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Carolina Theatre celebrates 85th birthday with exclusive documentary

by Mark Burger

 

October 31st is Halloween, of course, but it also marks an important milestone in the region’s cultural history, as the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro commemorates its 85th year.

Such an event can not, and will not, go unnoticed. On Monday, Oct. 29, an anniversary celebration is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Local luminaries and politicians are expected to be on hand, and the evening will include the world premiere of “Carolina 85,” a 30-minute video documentary that explores the history of the Carolina Theatre and, indeed, the town it calls home.

For more than eight decades, the Carolina Theatre has hosted live performances, film screenings and other special events. Although it’s official name is the “Carolina Theatre of Greensboro,” when people mention the Carolina Theatre, there’s no question for those in the region which Carolina Theatre is being talked about. It was originally touted as the “Showplace of the Carolinas” when its doors first opened on Halloween night, 1927.

At the time, the Carolina Theatre was a 2,200-seat vaudeville theater and, as so many entertainment venues from that era, it was a segregated theater. It was also boasted a new and refreshing technological innovation rare in such structures — it was airconditioned.

“The theater has been a palace for dream and fantasy,” observed Paula Damasceno, the producer of “Carolina 85,” “[and] a place where where the Segregation Law was established and abolished, a building which survived the decline of the downtown in the 1960s and ’70s, and a fire in the ’80s. The Carolina Theatre is a rare pearl.”

The film is a collaborative production between the Carolina Theatre, Elsewhere Artist Collaborative and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

The Brazilian-born Damasceno, visiting Greensboro for the first time earlier this year as an artist-inresidence at Elsewhere, was compiling research about historic movie theaters, having made several earlier documentaries about the same topic.

“At the beginning, I was thinking of making another movie about old movie theaters in downtown Greensboro, but when people from Elsewhere started talking about the Carolina Theatre, I had to focus on its 85 years of history [and] showing the changes in North American society through this theater’s history.”

Over the years, the theater has been upgraded, updated and renovated, yet still retains its Southern charm. It has as much historical significance as it does cultural significance, which was what Damasceno wanted to explore. She conducted extensive interviews with local residents, officials and historians while delving into the Carolina Theatre’s lasting (and ongoing) legacy.

“As soon as I began my project, I had the immediate support of the community, and Elsewhere, the Carolina Theatre and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum became collaborators.”

Damasceno’s film crew included poet Graham Holt, UNCG students Ben Boyles and Carolina Garcia, NC A&T University students Christopher Martin and Justin Jones, and fellow Elsewhere artistin-residency Dana Robinson.

She describes her crew and collaborators as “indispensable.”

“A movie process is a faith process,” she said. “You have to work hard and trust in your collaborators. Different from painting, music or poetry, to ‘touch’ a movie — or better, to see your piece — you have to do many different processes that only in the end will be together in one and presented to the public.”

When movies went to sound in 1928, the Carolina Theatre went right along with it. Although the Carolina Theatre remains one of the most popular entertainment destinations in the region, it has also weathered its share of tough times, including the heights (and depths) of the Great Depression for much of the 1930s, skirting the wrecking ball on at least one occasion, and undergoing a year’s worth of renovations following a July 1981 fire. Established as its own nonprofit entity in 2006, the Carolina Theatre continues to provide a diverse selection of events almost 250 days each year with an annual attendance of more than 90,000. It’s rare when something isn’t going on at the Carolina Theatre — and something special is certainly taking place there on Oct. 29.

Admission to the screening is free. The Carolina Theatre is located at 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro. For more information about current and upcoming events, call 336.333.2605 or check out the official Carolina Theatre website: www.carolinatheatre.com.

 

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