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Trail of History – Old movie and drive in theaters

>>This is a production
of WTVI PBS Charlotte.>>The following episode of
Trail of History is brought to you by Central
Piedmont Community College and viewers like you. Thank you.>>And from Bragg
Financial Advisors, a family owned wealth management
firm providing investment management and tax and
estate planning for families, individuals, and institutions
for nearly 50 years. Committed to our clients, to
education, and our community.>>Hello, I’m Tony Zeiss, President of Central
Piedmont Community College. You know the rich
and diverse history of the Charlotte region
is just wonderful. And we at the college want to
bring it to you and share it. We understand the
importance of history. We understand the importance
of learning from the past so that we can do
better in the future. I want to tell you that
you’re in for a real treat. The History Department at Central Piedmont Community
College has partnered with our television station
to bring you this special, one of a kind, history program. Stay tuned. I’m sure you’re going
to enjoy it. [ Music ] [ Sound of Movie Projector ]>>You’re settled in your seat. Popcorn in your lap. As the lights dim, the darkened
theater provides a diversion from the everyday. And you share in the
anticipation and excitement of the crowd for the film
that is about to come on. Going to the movies has
been an American tradition for over 100 years. In places like this, the
Carolina Theater in Charlotte and others in our area. [ Windy Sound ]>>The historic Gem
Theater harkens back to the early days
of movie going. The Kannapolis, landmark’s
great neon marquee shines bright over West 1st street. And an attendant
still sells tickets from the theater’s original
sidewalk ticket booth.>>Seniors will be $8 please.>>Brenda and Miles Decker
have a standing date night.>>We go to the movies every
Friday and if the movie we want to see is playing here,
this is where we’ll go.>>For others a trip to the Gem
Theater brings back memories of their youth. Memories James Smith tries
to create for his children.>>Where I grew up in New Jersey
there was a theater very similar to this and always used to
love going to it as a kid. My dad used to take me to
sit up in the balcony– I loved it and that’s
what I try to bring up with my kids as well.>>Steve Morris owns the Gem.>>Hear stories every day
about people that this is where my wife and I
had our first date. This is where I proposed. This is where I brought my
child for their first movie. A lot of people talk about,
you know, about the time that Roy Rogers had
Trigger on the stage. The theater opened
on December 31, 1936, and it was virtually
destroyed by a fire of unknown origin in 1942. Because we were in the
midst of World War II, labor and materials
were not available to rebuild the theater
until after the war. So the theater reopened in 1948 and has remained
open since that time. The gym was actually
built, owned and operated by Cannon Mills Company for
the entertainment and benefit of their employees
here in Kannapolis.>>It was one of four
theaters owned by the company. Three for white workers and
one for African Americans. The Mill Company
set the show times.>>During those early years the
movie schedules were designed to operate around the
work schedule at the mill. So there were special shows that
began at midnight I think just about every night, that
were designed for people that worked on the second shift. So when they got off work in the
mill, they could come directly over and watch a movie. Same thing with the earlier
movie schedules were designed to be finished in time so
that the people that worked on the third shift would be
out of the movie in time to go in to work in the mill. [ Sound of money clanging ]>>You want butter on
that popcorn, ma’am?>>Morris says the theater
has never been restored. Instead, years of proper upkeep and maintenance have
kept the old theater in good working order.>>In the auditorium our
seating capacity is very unique that we seat 916 people. We have a full balcony which
is very popular, particularly with children who
have never been to a movie theater
that has a balcony. On either side we have the
large Birds of Paradise, or Phoenixes some
people call them. They get a lot of
different names, but those I think were
probably hand carved by a local craftsman. [ Music ] Our marquee is probably the most
photographed item in Kannapolis. There is hardly a week goes
by that somebody is not set up outside with a
tripod making pictures. [ Music ]>>Some things however,
outlast their usefulness. With just the hum of a fan a new
digital projector has taken the place of the theater’s
trusty old 35mm projectors.>>The conversion from 35mm
film to digital was a challenge. Of course 35mm film
is going away. So a lot of the smaller
theaters just were not in a financial position
to upgrade to the digital equipment, so they will very
quickly either be, only have vintage footage
available to show– they will not be able to
show the new releases. So it’ll be very, very difficult
and we’ll probably lose some of our theaters as
a result of that.>>Morris says there’s one
drawback to being the boss.>>The problem with owning a
movie theater is you rarely get to watch a movie
all the way through. So I try to watch a lot, but
usually somebody comes and tugs on my sleeve and calls
me out to the lobby for some reason or another. So not as often as
I would like– if I really want to
watch one from end to end I have to
