100 years at the movies
Historian chronicles heyday of local theaters
[Photo by ROBERT C. REED, HICKORY DAILY RECORD]
Don Barker talks about the history of movie theaters in the area
while standing in the projection room at Carolina Theater.
Buster Travis was a projectionist at the Carolina Theater. Legend has it Travis could operate a pair of projectors simultaneously at different movie houses. He would change the reels at the Carolina and run across the street to the Center Theater to switch reels without interrupting either movie. And he did it all while ordering a cheeseburger with fries from the Arcade poolroom.
At its peak, there were 89 theaters in a 30-mile radius of Hickory. First to open was the Elliott Opera House in 1889. Others began to dot the landscape, including the Canova Theater, State Cinema, The Hub, The Newtonian and the Thunderbird Drive-in.
Don Barker, a local historian, is documenting the history of local theaters for an upcoming book. He remembers the Saturday matinees.
"All of us boys and girls grew up watching the cowboy shows. Hollywood was turning out musicals to get peoples' minds off the war," he said. "After the war, theaters really started taking off."
The movies were cheap, but the entertainment didn't stop there.
"You could see a movie for a dime and get a penny back," he said. "If a cowboy star was visiting, it'd be 15 cents or a quarter to get in. The theaters would hold drawings for chickens and would hide money in popcorn boxes."
For Carolyn Young, going to the Center Theater was a real treat.
"With six kids, we didn't get to go that often," Young, 66, said. "Dad would take us to the Center Theater. It was the nicest in Hickory at the time. We'd see a cartoon and a western for the kiddie matinee. He'd sleep because he worked third shift."
Dan Trexler, 71, remembers going to the Rivoli.
"We'd go to the 10 a.m. show back in the 1950s," Trexler said. I loved to watch Hopalong Cassidy There'd be a lot of kids."
Most of the theaters are now closed. TV claimed a lot of the theater patrons, according to Barker. Technology is helping bring people back, but the films must get better, he said.
"The stuff they're turning out these days is a waste of film," he said. "Back in the heyday there were no computer graphics, no cussing and very little nudity. The movies definitely have to get better."
The Carolina Theater and State Cinema continue to thrive.
"They are keeping the prices down, they've remodeled and put in double screens," he said. "It's keeping the big studios away from them for now, before they gobbled them up, too"
[Hickory Daily Record story by KIM GILLILAND (March 31, 2007, front page article]
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