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Center Theater, Rocky Mount, N.C. 1937

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Center Theater, located at 138 Sunset Avenue in downtown Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was Erle Stillwell's third North Carolina movie theater. Rocky Mount, situated in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina, had approximately 25,000 residents in 1939, forty percent of whom were African American.

After designing the Carolina Theater in Hendersonville (1932), Stillwell undertook four movie theater projects in South Carolina and Tennessee before being hired by Rocky Mount entrepreneur Don Bulluck to plan a new 1000-seat theater in this tobacco and railroad city. In addition to the theater, the building Stillwell designed also included two storefront spaces (Mitchell 2006, p.133)

In his design for the exterior and interior of the Center, Stillwell returned to a variant of the Mediterranean style he had employed in the Carolina Theater in Hendersonville five years before. For the interior he designed an "atmospheric" Spanish-style garden with elaborate arches, balconies, and towers. Thirty small ceiling lights simulated the night sky. The atmospheric style of interior theater design involved the creation of an exotic historically themed exterior landscape surrounding the auditorium through the use of murals, color, lighting, plaster, and bas-relief elements. Some atmospheric theaters even used hundreds of tiny lights in the auditorium ceiling to imitate stars (the Carolina did not have this feature, however). Chief among American architects employing the atmospheric style was John Eberson, who designed more than 100 atmospheric theaters. Historian of movie theater architecture, Charlotte Herzog, noted that in atmospheric theaters, the side walls of the auditorium were as visually interesting as anything that might appear on the screen. (Herzog 1980, pp. 118-123) (May 2000, pp. 101-138); (Hendersonville Times-News, March 4, 1933, p. 6.)

By the time the Carolina opened in 1937, the atmospheric theater trend had waned in most other parts of the country. Its imitation of historical buildings (especially European palaces and mansions) and architectural styles was being challenged by modernist schools of design. In his subsequent theaters, Stillwell himself joined the trend toward art deco and moderne architectural styles, and these would dominate his theater designs throughout the remainder of his career.

Front Elevation and Cross Section- Center Rocky Mount, Courtesy of Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

For the interior he designed an "atmospheric" Spanish-style garden with elaborate arches, balconies, and towers. Thirty small ceiling lights simulated the night sky.

The Center was the first of Stillwell's North Carolina theaters to incorporate a double-door vestibule between the exterior box office lobby and the foyer.

The Center was planned to accommodate both live and cinematic attractions, featuring a full stage, fly loft, and, in the basement, three dressing rooms.

The balcony of the Center was divided into two sections: one for white patrons and, behind it, one for African Americans. White patrons reached their balcony section via stairs from the theater lobby. Black patrons entered the theater through a separate exterior door located on one side of the building, which bypassed the lobby and led to a separate box office and toilets located on the mezzanine level. A further flight of stairs led to the "colored" balcony. A pipe rail separated the two sections of the balcony and prevented black patrons from entering the white section.

The Center opened on June 12, 1937. Most of the front page of the Rocky Mount Evening Telegraph the day before the opening was devoted to the theater and its inaugural program. The opening of the Center was treated as a civic occasion and the theater itself was represented more as a gift to the town of Rocky Mount than a new business: "Rocky Mount's new theatre will be presented to Mayor J.Q. Robinson as the representative of the people, Manager Orr said, as a civic improvement made possible by the financial support of D.O. Bulluck, well known local business man." The opening ceremonies were broadcast on local radio station WEED, and mayors of surrounding towns in Nash and Edgecombe County were invited to participate. The Center operated continuously from 1 pm until 11 pm every day except for Sunday, when the theater opened at 2 p.m. Admission prices announced for the Center were twenty-five cents during matinee hours and thirty-five cents in the evening. Hal Orr, the Center's manager, also oversaw the town's two other theaters: the Lyric and the Carolina. (Rocky Mount Evening Telegraph, June 11, 1937, p. 1)