‘Showplace of the Carolinas’ still shows films
I touched the booming 91-year-old wood and felt it vibrate.
Perhaps only a vintage film geek understands the thrill of hearing and feeling sound played through a 1928 Vitaphone speaker. Last week, thanks to Gigi Galdo and Martin Campbell of the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro, I had an opportunity to make my cinephile friends jealous.
Standing in the dusty darkness of what was formerly the segregated balcony (the only place African Americans could sit), I watched Campbell, the Carolina Theatre’s technical director, plug his laptop into a large wooden horn-shaped speaker, handmade for Western Electric by the Victrola Company. Playing through it, his modern music sounded better than it would have on any speaker I owned in college.
Galdo, the Carolina Theatre’s marketing assistant, was as transported as me.
Behind the speakers was the Vitaphone turntable for the long-gone sound disks that, except for size, were practically identical to phonograph ones, which in those days were compounded of shellac (a material derived from the resin secreted by the female lac insect) rather than vinyl.
I imagined black audiences making their way to the side entrance, through the segregated lobby, and climbing three flights of stairs to this space, from which, if they stood at the rail and peered down (risky, since staring at white folks was considered “uppity”), they could glimpse the untouchable opulence below. The Carolina was segregated until 1963 when students from A&T and Bennett College protested by blockading the ornate front entrance they weren’t allowed to use.
No matter how seemingly cool and glamorous, the past always has a substratum of pain.
Based on what Galdo and Campbell told me, along with info from the Carolina’s history page and the addictive Cinema Treasures site, and an amusingly hyperbolic article from the Oct. 30, 1927 Greensboro Daily News, here’s a partial history of the Carolina as a movie palace (it also has a long and continuing history as a venue for live performance, a subject worth an article of its own).
When it opened on 310 S. Greene St. on Oct. 31, 1927, Saenger-Publix Corporation advertised it as “The –Showplace of the Carolinas.” It was the largest such venue in the state and one of the most expensive in the South, costing $500,000. Designed by Greensboro architect James M. Workman and the French-born/D.C.-based Jules de Sibour, it boasted a $75,000 heating and refrigeration installation, making it the first air-conditioned public building in Greensboro.
The first movie shown at the new theater was Painting the Town. Although contemporary ads declared it “the bee’s knees” and “the snake’s hips,” it’s largely forgotten even by film historians.
In August 1928, the Carolina became the first theater in North Carolina to show a sound movie, or more correctly, one with sound sequences. This was Glorious Betsy, a $50,000 (a huge budget for the day) biopic starring Dolores Costello as the Baltimore-born socialite who married Napoleon’s youngest brother. Galdo emailed me a microfiche photostat of a Greensboro Daily News ad with the word “Vitaphone” (“the voice of the screen”) in larger type than the film’s title or cast.
Invented by Western Electric’s Bell Laboratories in 1924, Vitaphone was used in cinemas between 1926 and 1931. It was the last and most commercially successful sound-on-disc system. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but on a 16-inch phonograph disc recorded at 33 1⁄3 rpm and played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector’s motor. Each record had a playing time of 11 minutes, roughly that of the then-standard 1,000-foot film reel.
“It sounded better than the early sound-on-film systems,” said Campbell when he demonstrated the speakers to me. “But within three years, sound-on-film caught up, and this was no longer state of the art audio.” The Vitaphone discs being only good for about 20 plays, and the necessity for a separate infrastructure to deliver them to theaters were also factors in the sound-on-disc system losing this early format war.
By the early 1930s, sound-on-film was the norm, and the Showplace of the Carolinas made the inevitable switch. From the Depression through the Postwar era, it continued to be considered the finest movie palace between D.C. and Atlanta.
“Everybody wore their Sunday best,” Galdo said, “both audience and staff. The projectionists wore suits and ties.”
At least, they did so while going to and from the fourth floor where the projection booth originally was.
“It was so hot in the booth; they’d strip down to their underwear.”
The gleaming Art Deco movie palaces of the 1920s and ‘30s didn’t sell snacks. Popcorn, like candy and hot dogs, was something you ate at carnivals and ballgames, not at “the Pictures.” That changed with the war years when theater owners realized they could charge street vendors for being allowed to set up outside the lobby. The next step was cutting out the middleman. In 1949, the Carolina opened its first concession stand.
That same year, WCOG began broadcasting the Circle K Club live from the Carolina stage. This was a local children’s radio program featuring such “kiddie show” celebrities as George Perry, aka the Old Rebel, whose career entertaining generations of local children were chronicled by Billy Ingram in a 2007 YES! Weekly article.
The live hijinks were followed by cartoons and the weekly installment of the serials, featuring comic book icons such as Superman, Batman and Captain America in their threadbare live-action debuts, or the spacemen and globe-trotting adventurers who would influence George Lucas. The matinee usually ended with an hour-long B-western. By the early 1950s, membership in the Circle K Club had grown into the thousands. The club thrived until 1961, when Saturday morning cartoons debuted on network T.V., keeping the kid audience at home.
