Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Odeon (opening date: April 1, 1907; closing date: June 1907)

The Odeon was the second movie theater to open in Wilmington (April 1, 1907)

It was located at 126 Market Street, between Front and 2nd Street in downtown Wilmington, in a small space (20 feet x 50 feet) occupied until only a few weeks before by the Rehder Candy Company.

It is the first theater in Wilmington (perhaps in the state) to have an explicitly advertised racial policy. An article announcing the opening of the Odeon in the Wilmington Star on March 31, 1907, notes: "One of the greatest points of superiority of "The Odeon" over other moving picture theatres is that it is exclusively for white people. No negroes will be admitted except nurses with children."

Like the Bijou, the Odeon was eager to have the patronage of children. The first week of operation, it offered (white) school children free admission by grade each night.

The Odeon was opened by Conrad (Connie) W. Stonebanks and J. Fred Dahmer. Stonebanks, born in Raleigh, N.C. in 1879 and the son of a bartender, appears in Wilmington newspapers for the first time on March 27, 1907, when the Wilmington Messenger notes his arrival from Charlotte to set up a moving picture theater that he will own and operate. It cites a Charlotte Observer story, saying that he had been in Charlotte for the past six years and had been associated with the "Wonderland show" for the past several months. The Wonderland was Charlotte's and North Carolina's first movie theater, which opened there in November 1906, a month prior to the opening of the Bijou in Wilmington. Stonebanks's role at the Wonderland is unknown, but he is not cited as being connected with the theater in Charlotte newspaper ads or articles. The 1907 Charlotte City Directory lists his occupation as 'clerk,' and the 1905-06 directory lists him as a student, living in his mother's boarding house.

The announcement of the Odeon's opening in the Wilmington Star lists Dahmer as the theater's manager (incorrectly giving his initials as 'J.H.') but does not mention Stonebanks. Fred Dahmer (born May 11, 1887) had also been in Charlotte prior to coming to Wilmington, where the 1905-06 Charlotte city directory lists him as a student. His family roots, however, were in Wilmington. His father had at one time been caretaker of the Hammocks Hotel at Wrightsville Beach. He died in 1891, and his wife, Mary, also from Wilmington, had moved with her son Fred to Charlotte. There she met and married John H. Lillycrop, who owned and operated a fish and meat market and restaurant in downtown Charlotte.

It seems likely that Lillycrop financed his step-son's venture in movie exhibition, with the older Stonebanks adding some knowledge of the infant field of movie theater management from his brief stint at the Wonderland.

Dahmer, however, appears to have managed the Odeon himself and to have found it to be more than he could handle. The theater had barely opened for business when a projector fire resulted in its having to close for several days. It reopened on April 10, 1907.

Given the high combustibility of film stock and the heat of the projector's source of illumination, fire was a hazard common to all early movie theaters (opportunity to link to other articles tagged 'fire'). In this case, there appears to have been little damage except to the projector.

Only two weeks after the reopening of the theater on April 10, Dahmer was brought before the mayor, charged with operating a public nuisance as a result of using a phonograph to attract passersby to the Odeon. A number of his neighbors in the 100 block of Market Street claimed that the incessant music disturbed their rest in the evening and demanded a halt to the racket. Other neighbors testified that the music was not annoying, and the mayor dropped the charges. This was not the kind of publicity Dahmer sought for his new business, however.

In early May, Dahmer abruptly left the management of the theater to Stonebanks and disappeared from the nearby boarding house where he was staying. He sent several distraught letters to his mother, and in one of them spoke of drowning himself. Dahmer turned up a few days later unable to account for the time he had been gone but otherwise unharmed. His mother, who had arrived from Charlotte to search for him, told the Wilmington Star that her son had disappeared in a fit of despondency.

John and Mary Lillycrop took over the management of the theater. On May 24, 1907, the Wilmington Star announced that henceforth the theater would be known as 'The New Odeon,' with a promise of new films and projectionist and a drop in admission prices. The Lillycrops continued the theater's racial policy of admitting whites only. No mention is made of C.W. Stonebanks's connection to the Odeon in any newspaper articles subsequent to Dahmer's disappearance.

On June 4, 1907, the Wilmington Dispatch complimented the Lillycrops on reviving the Odeon. The movies were, it said, "of high class and the illustrated songs are a very enjoyable feature." The pair gave "particular attention to the comfort and pleasure of ladies and children."

But a week later, on June 10, 1907, Fred Dahmer committed suicide in the rooms he and the Lillycrops had rented above the Odeon. Newspaper stories revealed that he had attempted suicide several times before coming back to Wilmington.

Shortly thereafter, the Lillycrops sold their interest in the Odeon to J.C. Vereen and a partner, who renamed the ill-starred theater The Edisonian. The Lillycrops returned to Charlotte, and J.H. Lillycrop resumed his career in the wholesale meat and fish business. Conrad Stonebanks remained in Wilmington, but did not continue in the movie business. The 1909-10 Wilmington city directory lists him as working at the Crescent Cigar Company.

The Edisonian was ready to open on June 18, 1907, but on June 24, it was announced that Vereen was changing location, "moving away from the ill-fated stand on Market Street." It is unknown where, exactly, the Edisonian relocated. It is mentioned in a July 9, 1907, newspaper article as operating "in the far northern part of Wilmington," which suggests that it relocated to the Brooklyn neighborhood. An article published at the end of July reviewing attractions at Wilmington's three theaters showing movies (Bijou, Theatorium, Academy of Music [aka Thalian Hall]) fails to mention the Edisonian, suggesting that the theater had ceased operation.