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Going to the Show

Center Theater, Durham, N.C. 1938

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Center Theater project was Erle Stillwell's fifth movie theater in North Carolina and was built soon after the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh (1937) was erected. It was located at the corner of Corcoran Street and West Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham. Its street address was 313 West Chapel Hill Street. Located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Durham was a city dominated by the manufacture of tobacco products in 1938. Of its approximately 60,000 residents, approximately forty percent were African American. The Center was built for N.C. Theatres, Inc., the company used by the Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its North Carolina operations. It also managed two other Durham theaters- the Carolina and the Rialto-at the time the Center was planned.

Center Theater, 1965, courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

Seating 1400 patrons, the Center was designed for movies rather than for a mix of film and stage entertainment. Nonetheless, live performance was still very much a part of the experience of the Center: pride of place at the front of the auditorium was given to a Wurlitzer organ. The first-floor auditorium also featured an elaborate Art Deco proscenium decorated with a mixture of organic shapes, angular forms, and cog-like industrial details. One of its functions was to conceal the organ pipes.

In his book Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchel 2006, p. 128), William Mitchell characterizes the Center's style as "Stillwell at his most unpredictable and extravagant." He uses sleek curved forms and long horizontal lines of the moderne architectural style, but he mixes them with design features that are more typical of Art Deco, creating odd disjunctions. Mitchell sees a "disconnect between the round industrial Moderne ticket booth, for example, and the much more subtle form of the oval stairway sweeping up to the mezzanine. The ceiling and walls of the auditorium are more subtle still, understated vertical scallops that served as acoustical baffles and light troughs." The sweeping oval stairway led to a mezzanine level with men's and women's toilets and lounges for white patrons.

Located at the intersection of two busy downtown streets, the lot on which the Center was built gave Stillwell the opportunity to place the entrance on the corner. A wrap-around marquee was placed in front of fluted verticals on the building facade. This was Stillwell's only design for a corner-lot theater in North Carolina. Corner lots were especially valued downtown properties because of their greater visibility and street frontage.

Section of Basement and First Floor Plan- Carolina Wilson, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

As he had done with the Center Theater in Rocky Mount and the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh, Stillwell designed the balcony of the Center in Durham as two racially separate seating areas: a white balcony in front and a small "colored" balcony behind and above it. A separate stairway led from a side exterior entrance to the balcony, bypassing the amenities on the mezzanine level. Unlike Stillwell's plans for racial separation in his previous two North Carolina theaters, however, there was no physical barrier separating the two sections of the balcony. Whereas newspaper coverage of the opening of Stillwell's theaters in Rocky Mount and Raleigh made no mention of segregated spaces, the Durham Morning Herald noted that "There are two balconies, one for the Negroes and another for the whites. There has been no discrimination in quality or appointments. The lobbies, rest-rooms and powder rooms throughout are of the same general design." The plans for the Center do not bear out this claim of "separate but equal" facilities. The two small single toilets for African Americans were perched above the upper balcony. Plans called for them to have concrete floors rather than the ceramic tile specified for the white toilets. In addition, there were no "lounges" for black patrons shown on the plans. (Durham Morning Herald, December 16, 1938, p. 2)

The Center opened on December 16, 1938. As was common with newspaper coverage of movie theater openings in the 1930s, the Durham Morning Herald's account of the Center was full of superlatives. It was "the most modern in the south," "one of the finest and best arranged theatres in the country," and a "prize package" presented by North Carolina Theatres, Inc., to the people of Durham. "Like all modern theatres," the paper noted, "the new Center has refrigerated, washed-air conditioning equipment." Both principals of the company, H.F. Kincey and R.B. Wilby attended the opening, as did Durham Mayor Will F. Carr. The paper described Stillwell's interior style as creating a "carnival atmosphere." (Durham Morning Herald, December 16, 1938, p. 8.)

An "overflow" crowd attended the opening night performance. The star of the show was the Center's pipe organ and introduction of the new theater's organist Bert Ponard. After a medley of popular tunes and a community sing- along, Ponard closed with a song he had composed in honor of the local Duke University football team. Another special attraction of opening night was a short film "in which Mickey Rooney, juvenile star, congratulated Durham on its new theatre, Duke University on its centennial celebration, and Duke Blue Devils on their football record." (Durham Morning Herald, December 17, 1938, p. 3.) It was a notable year for Duke football: the Blue Devils were undefeated, gave up no points during the regular season, and were selected for the Rose Bowl (where they lost to the University of Southern California 7-3).

In 1966 the Center was relocated from downtown Durham to the Lakewood Shopping Center, a few miles west. The shopping center was built on the site of the Lakewood Amusement Park, established in the early 1900s at the end of the streetcar line. Movies were shown at Lakewood for a number of years in the summer months, making it the place many Durhamites first encountered motion pictures. The building Stillwell designed for the Center was demolished in 1967.