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Moviegoing in Early 20th-Century North Carolina

In the years from 1896 to 1930, going to the movies became an established feature of everyday life in thousands of communities across the country. During this period, most North Carolinians still lived on farms or in small towns, and movie theaters were frequently the only places in a given town in which commercial entertainment was presented on a regular basis. This month, Documenting the American South highlights its newest addition, the "Going to the Show" project, which documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures in 1896 to the end of the silent film era around 1930.

In most American towns and cities for most of the 20th century, movie theaters were located at the heart of commercial, civic, and social life. For most North Carolinians—indeed for most Americans—moviegoing was therefore linked to the experience of going to town. For some, this might have meant a short trip into town once a week; for others it meant a significantly longer trek just a couple of times a year. In any case, theaters were central places where nationally circulated popular culture was received and situated within local traditions. In many small towns, the local "Bijou" or "Regal" was the largest and most frequently visited public space that wasn't a church or a synagogue.

In many of the venues, movies were not the only attraction. Live music, variety acts, travel lectures, war bond rallies, revival sermons, turkey raffles, and the running commentary of the person sitting behind or beside you might be part of the show. Furthermore, the venue itself might not even have been a commercial theater. Films were also shown in other kinds of theatrical spaces—vaudeville theaters and opera houses, for example—particularly but not exclusively prior to 1910. Movies were also shown in high schools, churches, amusement parks, YMCAs, tents, vacant lots, and fraternal and social clubs.

Movie venues were also inevitably segregated spaces. The exclusionary laws, customs, and practices known as "Jim Crow" determined the access to movie theaters for everyone in North Carolina and throughout the South. For African Americans, moviegoing meant being turned away from the box office of "white" theaters, climbing outside stairs to the balcony "reserved" for black moviegoers, being allowed to enter a white theater only late on Friday nights after the last showing for white audiences, and/or going to an African American theater. "Going to the Show" is the first digital library to use the history of moviegoing to illuminate the role of Jim Crow race policies in the urban South.

This project is also the first to document the experience of early moviegoing for an entire state. North Carolina was urbanizing at a rapid pace at the turn of the 20th century—faster than most other states. However, urban growth, fueled by tobacco, textile, and furniture manufacturing, did not mean the rise of a few big cities, but rather the proliferation of many small towns. This relatively equitable growth meant that movie venues sprang up all around the state. "Going to the Show," then, truly represents the state: it includes information about more than 1200 movie exhibition sites in some 200 North Carolina communities. This information comes from a variety of sources, including newspaper ads and articles, photographs, postcards, city directories, and more than 750 digitized Sanborn Fire Insurance Map® pages.

"Going to the Show" is made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by the State Library of North Carolina. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps® are drawn from the North Carolina Collection's holdings.

Robert Allen