Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

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Theatorium (opened: May 30, 1907; probable close date June 1908)

The third movie theater to open (after the Bijou and the Odeon) in Wilmington, the Theatorium, was located at 20 Market Street, in the block between Front Street and Dock Street in downtown Wilmington. The space the theater occupied was the first floor of a three-story commercial building, with a 25-foot frontage on Market Street, extending some 60 feet in depth. The building was owned by local merchant and property developer Solomon Bear, who owned and managed several other commercial properties in downtown Wilmington.

"For Rent.", Wilmington, N.C. in The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

The entire building is advertised for rent in June 1906 for occupancy on October 1, the date when commercial property usually became available in Wilmington. However, the next mention of the property in the local press does not come until May 14, 1907, when it is announced that a motion picture theater was to be located in the "large store" at 20 Market Street by "a syndicate that controls moving picture theaters in different parts of the South."

The "syndicate" in question was listed as the South Eastern Amusement Association of Birmingham, Alabama, which, according to the Wilmington Dispatch, already operated two theaters in Charlotte, N.C., and had plans to open theaters in Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, and Winston-Salem-which, together with Wilmington, represented the largest urban centers in the state.

By May 29, 1907, the former wholesale liquor store had been converted into a "decidedly cozy and attractive theatre." The facade of the first floor frontage on Market Street had been remodeled and decorated with electric lights, a lobby, box offices, and entrances added, and the interior made into an auditorium complete with "opera chairs." Although it was only twenty-five feet wide, it was the largest storefront space on the south side of the first block of Market Street, giving it "plenty of room."

In what was already a promotional mantra for new movie theaters, it was announced that "Special attention will be paid to the comfort of ladies and children . . . There will be courteous attendants, who will see that the comfort of the patrons are well looked after." There were even to be "social police" present. On the first day of the theater's operation, ladies were admitted free. The theater probably did not admit African Americans.

"The Passion Play of Oberammergau", Wilmington, N.C. in The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

The Theatorium opened on May 30, 1907. Its first cinematic attraction was "The Passion Play of Oberammergau," a reenactment of the Easter religious pageant performed by the residents of the village of Oberammergau in Germany. The Theatorium took out a large display ad in the Wilmington Star to promote the opening of the theater with this special attraction. "It is a Bible education no one can afford to miss," the ad proclaimed.

The theater's programming and marketing strategies appear to have helped it get off to a good start. The Wilmington Star reported on June 7, 1907, that "The Passion Play" was continuing to "draw the multitudes."

Traditional pageants enacting episodes from the life of Jesus and focusing on his death by crucifixion had been adapted and restaged in the U.S. since 1879. There were dramatic versions, lectures illustrated with lantern slides, and, beginning in 1897, film versions of the Passion. The version presented at the Theatorium in the early summer of 1907 was probably one made nearly a decade earlier. "The Passion Play of Oberammergau" (1898) had been shown widely across the U.S., and its presentation varied considerably. It was common for the film to be accompanied by a lecturer, who provided commentary and linked the individual scenes together into the familiar biblical narrative. In some presentations, lantern slides and musical accompaniment were a part of the program. "The Passion Play" was shown in opera houses (especially around Easter time) as well as in churches and as a part of evangelical meetings. The Theatorium's presentation of "The Passion Play" does not seem to have involved a lecturer. Ads indicate that piano accompaniment would be provided for evening performances. (Musser 1990, pp.218-221)

Early film producers and exhibitors were eager to exploit religious subjects, especially those that would appeal to Christians. In August, 1907, the Theatorium presented the 1904 Edison film based upon Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal. The opera's plot concerned the medieval myth of an order of knights charged with protecting the Holy Grail. First publicly performed in 1882, Parsifal was designed by Wagner to be presented only at his theater in Bayreuth, Germany. It was not staged in New York until late 1903, when the Metropolitan Opera mounted an elaborate and much-publicized performance. The Edison film of Parsifal, shot a year later in late 1904, was nearly two thousand feet long, lasting approximately twenty-five minutes.

In the large advertisement run in the Wilmington Star, the Theatorium explicitly drew upon the religious appeal of "Parsifal" and linked it with the presentation of "The Passion Play" earlier that summer. Screenings of Parsifal at the Theatorium were accompanied by a lecturer, Alfred Moore Waddell, who would have been well-known to Wilmingtonians.