go somewhere else.>>Today we are in era when
everyone has their own screen, their own stream, their
own experience of media. And that’s dramatically
different from the shared experience of
the era of the movie films. [ Music ]>>Amidst the bustle of Uptown
Charlotte you might not notice the non-descript brick building
adjacent to a small park at the corner of North
Tryon and East 6th Street. Charlotte’s last remaining
grand movie palace– the Carolina Theater. The theater opened
in March of 1927 and entertained the
masses for half a century. It closed in 1978, but Charlotte’s Movie Theatre
history pre-dates the Carolina and spans more than 100 years.>>In the early 20th
Century people without radio and television were
attending whatever functions that they could that was to
get them out of the house, out of their, away from their
professions for entertainment. And movies had just started
to be produced in any length in the very early 20th Century.>>The very first movie theater
that I found was in 1906, 1907, a guy named William Peters–
Colonel William Peters– must have been some
kind of empresario. Rented a couple of spaces on
Trade Street and put up a sheet on one end and started
showing these new fangled motion pictures. By the 1920’s there are 3 or 4 major purpose built movie
theaters in the Center City– Carolina Theater being
the most well-known one. The era of the movie
palace was an era when entertainment was
not just on the screen. [ Music ]>>In addition to the
films that occurred, which were normally somewhere
between 20 to 60 minutes in length, you had
touring vaudeville teams which were magicians, singers,
jugglers, dancing types of things that were on the
tours around the nation.>>The 1920’s were the era of
the movie palace nationwide. If you go to Los Angeles and
you walk down the main avenue, there are still like a dozen
of these grand theaters– what were called
atmospheric theaters. And you’d walk in and the
show started on the sidewalk with a great neon or multi-light
marquee and the lobby looked like perhaps Versailles or some
very fancy place in Europe. And then you walked
into the theater itself and there were murals and there
were stars twinkling in the sky. The Carolina Theater made
movie going a grand experience.>>It was the one, the
most elaborate theater that was built here
in Charlotte. It seated 1,450 people
originally. It had elaborate architectural
elements that spoke of a higher class
of entertainment. Much of the interior of these
theaters were, was constructed with plaster which was a very
cheap material in the 1920’s. Molds would be created that would create
the plaster elements that were installed
in the theater. And that when you look at these
pictures you see the various columns, ornamentation of
things that were imitative of European architecture
of different countries. In the case of the
Carolina you have tile work that was from Italy. You had curtains that
were from France. You had different furniture in the original architectural
scheme that was from different countries– sometimes legitimate
antiques or reproductions. And all of this contributed
to the atmosphere when you walked in the building.>>In 1932 the Charlotte
Symphony held it’s first concert at the Carolina Theater and in the early years Hollywood
royalty and hip, swing, rock and roll stars
graced its stage. Elvis Presley performed
with the Grand Ole Opry when they came to town 1956. And during the 1960’s
the theater set a record, playing “The Sound of Music”
film for 79 weeks straight. Advancements in cinematic
technology in the 50’s led to alterations at the Carolina,
destroying or hiding much of the original movie
palace decor. Anything deemed old-fashioned
was stored away, sold off, or simply thrown out.>>One of the processes that
came along was cinerama. This was a circular,
semi-circular screen that was installed in the front
of the theater and it went around the stage area. So basically it covered
up the stage. The walls were lined
with curtains. Anything that was
jutting out too far into the room was chopped away.>>But in the end
it was economics that dropped the final curtain
on the Carolina Theater, forcing its closure
in November of 1978, a time when Charlotte teens were
moving to the suburbs and going to the movies meant
a multi-plex theater. The story of the Carolina
Theater doesn’t end here. But first, the end of
segregation in theaters and movies from the
comfort of your car. [ Music ] Today we take watching
a movie for granted. It’s engrained in
our way of life. But going to the movies was
different for African Americans for much of the 20th Century. Beatrice Thompson recalls
a personal experience from childhood.>>As a child going to
Chester, South Carolina, my extended family, my mother’s
family lived in Chester County, so you went to town on
the weekends and going to the movies was going up a
staircase outside the building, on the side of the building
to get to the balcony to sit up there and watch movies. And, you know, you weren’t going
downstairs, you weren’t going to enter the main door, you weren’t going
to get concessions. You wanted to see the movie,
you go up that staircase on the side of the building. And you go upstairs and watch
the movies– plain and simple.>>In Charlotte the
Lincoln, the Savoie, the Ritz and the Grand were all
black-only theaters. And the building for
the Grand still stands across from Johnson
C. Smith University on Beatties Ford Road. These old tickets from
the Rogers Theater in Shelby illustrate the divide.>>In Charlotte, African
Americans were not allowed into theaters like
