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The Carolina Theatre, billed as “The Showplace of the Carolinas” as a 2,200-seat vaudeville theater, at the time, the largest theater in the state. It was also one of their most expensive to build, costing over half a million dollars.
Mayor Paul Lindley was issued the first ticket and joined opening night crowds in exclaiming over glittering crystal chandeliers, gilded railings, marbled columns and classical statues. The Carolina was considered to be the finest theater between Washington and Atlanta.
It was designed by James M. Workman in a Greek Revival style for the exterior,
and inside, Italian
Renaissance. The striking facade resembled an ancient Greek temple, complete
with Ionic columns
supporting a pediment. The terra-cotta decorating the facade was polychrome, in
The most monumental structure of its type ever built in Greensboro, the Carolina’s terra cotta façade resembles a Greek temple with its embellishments painted in bright blues, reds and golds. Tall windows between the columns light the floors above the lobby, which were intended to be the regional headquarters of the Publix-Saenger Theater Corporation until the Depression struck. The Carolina was the first commercial building to be air conditioned in the state.
The opulent décor was designed to provide the ordinary citizen with an experience of sheer fantasy. Uniformed ushers greeted patrons passing through the vast and elegant lobby and under handsome archways into the auditorium where clouds were projected into a sky blue domed ceiling above the ornamental columns and draperies resembling a Greek amphitheatre. The cost for an evening of entertainment was affordable, even during the Depression, at 75¢ for an adult and 50¢ per child.
The theatre has two balconies. The main floor and lower balcony was for the white patrons and the upper balcony for “colored”. This second balcony was accessed from a stairwell that came from a side alley. (This stairwell plays a big part in our story.) There was also a window were tickets could be purchased. At the back of the balcony was a single bathroom which was shared with the projectionist.
Ingeniously constructed to insure a clear and unobstructed view of the stage from every seat in the house. Fourteen exits to permit clearing of the theater in two minutes. Colorful and harmonious lighting effects. Luxurious ladies' lounge and cosmetic room. Heated and cooled and ventilated by $75,000 heating and electric refrigeration installation. Stage 25 feet deep and 90 feet long, large enough to take care of grand operas and hippodrome attractions. Interior design in Grecian architecture, modified by renaissance. Fresh, pure air replaces used air every two minutes. Absolute control of humidity and temperature at all times. Walls and ceilings of lobby, arcades and auditorium decorated in variegated sandstone. Largest and finest theater in the Carolinas.
Operated as part of the Keith Vaudeville chain, the Theatre’s early programs featured live performing acts, the Carolina Theatre Orchestra, the Carolina News newsreel, an audience sing-along, and a silent film accompanied by the impressive Robert Morton theatre pipe organ.
Vaudeville’s days were numbered by the introduction of sound with movies. In 1928, the Carolina became the first in the state to install the new Vitaphone speakers and crowds flocked to see films five times daily. For the next 30 years, this Downtown movie palace was a hub of Greensboro nightlife. Introduced after World War II, the Saturday morning Circle K Club entertained a generation of local children.
During the late 1960’s, suburban retail businesses and neighborhood movie theaters attracted citizens away from the heart of Greensboro. Just as Downtown began to decline, so did the Carolina Theatre. Despite the comfort of new rocking chair seats, the second-run and B-Grade films being scheduled caused audiences to dwindle. The wrecking ball began to loom as surface parking was in high demand in the Central Business District.
In 1975, responding to the growing need for centrally located community performance spaces, the United Arts Council raised over $550,000 to save the deteriorating building from demolition. Jefferson Pilot Corporation and ABC Southeastern Theaters sold the priceless structure and its equipment to the United Arts Council for $360,000. By stretching the restoration budget with volunteer labor and donated services, the Carolina was refitted for use as an 1,200-seat performing arts center and reopened in February, 1977.
Thick, black smoke greeted people coming to work in the Downtown on Wednesday. July 1, 1981. The Carolina was beset by a raging fire in an old stairwell that had once led to the segregated balcony and was closed for a year to repair the fire damage with insurance proceeds.
The Carolina was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, along with a large portion of downtown Greensboro. The United Arts Council staged the Renaissance Capital Campaign in 1988, raising $5,000,000 to help expand the City-owned Cultural Center on Davis Street and to undertake the next phase of renovation at the Carolina. In 1991, the Theatre reopened with refurbished dressing rooms and office spaces, a spacious second-floor banquet area named “The Renaissance Room,” new sound and lighting equipment, a new heating and cooling system, a modern concession stand and new restrooms. Seating capacity was reduced to 1,075.
Thriving in her eightieth year of operation the Carolina Theatre is now a fully functioning performing arts facility. She has been home to the Greensboro Ballet, Community Theatre of Greensboro, Greensboro Opera and other local performing arts groups. Civic groups, businesses and individuals rent the facility for seminars, meetings, receptions and even for weddings.
The Carolina Theatre also presents a variety of live performances by celebrity entertainers. Since 1927, Amos and Andy, Vincent Price, Miles Davis, Judy Collins, Chet Atkins, Tony Bennett, Gordon Lightfoot, Ben Vereen, Emmy Lou Harris, The Chieftains, Doc Watson, Garrison Keillor, Allison Kraus and Union Station and Gregory Hines have appeared on her stage.
The following statement appeared in the opening night program on Halloween in 1927 and is applicable today:
“The Carolina Theatre represents, to you and to us, far more than a structure of brick and stone, far more than a prideful addition to the city’s importance. It represents a magnificent edifice which we hereby entrust to your care and which we have sincerely dedicated to the pleasant task of rending life more cheerful. If we succeed in spreading happiness to you and yours in the months and years to come, we shall deem our reward sufficient and our vision, our labor and our accomplishment as having been worth the effort.”
Eighty years later, the Carolina Theatre attracts over 65,000 people to Downtown Greensboro annually to enjoy the rich atmosphere and ambience of an earlier era while enjoying performances by area cultural groups and top entertainers. Audiences enjoy the intimate setting of this majestic hall. Hundreds of people visit annually just to go back in time, recapturing childhood memories and making new ones. The Carolina is as timeless as she is beautiful.
Strategic planning efforts in 2002 led the United Arts Council to move its focus from organizing events and operating facilities to raising money and advocating for local arts groups. In March of 2006, the United Arts Council passed the deed of ownership and responsibility for the historic structure to a new non-profit organization, the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro, Inc., which has adopted as its mission: