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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Description of the African American-owned Wonderland Theatre in Durham, North Carolina

In this excerpt, Turner describes the Wonderland Theatre, a black theatre ran by a man known as King Watkins. The Wonderland Theatre featured both movies and live performances, including the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, and Chick Webb. According to Turner, the Wonderland Theatre was a popular establishment, although she describes it as a run-down, rat-infested building. Her description offers a vivid portrait of segregated popular entertainment venues in the South during the 1920s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But here in the Wonderland Theatre is the first time I saw Uncle perform, was in this theatre. And the first time I saw Ella Fitzgerald, she was here to perform in this theatre, with Chick Webb. I didn't see that performance, but I saw Ella because Ella came to the building, a little country girl, thin, and sat out on the bench on the third floor where people sat when they were waiting for someone. And they left here, and I think I'm correct, they went on to Alabama, and either there or very shortly thereafter, Chick Webb died. Ethel, how I remember her? Well, she also was young and slender. And she was singing up on the stage and King Watkins. . .the man with the spotlight was back over here somewhere with the spot, you know, down on the stage. And she's just singing away and he can't get the spot on her right, you know. Like she's over here and he's got the spot over here. And she'd stop singing and get over here and he's got the spot over here. And right in the middle of her singing, with the thing up to her mouth like that, she says, "The Hell! Can't you get that damn spot right?" [laughter] And kept right on singing. Betty and another girl who's dead, Felicia, and when Eula was here, the four of us-Felicia worked with Bankers; the three of us worked at North Carolina Mutual. But we would meet from work and go to the Wonderland Theatre. And it was a real junky place. It was dark and dismal, narrow. You went down like this so if you were back this way, you were here. And always up at the front, there would be a bunch of real street urchins, I guess. Noise and racket, peanut eating and throwing shells everywhere, and pounding and carrying on. And we'd be sitting in the back. And we called it, ourselves, that we were slumming. When we were going to meet, we'd say [whispering], "Don't forget to get the peanuts." We'd all go in with a bag of peanuts and we'd sit in the back. And we were scared to put your feet down, so we'd put them up here, because rats would just as likely be roaming. Oh, yes. It was a dump! But he had pretty good pictures. And he had Uncle . We'd sit up there and we'd hold our feet up like this, then we'd crunch peanuts. And then when something that would come real good, everybody down there was just yelling and whistling and screaming, we'd say "We-e-e-e!" [laughter] We'd yell as loud as we could, and get up and come on out. Eula and I, we'd never tell Nora where we had been. Because, we lived with her, you know, and if we didn't come straight on home, she'd want to know, "Where in the world have you all been so late?" "Oh, we just stopped off up through town" and that sort of thing.