the Carolina Theater. Instead they had
to go to theaters in their neighborhood which,
by itself was not a bad thing. Charlotte had at
least two theaters in the Brooklyn neighborhood in
the Center City, one of which– The Lincoln which had
considerable pride as you can imagine in its name. But those always
showed second run shows. They showed films
that were old news by the time they
showed up on the screen.>>I would say because
we had the theaters, it gave you a chance,
just like for anyone else, it’s an opportunity
for escapism. But it depended on what
movies you were getting. There were movies that were put
out at the turn of the century with Micheaux that were
black-oriented movies all the way up to the 30’s, when they
had singing cowboys out West. There were also black cowboys
who did the same thing. Those were the movies
that were sent to black theaters
all around America. That movement died out some, but
then regained again in the 70’s with the blaxploitation movies–
more exploitation than it was about positive issues
about black folks. But it did show people like in
power, in charge of something. So the movies from
the perspective of a black child watching them,
yea, it brought some things to it but it wasn’t the
only recreational thing. And for us I wouldn’t say
the main recreational thing. For us, going to the
movies was a treat.>>By the early 1960’s the
Civil Rights movement was in full swing and the
concept of separate but equal was finally
on the way out.>>Racial segregation in
theaters was a big issue. And in 1960’s it
was a flashpoint for the Civil Rights Movement. We think about Rosa Parks
and desegregating the buses. We think about the Sit-In
Movement desegregating the lunch counters, the small
restaurants that were in dime stores downtown. In Charlotte, partly as a
response to what was going on in Greensboro, the
mayor, Stan Berkshire, got together the
Chamber of Commerce. He was pushed into
it by Rachel Hawkins who was an African American
leader, very much demonstrating against this segregation. And in May of 1963, Stan
Berkshire and the Chamber of Commerce arranged
for the desegregation of upscale restaurants in
Charlotte, but at the same time, of the movie theaters and
the drive-in theaters.>>And according to Hanchette,
Charlotte progressive steps to desegregate drew national
attention and had a major impact on our nation’s future.>>That whole package happened
in Charlotte in early summer in 1963 and it caught
the attention of people like the Kennedy family in
Washington who were poised, but not sure to submit to Congress what became
the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. And as a result of what
they saw in Charlotte with desegregating
the restaurants, desegregating the movie
theaters, they went ahead and submitted that to
Congress in June of 1963. And a year later it became
the 1964 Civil Rights Act, desegregating public
accommodations. Any place that is open to
the public, restaurants, movie theaters, what have you.>>The law may have changed but community feelings
still had to evolve. While in elementary school
Beatrice Thompson saw “The Sound of Music” at the Carolina
Theater just one year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.>>When I was at Isabella
Watch Elementary School which was located right about where the observers
parking deck is now, and “The Sound of
Music” came out. And we were all to
dress very nicely. And we were all to hold hands. And we were going to
go to the movie uptown. And the teachers warned us all
to be on our best behavior. You needed to be on
your best behavior because you’re representing
everybody else. So act– be good children. Don’t cut up– don’t mess up– be the best that you can be because everybody’s
watching you. It may decide whether or not
any more children get to come to see movies at this theater. So it was very much so. I find it ironic that on so many
different levels as we dealt with integration and
desegregation in America, it fell upon the
backs of children. [ Whirling Sound ]>>What’s going on? Where you all been? All I know what you all can say. I’m Dave Robertson. I’m with the Badin
Road Drive-In.>>Which way am I looking?>>All the way down
to the front. I help out here. My wife tells me what to do.>>Dave Robertson and his wife
Judy started buying old theaters as a way to stay busy in
their retirement years. They now own a total of four–
two indoor and two drive-ins.>>I appreciate.>>Thank you.>>Y’all enjoy. Try my food out.>>Yes,sir.>>It was built, I think in
1948 is what I’ve been told. By the Fall family. And it was in their family
until about 11 years ago, 12 years ago when we bought it.>>Movie goers venture from
all over for this unique, entertainment experience.>>We have a lot of regulars. They come here from Salisbury,
Concord, Charlotte, Kannapolis.>>Dana Jenkins came
from Charlotte.>>I moved from Atlanta
to Charlotte and Atlanta had a nice, big
drive-in, and I wanted to go to a drive-in, so I looked it
up and found this one online.>>The drive-in offers
something intangible in modern day America.>>I’ve been coming
for many years. It’s just the outside
experience. The kind of retro
experience you get. It’s much cheaper than
the regular theater and you also get two movies for
the price of one at the theater.>>It’s nostalgic–
they’re almost gone. And it’s just, a
change of atmosphere. It’s been amongst
people and their families and it’s a family, you
could bring the whole family and stuff to the theater here. You just drive the vehicles, you
sit in the back of your trucks.>>Inventor Richard M.
