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Going to the Show

Center Theater, Monroe, N.C. 1939

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Center Theater in Monroe, N.C., was built for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the company used by the Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its North Carolina operations. Monroe, the county seat of Union County, is located some thirty miles southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1939, Monroe was a city of some 6,500 residents, approximately fifteen percent of whom were African American. The Center was located in downtown Monroe at 120 S. Main Street.

With a capacity of 843 (599 in the auditorium and 244 in the balcony), the Center was one of Stillwell's smaller theater projects for North Carolina Theatres, Inc. Although plans included a stage, provisions for live performance were minimal: no fly loft, wings, or dressing rooms. Stylistically, the Center in Monroe resembled most other Stillwell theaters of the late 1930s: a spare, light-colored facade with some Moderne-influenced design touches inside. It was a style that would characterize Stillwell's theater work for the next decade.

One reason Stillwell's facades of this period are so unprepossessing is that they were designed to be used as backdrops for the illuminated signs, marquees, and poster cases that typically covered the front of movie theaters.

Center Theater Early 1960s, from the collection of Edward Marks

As this photo (left) from the early 1960s shows, the upper part of the Center's facade was covered by a jutting triangular marquee that displayed both the name of the theater and, below it, the current attractions. The Center in Monroe also featured what was called an "upright": an illuminated vertical sign spelling out the name of the theater outlined in neon lights. Charlotte Herzog describes the upright as "very similar in function to the steeple or spire on the church or cathedral. It not only identified the building to which it was attached, but also publicized the importance of that building because it was usually the center of the community." (Herzog 1980, p.97)

Plans for the Center allowed for the admission of African Americans and their segregation within the theater. A separate entrance and stairs led to a mezzanine level and a second box office and toilet facilities. The stairs continued up to the balcony. Stairs also led from the first floor lobby to the balcony, bypassing the mezzanine entirely. In previous segregated theaters Stillwell had designed, the mezzanine level contained lobby and toilet areas for white patrons- a level not accessible to African American patrons whose path led directly to the balcony. At the Center in Monroe, however, it is likely that this arrangement was reversed. Seating in the balcony was almost certainly segregated as well, although it is difficult to tell from the plans themselves which areas were reserved for which race.

The Center opened on Monday evening, February 12, 1940. As had become customary when a new North Carolina Theatres, Inc., movie house opened in a given city, the Center was dedicated in a ceremony in which the local mayor "received" the theater on behalf of the city's residents from the manager. The Monroe high school band provided music for the event. The role of the new movie theater as a civic institution was also reflected in its first newspaper ad:

A NEW ERA IN ENTERTAINMENT DAWNS FOR MONROE
The Theatre is a vital force in civic life. It mirrors the events and history of a wide, wide world. Its screen promotes education, sets styles, advances arts and teaches right from wrong. It offers a restful haven for leisure hours, drawing together the young and old. . . . The Center Theatre is YOUR Theatre and you are assured of the best in picture entertainment at all times. Make the CENTER THEATRE Your Meeting Place.
(Monroe Journal, February 9, 1940)

Monroe's mayor, V.D. Sikes, declared February 12, 1940 to be "Center Theatre" Day and urged that "citizens and residents set aside a part of this day to attend the opening of the new theatre as an expression of our appreciation for the superior comfort and entertainment service which will be available here for our citizens and those of nearby cities and towns." (Monroe Journal, February 9, 1940)

The Center was operated by Monroe Theatres, Inc., whose president, F. Wheeler Smith, was also the theater manager. It was common for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., to partner with a local individual or company in the building of new theaters. But it is clear that North Carolina Theatres, Inc., and through them, the Wilby-Kincey circuit, was responsible for the Center's publicity. Stories on the Center's opening in the Monroe Journal borrowed extensively from press release material that had been prepared for another theater Stillwell had designed for the company, the Center in High Point, which had opened in January 1939. A story in the High Point Enterprise pointing out the "generous consideration for the comfort of patrons" in the amount of floor space devoted to lobbies and lounges in the Center there was recast in the Monroe Journal to describe its Center- even though much less space and design attention were devoted to lobbies and lounges there than in the High Point theater. (High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. B-4; Monroe Journal, February 9, 1940)

During World War II, the Center was popular with soldiers from a nearby army base, Camp Sutton. The building still stands in downtown Monroe. (Mitchell 2006, p.132)