Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

What Would the Experience of the Bijou Have Been Like?

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

The experience of the Bijou in its first years of operation as a wood-fronted tent (1906-1912) would have started on the sidewalk.

This image (left), one of the very few surviving photographs of the Bijou in its tent mode (a permanent structure replaced the tent in 1912), shows its wooden sham façade with an arched recessed box office area. Two doors with "Entrance" on the right and "Exit" on the left flank the box office window. Just to the left of the "Bijou" lettering are the opening and closing times. The photograph was taken from the opposite side of North Front Street, directly in front of Gaylord's Big Racket Store.

In the foreground we can see the brick-paved surface of Front Street bisected by streetcar tracks. Against the far curb, a bicycle is propped against the side of a sign board that would have greeted passersby walking in either direction along the west side of North Front Street. A caption tells us that the theater's two proprietors are in the group. James Howard stands with his hand on the back of his Great Dane, Caesar. Percy Wells stands to his left. The caption also claims, erroneously, that the Bijou was "the first permanent moving picture house in North Carolina." Evidence of an earlier theater in Charlotte-discovered as a result of our research for this project--deflate that boast.

Bijou Theater, Wilmington, N.C. in The Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.

Another rare photo (right) of the original Bijou was published in the Wilmington Star in 1946. Taken between December 1906 and February 1912, the photo shows two young women standing in the middle of North Front Street, directly in front of the Bijou. The cobblestone paving and streetcar lines are visible in the shot. The accompanying column asks how the bicycle came to be included in the foreground of the image, and whether there really were trees behind the Bijou. The answer to the first query will remain a mystery, but the latter is explained by the fact that there was still a vacant lot to the south of the Bijou, between the lot it was on and the Cape Fear Club, until after the "new" Murchison Bank Building was constructed at the corner of Front and Chestnut (replacing the Cape Fear Club) in 1913.

The sidewalk experience of the Bijou was recalled by Henry Bacon McKoy in Do You Remember When?, his memoir of growing up in Wilmington (McKoy 1957). Wilmingtonians would have told their friends they were going to the "By-Joe," not the "Bee-ju," according to McKoy, who was twelve years old when the Bijou opened in 1906. Approaching it, they would have seen and heard James "Foxy" Howard, a large man in his early forties with bushy white hair, as he "walked up and down in front of the theatre, calling in a loud voice that could be heard for blocks, and still rings in my memory, 'Never Out and Never Over. Right this way! New picture showing! For five cents, the twentieth part of a dollar. . . '" (p. 115). Howard's nickname was a twist on his middle name, Fox, and an allusion to a popular comic strip character, "Foxy Grandpa," whom Howard was thought to resemble.

Another Wilmington memoirist, Lewis Philip Hall, recalls in Land of the Golden River that Howard was always dapper. He describes the gold watch chain that stretched across his vest and the diamond stick pin in his tie. He writes that Howard used a megaphone to amplify his cry of "Never Out and Never Over." (Hall 1975, pp. 325). A 1919 Wilmington Dispatch article notes that "Foxy" Howard's "ballyhoo" was accompanied by popular songs played on a wind-up record player. This was a common form of promotion at early movie theaters, attracting the attention of passersby and advertising the fact that illustrated songs would be a part of the Bijou experience in addition to movies.

Before handing over a nickel to Mr. Howard, Bijou patrons could purchase candy bars, cigarettes, popcorn, and parched peanuts at a small concession stand on the south side of the Bijou. The stand was added in June of 1907 (Wilmington Dispatch 5-20-1906, Reaves Collection, NHCPL) and appears as a tiny separate structure in the 1910 Sanborn map edition. Peanuts and popcorn were also sold inside the theater between reels by a boy who walked up and down the Bijou's two aisles carrying his goods in a basket. The empty peanut shells were simply dropped onto the sawdust floor and swept up after the Bijou closed at 11 pm.

1905 - The Little Train Robbery 1 of 3
Early Bijou audiences might well have seen this 1905 film, The Little Train Robbery, directed by pioneer director Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Company. Audiences would have recognized it as a self-parody of an earlier Porter film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the most popular of all early narrative films.

Edison Newsreels: San Francisco Earthquake aftermath (1906)
Movie audiences around the country saw films of the aftermath of the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire like this one, produced by the Edison Company.

Films shown at the Bijou were changed frequently. Most films screened in the theater’s first year would have been single-reel subjects (1000 feet in length or around 10 minutes). Fictional narrative films—both comedies and dramas-- had become an important part of movie theater programs by late 1906.

The forerunners of news and documentary films, called actualities at the time, would also have been a regular part of early Bijou programs.

"Goodbye, Girlie, Remember Me" was performed at the nearby Joyland Theatre in November 1910. It is recreated here: sung by Jon Finson, Professor of Music, UNC-CH, accompanied by Alicia Levin. Original song slides are courtesy of the MarNan Collection, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Movies were only half the program at the Bijou. Each film had to be rewound after screening. This time was filled by the performance of popular songs to piano accompaniment. Howard and Wells would have rented sets of lantern slides that provided visual illustration of the song lyrics. A concluding slide would contain the words to the chorus, and the audience would be invited to join in. "Illustrated songs," as this performance tradition was called, were features of every program at many theaters between 1906 and 1914. The first of many live performers at the Bijou was Percy Wells's wife, Alice Fisher Wells, who both played the piano and, in the early days at least, also sang. By the summer of 1907, her performances were accompanied by lantern slides projected on the screen, which illustrated the song lyrics. "Illustrated songs," as this performance tradition was called, were features of every program at many theaters between 1906 and 1914. After the illustrated song, the lights would go down again, and, as McKoy recalls, another slide would appear on the screen, requesting women to remove their hats so that patrons sitting behind them could see the screen