Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Royal Theatre (opened: September 27, 1915; closed Jan. 21, 1949)

The Royal Theatre was located at 119 N. Front Street in downtown Wilmington, just north of the Orton Hotel and across the street from the Post Office Building. It was the third purpose-built movie theater to be erected in downtown Wilmington, following the Bijou in 1912 and the Victoria in 1914.

The site selected for the Royal was a vacant lot that had been used since 1911 as an outdoor movie venue, the Airdome.

This postcard, published in 1905, shows the Orton Hotel and on the right edge of the image, the old Delmonico Cafe, which was torn down prior to 1911, when the Airdome opened on the site

Occupying a site of approximately 40 feet by 100 feet, the Royal had a seating capacity of 900 and included a balcony accommodating 350.

The Royal was undertaken by James Howard and Percy Wells, proprietors of the Bijou Theater. The property was purchased by them in April 1915 for $40,000 to $45,000. The construction budget was reported as $25,000. The architect was Burett Stephens, who designed also the Bijou and the Victoria.

In an article announcing the construction of the theater, a number of innovations were highlighted. In addition to a large balcony, the Royal was to have a more steeply inclined main floor than the Bijou, which made for better sight lines. Attention was paid in the plans to the audience's comfort and safety: a "new and modern" ventilation system, generously spaced seats, and ample fire exits. These features were easily accomplished in new construction but would have been much more difficult to achieve in a movie theater that had been "repurposed" from existing storefront space.

The article claims that the Royal also featured a first for Wilmington movie theaters: "a rest and dressing room for ladies and children, fitted with all modern conveniences and comforts." The facility was located at the first of the main floor of the Royal and could be used not only by Royal patrons, but also by "the public in general." The restroom also was designed to serve as a check room for parcels.

The Royal also featured Wilmington's first animated electric sign. A sign above the box office spelled out "Royal" in electric lights, around which "ran" illuminated rabbits. (Tetterton 2005, p. 159)

This postcard, produced around 1915, shows the sign.

The projector installed at the Royal was touted as representing the "latest improvement" in movie technology. The head of the "operating department" (projectionists) was R.D. Marshall, who invited the public to inspect the projection room prior to the theater's inaugural program.

To accompany the silent films shown at the Royal, Howard and Wells had purchased a Seeberg motion picture orchestra organ. No mention is made of a stage or live acts in newspaper coverage of the Royal's construction or opening, so it is likely that Howard and Wells planned it strictly as a movie theater.

When it opened in 1915, the Royal presented programs continuously from 11 am to 11 pm. The programs were an hour to ninety minutes long.

In late 1916, Howard and Wells added a stage, dressing rooms, and scenery storage space to the Royal by extending the rear of the building. As a result, the Royal could accommodate "almost any kind of production, even with elaborate scenic equipment."

Accounts of the renovation also provide clues as to the Royal's racial admission policy. At the same time the stage was added, the balcony was renovated to allow for a better view of the stage and made "more comfortable for patrons than the balcony of any other theatre in the city." The attention paid to the balcony suggests that it was intended for white patrons, not African Americans, as was the custom at some other theaters (including the Bijou). No mention is made in newspaper ads or articles of any accommodation for African Americans, so it can be assumed that African Americans were not admitted to the Royal at all.

With the 1916 renovations, the Royal increased its admission prices: from 10 cents for a balcony seat at matinees to twenty-five cents for the entire lower floor in the evenings.

In the late 1910s, the Royal featured musical comedies and vaudeville programs. In 1920, it was once again renovated, and a "mammoth American pipe organ" was installed. From that point on, it was used for movies exclusively. Walter Penny, formerly treasurer of the Academy of Music, was named its manager.

George W. Bailey, took over operation of the Royal in 1924.

In 1933, Howard and Wells defaulted on loans they had taken out on all four of their theater properties: the Grand, the Victoria, the Bijou, and the Royal, and the theaters were foreclosed upon by the holder of the notes, local property developer and manager Jacob M. Solky. George Bailey continued to manage the theater after its sale.

The Royal was one of several buildings destroyed when the nearby Orton Hotel burned on January 21, 1949.