz and the two-step were the accepted dances, although the one-step was beginning to be in evidence . . . Of course, there was no dancing with a girl unless you had been properly introduced and accepted. . . .

I know of no place where a young man with fifty cents could leave Wilmington, purchase a thirty-five cent ticket to the beach, meet his girl at her home, walk up to Lumina, dance until eleven, perhaps buying a Coca-Cola or a lemonade, and, without spending or having any need of spending more, return to his home with five cents still in his pocket." (McKoy 1957, pp. 97-98)

Lumina Grand Opening, Wrightsville Beach, N.C., Courtesy of The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

Another long-time Wilmington resident who remembered Lumina from its early days, Lewis Philip Hall, adds that initially concerns over unchaperoned young women attending a public "dance hall" affected business at Lumina. In 1907, Lumina manager A.B. Skelding hired a socially prominent lady, Mrs. Bessie Gore Martin, to act as head chaperone. "For many years [she] and her staff of social dowagers occupied a section of chairs on the east side of the ball room mid-way the floor, which commanded a good view in both directions." Mrs. Martin ensured that no male was allowed on the dance floor without coat and tie and that no overly eager young man broke in on a couple until he knew the female partner or had been properly introduced." (Hall 1975, pp. 84-85)

By 1909 manager Skelding's efforts to assure Wilmingtonians that Lumina was a respectable destination had succeeded. The ballroom was renovated and enlarged. In 1913, a terrace was added to the covered porches that lined the beach side of the pavilion.

In Lumina's first season of operation in 1905, a movie screen was erected on the beach so that movies could be viewed from the beach porches, and, later, the terrace or "Hurricane Deck," as it was known. "Movies over the waves" became a Lumina tradition. Rather than a pianist or orchestra, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean provided accompaniment to the silent films.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lumina drew large crowds to hear the nationally known dance bands who played there each summer. Lumina continued to show movies well after sound films had come to Wilmington.

The Tidewater Power Company sold Lumina in 1939, after a highway had been built between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, ending the power company's monopoly on transportation to the resort. Its fortunes declined thereafter. Hurricane Hazel inflicted serious damage on the structure in 1954. Lumina regained a bit of its popularity as a dance venue in the 1960s, but by the early 1970s it had been allowed to deteriorate to the point that local authorities recommended that it be condemned. In May 1973, it was demolished. (Tetterton 2005, pp.176-178)