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Lights, Camera, Lumberton | By Venita Jenkins


LUMBERTON – Sarah Britt remembers going to the Carolina Theatre as a child. Back then, movies were a dime, and parents didn’t worry about their children as they finished the Saturday morning shopping. “It was great,” she said. “They showed silent pictures while someone played the organ. Then talking pictures came along. The theater stayed the same up through the years until it was forced to close briefly because some of the merchants surrounding it protested the R-rated movies being shown.” As times changed, so did the theater. It stopped showing movies and became a spot for theatrical performances. Even the name changed. So when the center began showing movies again last fall, Britt was among the many in line to buy a ticket. She recently attended a showing of “Gone with the Wind.” “It was absolutely gorgeous,” Britt said. “It really took me back in time.” Civic center officials spent more than $1.5 million returning the theater to its heyday, said Richard Sceiford, director of the civic center foundation. That includes a $20,000 digital projector, Bose sound system and a 25-by-13 screen to fit the stage. The civic center has even brought organ music back to the theater. Stored under the stage on a hydraulic lift, the organ is controlled by a computer telling it which songs to play as patrons wait for the show to begin. Center officials hope to one day show silent films, once again accompanied by organ music. “These are the kinds of films that aren’t being shown in theaters anymore,” Sceiford said. “These films are designed to be seen on the big screen. What we are doing is adding the experience of seeing it in a historical theater. This just complements our live performances and all the other programs. We are branding it as a unique experience for our patrons. People are hearing about it and are definitely coming in from other places to watch these classic films. They are loving it.” The theater opened in 1928 as a silent-film and vaudeville house. The Carolina Theatre closed its doors for business in 1975 when people sought their shopping and entertainment elsewhere. A group of residents banded together to save the theater from being demolished and replaced with a parking lot. They lobbied for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic theater reopened on June 18, 1985, as the Carolina Civic Center. Now, the multi-million dollar renovation project and the addition of the film series is meant to drive economic development and draw people downtown, Sceiford said. “Many of our patrons are being reintroduced to these classic movies, to the theater and, hopefully, to downtown,” he said. “Our goal is to be an economic development engine.” The civic center sits in the heart of downtown Lumberton which has recently undergone a serious sprucing up. The city just wrapped up a spring movie series on downtown’s center plaza and is planning to launch its annual Alive After Five concert series. The nearby children’s museum, Exploration Station, even offers babysitting on certain Friday evenings to parents who might want to catch a movie without kids in tow. But there are plenty of offerings for children, too. The theater has made a Lumberton Christmas tradition even better by offering a free showing of the “Polar Express” immediately following the city’s annual tree lighting ceremony, complete with train rides and cups of free hot chocolate. The theater is broadening its appeal by offering more than just movies. When it reopened following the renovations, officials marketed the civic center as a place for “diverse, world-class entertainment that promotes the arts to the regional community.’ Officials recently added local artwork in addition to the center’s live performances and classic movies. Future plans include showing original productions starring theater troupes from around the state. “It is really an efficient and an inexpensive way to bring quality theater here from somewhere else,” Sceiford said. This month, the theater will open a series similar to “A Prairie Home Companion.” The idea is to showcase the cultural treasures of the region in “Cruising the Coastal Carolinas,” starting on June 26. “It will be a talent showcase featuring performers who are the cultural treasures of the seven counties in the region,” Sceiford said. “It will be very diverse.” Sarah Britt loves the new direction of today’s theater and civic center. “People are really turning out to see the classic movies and live entertainment at the theater,” she said. “The content at the theater appeals to a lot of different people.”