Adult attendance also declined due to competition from television, as well as from the smaller and newer cinemas in shopping centers, and because of white flight from downtown. In 1968, Born Free was the last major studio release to have a first-run showing at the Carolina.
Like the grungier downtown Fayetteville cinemas, in which I spent so much of my teenage years, it became a second-run theater specializing in kung fu, horror and blaxploitation. In 1974, when I was watching Christopher Lee, Bruce Lee and Pam Grier in Fayetteville’s grindhouses, the Carolina showed the 11-year-old gorefest Blood Feast and the more recent and racially-charged The Klansmen and The Liberation of L.B. Jones. In 1976, The Exorcist, already three years old, became the last movie shown there for a while.
That same year, the United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro raised $550,000 to save the theater from demolition. In 1977, the council purchased it and began renovation, reopening it a year later as a community performing arts center. In 1981, an arsonist died in a fire she started in a stairwell, and the building suffered considerable damage.
The United Arts Council staged the Renaissance Capital Campaign in 1988, raising $5,000,000 to help expand the city-owned Cultural Center on Davie Street and to undertake the next phase of renovation. In 1991, the Carolina reopened with refurbished dressing rooms and offices, a second-floor banquet area, new sound and lighting equipment, new HVAC, a modern concession stand, and new restrooms. Seating capacity was reduced to 1,075. In 2006, the United Arts Council, now ArtsGreensboro, passed the deed of ownership and responsibility for the historic structure to the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro, Inc., a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to “Presenting Arts, Preserving History.”
But what does the future hold for it as a cinema?
Campbell told me that the theater is raising money for “a 12,000-lumen full HD projector,” which “will be a significantly huge improvement on what we have now.” Galdo explained that the Carolina hopes “to raise $15,000 to get that new projector.”
It typically only plays movies from DVD in the auditorium and from DVD and Blu-Ray in The Crown. Campbell said that fewer and fewer distributors have 35 mm prints, and those that do charge a lot and might be reluctant to allow those treasured prints to be spooled through the theater’s aging projectors.
He said he’s eager to upgrade the theater’s digital capability.
“We got a significant donation specifically for the HD projector, but need 15,000 more. The new one will have a significantly higher contrast ratio, with deeper blacks.”
He also said that sound is already upgraded. “We’ve got a Dolby EX Surround system. That’s a huge step in the right direction from our previous sound system, which was built in the 1980s.”
Galdo told me that, when she joined the Carolina staff, she never expected to be working with films, even though that’s what she studied in college.
“My university did not offer a major in film, only a minor. So, I took spent my junior year studying film abroad at Kings College London. I was lucky to have studied with Richard Dyer, an incredible film theorist, while there. My areas of focus were queer cinema and the use of gendered landscapes in early westerns.”
She said that, while the Carolina’s executive director had booked its films for years, he took note of her experience and interest and asked if she would take over. But, she added, the actual selection process is highly collaborative.
I asked her if she thinks Greensboro’s Carolina will ever be able to show as impressively varied a selection of vintage cinema as the Carolina Theater in Durham, with its weekly retro double features and frequent film festivals.
“I definitely think it’s possible. We focus on performing arts and have to build our film schedule around that, other than our summer and holiday film festivals. And I think that we would like to in the future some more smaller scale series, but that does allow us to put in things that would otherwise get lost. There is a balance we have to strive for, but I think that doing smaller series in the future will allow us to do deeper cuts, things that aren’t necessarily as popular to the general public.”
The Carolina’s upcoming summer film festival includes Some Like It Hot (July 8), The Big Lebowski (July 9), Coco (July 10), Grease (July 11), Purple Rain (July 15), Time Bandits (July 16), Caddyshack (July 17), The Blues Brothers (July 18), North by Northwest (July 19), Psycho (July 22), Dirty Dancing (July 23), Inside Out (July 24), Jesus Christ Superstar (July 25), Enter the Dragon (July 29), Best in Show (July 30), Moana (July 31), Blue Hawaii (Aug. 1), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (Aug. 5), Gone with the Wind (Aug. 6), The Incredibles (Aug. 7), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Aug. 8), The Birds (Aug. 9), Notorious (Aug. 12), Midnight Cowboy (Aug. 13), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Aug. 14), Stand by Me (Aug. 15), and Vertigo (Aug. 16).
Films generally start at 7 p.m. and are $7 ($6 for students, seniors, teachers, military and first responders). See the Carolina Theatre’s website for details.
YES! Weekly thanks the Carolina for sharing their extensive photo archives, some highlights of which can be seen on the YES! Weekly Facebook page. A treasure trove of over 100 historical images can be viewed on Flickr in the “albums” tab.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.