98 Years of Carolina Theatre History

February 2, 2024 by Sandy Lerebours

For nearly a century, the Carolina Theatre has been a staple in the Durham community. Over its 98 years of existence, the theater has gone through multiple name changes, renovations, and owners while presenting thousands of movies and performances on Fletcher Hall stage. Today, we look back on major moments in the theater’s storied history. 


The Carolina Theatre Opens 

The Carolina Theatre of Durham opened on February 2, 1926, as the Durham Auditorium, hosting community events such as Miss Durham contests and high school commemorations. The theater also hosted a variety of national touring acts, including Katharine Hepburn, Marian Anderson, and Tallulah Bankhead.

 

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The Durham Auditorium becomes The Carolina 

In 1929, the theater was remodeled to accommodate film screenings and in the same year, the Durham Auditorium became The Carolina.

 

Film Reaches New Heights 

The film industry boomed in the 1940s and 1950s as people sought something to take their minds off WWII. A nearby bus depot drove in loads of soldiers from Camp Butner to see films multiple times daily. The theater supported the war efforts by accepting rations as tickets and painted the large windows of its current ballroom in black paint to abide by blackout regulations. Theater staff even went as far as removing the bulbs from its former marquee as it too closely resembled the rising sun pattern of Japan.

 

The Theater Becomes a Landmark in the Civil Rights Movement 

In the 1960s, because the theater was a city-owned building, it became a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Durham, as it had been using tax payers money to continue segregation. Attorney Floyd B. McKissick, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People youth leaders John Edwards, Vivian McCoy, Walter Riley, and others challenged this system of inequity in 1961. In March of 1962, “Round Robin” protests began as Black patrons approached the white ticket window and were turned away only to return to the back of the line and continue requesting admission.  

In May of 1963, Wense Grabarek was elected mayor and worked to convince The Carolina management to embrace the idea of integration. In July, the theater began operating without segregation, two months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced other institutions in the South and nation to integrate. 

 

A Historic Building’s Demise Saves the Carolina Theatre 

Population shifts throughout the 1960s and 1970s caused many people to move away from city centers, causing attendance at The Carolina to decline by 80%. The Carolina fell into disrepair and the owner released the contract back to the City of Durham.  

As buildings became unused throughout downtown, the city made plans to use the property in other ways. The Washington Duke Hotel was one such building that shared a similar history as The Carolina with a wealth of architecture. After years of sitting empty, the city decided to implode the building. The implosion made an impact on onlookers, including Connie and Monte Moses. Connie Moses vowed she would never see another building of such importance enter the same fate and made it her mission to save The Carolina.  

Soon after, The Carolina was noted as a “significant building in the city” and the entire center portion of downtown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In March of 1978, Durham City Council agreed to lease the building to the Moses’ and their gang of volunteers. Together they formed a nonprofit group that would use the theater to screen arthouse films. The nonprofit would later become the Carolina Theatre of Durham.

 

Major renovations & Reopening  

In 1986, Durham County and the city of Durham appropriated $7.8 million from a bond issue to restore the Carolina Theatre. The volunteer-led restoration project took six years. The restoration added a lobby and two modern cinemas and removed the false ceiling revealing the balcony that had been segregated until the early 1960s and hidden from view for nearly two decades. 

 

The premiere of “Hollywood Shuffle” 

Hollywood Shuffle was screened at the Carolina Theatre with director Robert Townsend in attendance. The first run of the film became the theater’s record-breaking box office in history.

 

“Bull Durham” Becomes an Icon for the City

Prior to the closing of the cinema for renovations, “Bull Durham,” the American romantic sports-comedy about fictional players and fans of the Durham Bulls baseball team, premiered at the Carolina Theatre on June 15, 1988. Some of the actors in the film attended the red carpet event. The film went on to be a commercial success, grossing over $50 million and garnering critical acclaim with an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Heralded the “Greatest Sports Movie of all time” by “Sports Illustrated,” “Bull Durham” remains a cultural touchstone for generations.

 

The Re-re-opening

After renovations, the theater opened to the public in 1994 during its 68th anniversary. The theater’s two newly added cinemas began public screenings on New Year’s Day, and on February 1, a newly renovated Fletcher Hall was unveiled. The reopening was celebrated with a weeklong celebration of live performances titled “Something to Point To.”

 

A Home for Pride Film

OUTSOUTH Queer Film Festival began in 1995. Originating as “A Salute to Pride” and running from 1996-2019 as the North Carolina Gay + Lesbian Film Festival (NCGLFF), the festival was renamed OUTSOUTH in 2020. Since its inception, the festival has been a tentpole event that brings the community together. Discover Durham named OUTSOUTH a Signature Event for Durham, the highest honor bestowed on a cultural event or attraction by the organization. 

 

Arts Discovery is Formed 

Our Arts Discovery Education Series was started in 1996, with the mission to bring high-quality performing arts experiences that complement student’s curriculum goals to children in Durham and the Triangle area. Since its inception, the program has made the theater a leading field trip destination for performing arts experiences for young audiences and serves more than 16,000 schoolchildren annually. 

 


A Beloved Series is Born

Our hallmark Retro Film Series started in 1988. The series has a devoted fan base and features classic films 20 years or older. Currently the series screens double feature films every Friday night spotlighting film noir, old Hollywood, horror, sci-fi, and classic blockbusters. In addition to its beloved double features, Retro also hosts genre-specific and weekend-long sub-series.

 

Horror Films Rule!  

The Carolina Theatre introduced its Nevermore Film Festival in 1999. The festival showcases narrative features and shorts—with an emphasis on horror, science fiction, dark fantasy, animation, mystery/suspense, and action-thrillers. It has gained a reputation as one of the premiere genre festivals in the USA, being named a “Top 100 Film Festival” by FilmFreeway and “One of the Best Horror Film Festivals in the World” by Dread Central.

Family Programming Takes Flight 

In 2016, the theater launched its Family Saturday Series. The series is an educational program that provides high-quality, affordable arts experiences and introduces young audiences to the excitement of live performances, music, storytelling, and magic. The series offers family-friendly programming for all ages one Saturday a month.

 

The Best of Enemies Premiere

The film “Best of Enemies” premiered at the Carolina Theatre on February 23, 2019. Taraji P Henson, who portrayed Ann Atwater, a Durham activist who worked with and befriended a former KKK leader in her efforts to desegregate Durham Public Schools, walked the red carpet.

 

A New Era: Carolina Theatre Presented Shows 

During the 2020s, the Carolina Theatre pledged to produce more programming that reflects the community it serves. The first production, Dance Theatre of Harlem, showed that ballet belongs to everyone. Local drag artists from The House of Coxx graced the stage in 2023 with a message of acceptance (with lots of comedy mixed in). The following year, the theater debuted Center Stage: The Wavemakers Series. The groundbreaking performance series celebrates diverse voices by spotlighting emerging talents from a myriad of backgrounds, promising an eclectic mix of musical genres and exceptional artistry.