Hollingshead Jr. patented the drive in 1933 and the
first one opened in Camden, New Jersey that same year. It was the beginning
of an American icon.>>Drive-ins were
the, basically, a big part of the
movie business. At one time drive-ins
were the major factor. You didn’t have many indoors. And the indoors you had
were single streams.>>Well drive-ins went through a
whole sequence of changes that, again, reflect the
history of our culture. When they became popular
in the 1950’s was when, seemed like every
family had a car, and maybe the teenagers
could get away in that car in the evening and
go to the drive-in. But as many of the people who
went to the drive were families because they usually
charged by the carload rather than by the individual person. You went to the drive-in,
you put the microphone on your window, speaker on
your window and you could go out to the refreshment
stand and get popcorn or hot dogs, or whatever. You could have the whole
evening for your family in the privacy of your car.>>The 1950’s and
60’s were the heyday for the American drive-in. Over the years, however, many
were forced to close up shop, citing economic factors such
as the high cost of land. In recent times the
remaining drive-in theaters around the area faced a
new economic challenge. Like their cousin,
the indoor theater, the drive-in theater had to
convert to digital projection, a costly investment for many. New projectors could cost
upwards of $50,000 or more. Despite the high cost
of going digital, Robertson says there’s
still life for the drive-in.>>I think drive-in is American. I mean, it’s a lot
of them being built. People don’t realize– there’s
some did being built in Texas, some being built in California. Well, when you go to an
indoor theater and you pay $8 to $10 a ticket, you come out
here and see two good movies. And some people don’t stay for the second movie
and they need to. I mean they pay for it
and they may be fooled– it may be a good movie. [ Music ]>>The single screen
movie palace like the Gem Theater
is a rarity. But with individual and community efforts a
few more are being saved. In 2009 Gary Kulas purchased
the Rogers Theater in Shelby in order to preserve and
restore the 1936 landmark. In a classic image
provided by Kulas, movie promoters parked a
bi-plane on the sidewalk to promote the 1938 movie “Test
Pilot”, starring Clark Gable. Before-and-after pictures
show the progress being made to bring the building
back to life. His plan for the theater is
to make it a multi-use face, including a new home for
the Greater Shelby Community Theater group. Back in Charlotte, the Carolina
Theater once a grand movie palace on North Tryon
Street has sat empty since November of 1978. Today the building has little
of its original grandeur left. But like the Rogers it too is
getting a new lease on life. The building does
have challenges. During the winter of 1980,
homeless built a fire on the stage for warmth.>>Fortunately the fire curtain
that had been installed in 1927, when the fire became hot
enough, it melted the wax so the curtain then rolled down
and kept the fire from going out into the auditorium itself. There was water damage
that occurred in the rest of the building, but the
building was largely saved from destruction.>>By the 1990’s the city
of Charlotte had possession. And in 1997 John Apple
and Charlie Clayton from the Carolina Theater
Preservation Society.>>For these many years we
have, along with several of our members, have
been instrumental in making city council, the
mayor, local business people, and the community aware of
the importance of this theater and how that it’s future is
an important link to the past. There’s a tremendous number of
successes for restored theaters. This is part of our cultural
heritage in the United States.>>Finally in 2012 the City
of Charlotte solicited offers and sold the property to the
Foundation for the Carolinas, an organization dedicated to
philanthropy in the region. Vice President for Real Estate and Facilities Management,
Curt Walton.>>The foundation’s interest
was primarily civic space, though it will be roughly
a 1,000 seats which is about 400 smaller than
it was originally. But it will be for
what we’re calling the “community’s living room”–
the civic living room. How we can engage citizens and
how we can provide non-profits with a platform to
reach the citizens. And so it’ll be a
combination of civic engagement and arts and entertainment.>>The price tag
for renovations, much of it through
private donations, an estimated $28.7
million dollars.>>Financially it’s a
big community commitment but I think what’s going to make
it successful is the commitment that we’ve seen, the
enthusiasm we have seen from people throughout the
community, who really do want to see the theater
return back to use. And so the foundation will
be on point for the dollars and the renovation but
making it a success will be a community effort.>>The theater is
important to our present because it is a link
to our past. So that when people have
this physical connection to something, they begin to
realize the importance of it. That it’s not just
something they read in a book or see a marker that
says “this was here.” That you actually have
something of tangibility.

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