Around the turn of the 20th century, a new form of entertainment was spreading throughout the land, prompting rambunctious and enthusiastic reactions by audiences.
In 1909 that new medium --the motion picture -- came to Chapel Hill. The Pickwick Theater opened on the north side of Franklin Street, near the intersection with Columbia Street.
The opening of the Pickwick ushered in an era of moviegoing for this small Southern college town as the motion picture industry began to capture the imagination of the nation at large.
Samuel Jackson Brockwell, a local entrepreneur who operated a bus service between Durham and Chapel Hill, opened the Pickwick in the fall of 1909. Mabel Hill, who played the piano the theater during the silent movie era, described it as a very nice theater for a town of this size.
The Pickwick attracted university students, who flocked to the theater as an escape from the rigors of college life. The students were a lively lot; according to Hill, "As soon as the lights went down a hurricane of peanuts, acorns, and other missiles filled the air, and if the films were in any way disappointing, shouts of derision notified the manager."
The Pickwick showed films ranging from serious dramas to the slapstick comedies of Buster Keaton.
Hill's job was to play music that would coincide with the visual imagery presented on screen. In later years, she was accompanied by an orchestra consisting primarily of university students.
Hill had fond memories of her experience despite her mother's objections to playing in a theater at night while she was still enrolled in high school.
With the success of Chapel Hill's first theater, other theaters followed, but not without some setbacks. In 1923, a fire destroyed the Pickwick and the theater had to be rebuilt.
Four years later a Raleigh firm built a second theater in Chapel Hill --the Carolina Theater, which opened in September of 1927 and was managed by E. Carrington Smith.
Admission to the theater was 30 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
In 1929, the Carolina Theater began to show "talkies," movies with sound, and earned the reputation as the first theater in the South to show foreign films on a regular basis.
While the Carolina Theater managed to survive the Great Depression, hard times forced the Pickwick to close.
By the late 1930s, however, the Pickwick re-opened under a slightly different name -- the Pick Theater -- and was managed by Smith.
Smith's employers, N.C. Theaters Inc., purchased property to erect a new Carolina Theater in 1942, and the original Carolina Theater was re-named the Village Theater.
With the rise of the Village Theater, the Pick Theater declined and closed permanently in 1946. Six years later, the Village Theater was re-named the Varsity Theater.
Through the 1950s these theaters catered to white audiences. They allowed white viewers only, or else they relegated black customers to the balconies or the "buzzard's roost" or to special late-night screenings referred to as "midnight rambles."
It was not until the 1960s that theaters would become fully integrated -- an integration that occurred not without protest.
Smith refused a request from a ministerial association to show "Porgy and Bess" (a 1959 film with an all-black cast) to a desegregated audience at the all-white Carolina theater. His action prompted a boycott of both the Varsity and Carolina Theaters by a group called Citizens for Open Movies.
Both theaters became partially de-segregated in 1961, and a full integration policy was instituted by the Varsity in December 1961 and the Carolina in March of 1962.
Although black residents were excluded from white theaters during the Jim Crow era, they had other moviegoing options. As early as 1917, a theater for black audiences was reportedly opened by Frederick K.Watkins (known as the "Movie King"), who owned several theaters throughout the state and operated the all-black Wonderland Theater in Durham.
Longtime local resident Velma Perry said movies also were shown out of her parents' home on Lindsey Street.
By the 1930s the Standard Theater on West Franklin Street, near Merritt Mill Road, was catering to black audiences in Chapel Hill. The Standard Theater was either owned or operated by Davie O'Kelly.
This theater may have been one of the longest surviving black theaters in the city, operating from the early 1930s through the 1940s. Perry said the facility also held social events such as dances. By 1944, the Standard Theater was no longer in existence.
According to Perry, E. Carrington Smith, who operated the white theaters in Chapel Hill, opened the all-black Hollywood Theater in the aftermath of the Standard Theater to cater to Chapel Hill's black population during a segregated era. This theater was in Carrboro behind the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and was operated by Kenny Jones. The exact dates of its existence remain undetermined.
Throughout the 20th century the excitement associated with motion pictures infiltrated small Southern towns such as Chapel Hill.
And although through most of the century white residents and black residents viewed movies in separate theaters, or in separate parts of the same theater, with the advent of integration they would view movies side by side.
- "Chapel Hill Illustrated History" by James Vickers, Thomas Scism, Dixon Qualls (Chapel Hill: Barclay Pub., 1985).
- "First State University: A Pictorial Hhistory of the University of North Carolina," by William S. Powell, UNC Press, 1972.
- Buildings on Franklin Street (N.C. Collection)
- Audiotaped interview with Mrs. V. A. H. conducted by Scott Bradley and Daniel Patterson, Manuscripts Department, Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill Weekly
- "From the Buzzard's Roost: Black Movie-going in Durham and Other North Carolina Cities during the Early Period of American Cinema," by Charlene Regester, Film History vol. 17, no. 1 (2005): 113- 124.
- "Theaters Aided De-segregation Movement," Daily Tarheel, February 15, 2005.
- Interview with Velma Perry
Additonal information on theaters in Chapel Hill can be forwarded to The Chapel Hill News or to the writer.