Waddell was the ex-mayor of Wilmington (he served from 1898 to 1905). A review of the performance of Parsifal in the Wilmington Star also notes that he was "a gentleman of most scholarly attainments." But Wilmingtonians in 1907 would have also known Waddell as the leader of a group of white men who in November 1898 had burned down the offices of Wilmington's black newspaper, The Record, and overthrown the elected city government, installing a white supremacist administration in Wilmington. (Reaves 1998, pp. 253-258)

In the summer of 1907, the Theatorium also seems to have been the most attractive and comfortable movie theater in Wilmington (the others in operation that summer were the tent-housed Bijou and the much smaller and more modest Odeon a block further east along Market Street). The Theatorium was, the Star gushed, "possibly the most handsomely fitted up movie picture theatre in the State and all patrons are wild in their enthusiasm over the now popular place of amusement."

In addition to movies, the Theatorium (like its competition in 1907) also presented illustrated songs as a regular program feature. In September 1907, the Wilmington Dispatch reported that Ed Reilly (later manager and performer at the Joyland Theater) was a "phenomenal success " in this role, accompanied by piano and cello. It also noted that a large stage was being added to the Theatorium.

The newspaper article announcing plans to open the Theatorium noted that it would be managed by "E.E. Hutson" (sic) and Don C.B. Van Duzen, who had "extensive experience in this department of the amusement line." The 1907 Wilmington city directory lists Edgar E. Huston as the manager of the Theatorium, and his residence as the Gilbert Boarding House. Huston opened the Majestic Theater in downtown Wilmington in November 1907 and left the Theatorium to manage it.

It is not clear what experience in the amusement business Van Duzen brought to the Theatorium, nor does it appear he stayed in this line of work for very long. The 1907 Wilmington city directory shows him employed at the Auto Co. A January 1910 newspaper article reports his resigning as secretary and sales manager of the Wilmington Motor Car Company. In February 1910 he is working as a traveling salesman for an auto supply company. (Wilmington Dispatch, 1-7-1910, 2-19-1910, Reaves Collection Surname Files, NHCPL)

Edgar E. Huston's relocation to the Majestic in November 1907 and the resultant sale of the Theatorium briefly brought to Wilmington an important early movie theater entrepreneur from Charleston, South Carolina, George S. Brantley. Brantley and his wife, Florence Brantley, opened the first movie theater in Charleston, South Carolina-the Theatorium-on February 2, 1907. In his book Movie Theaters of Charleston: Hollywood Meets the Holy City, John Coles calls Brantley, "the father of the movie business in Charleston." Born and raised in Macon, Georgia, Brantley saw his first movie there in 1906 at the age of 29 and also saw a promising business opportunity. According to Coles, Brantley regarded Macon as too small a city for a movie theater and settled upon Charleston. Like Wilmington, Charleston was the largest city in the state (55,000 city population, 88,000 county population in 1900) and the state's port and most cosmopolitan urban center. The Charleston Theatorium was, like its namesake in Wilmington, a converted downtown storefront, located on Charleston's main commercial thoroughfare at 321 King Street. Like Wilmington's pioneering theater managers, James Howard and Percy Wells, Brantley used a phonograph as "ballyhoo" to attract passersby to his new enterprise, and he offered a brief program of films and illustrated songs from 2 pm until 10 pm for five cents. Brantley's venture appears to have enjoyed considerable initial success, but it also inspired competition. By July 1907, three more storefront theaters had opened within a few blocks of the Theatorium, and in October 1907 Brantley sold the Theatorium for $5000.

Brantley was not able to make the Wilmington Theatorium a success, however. Coles claims that the "backers" of theater "did not believe strongly enough in the project." In February 1908, Brantley secured a lease on another building on King Street in Charleston, S.C., and in June 1908 opened the Majestic Theater there, having moved back there to manage it. (Coles 1994, p. 10-21)

Brantley's departure also seems to have signaled the closure of the Theatorium in Wilmington. There are no further clippings in the Reaves Collection that refer to the Theatorium after November 1907. The 1909 Wilmington city directory shows the Theatorium's space at 20 Market Street occupied by Mathew's Candy Company.