By Michael Jaenicke
Lawrence Howell is 90 years old, but he has no trouble remembering three dates he had in the summer of 1944. Still, he likes to keep two of them a secret from Mildred, his wife of 61 years.
Back then Howell was railroad worker by day and movie-buff bachelor by night.
“I must have went to every movie that came to Fayetteville,” he said. “If I missed one it was because I had blown my money on a woman. I wasn’t too proud to sneak into one, either.”
Howell paid for six tickets at The Colony Theater that summer. The first date was with a midwestern girl and they went to see Judy Garland’s “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
A short time later he took a New York gal to see “Going My Way,” which featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Bing Crosby.
His third movie, shortly after the first two, was with Mildred. He doesn’t recall much about the other two women, but remembers both the theater and the moving picture frame of his life with Mildred as if they were yesterday.
“That’s when films were films and theaters were theaters,” Howell said. “It costs 44 cents for a ticket but it was always an event. I miss those days. I held Mildred’s hand and haven’t let go of it since. I’m not sure what we watched. I watched her.”
Fellow Fayetteville resident Martha Duell, a French woman who came to Cumberland County in 1948 as the bride of Col. Cliff Duell, recalls downtown movies as “the thing to do.” The downtown theater district was booming.
“It really was a different time,” said the 88-year-old widow. “We never minded walking downtown to the theaters where you had to stand in line for a ticket. You talked to everyone in line, knew everyone and the whole theater atmosphere was just wonderful.”
Old cinema houses in Fayetteville were packed in the heydays of Howell and Duell. Each carries in their memories a bit of that history that is now slowly slipping away.
“Going to these movies houses downtown was a big treat for folks before the turn of the century and into the 1950s,” said Bruce Daws, Fayetteville’s City Historian. “It’s probably hard for people to imagine Fayetteville in the pre-World War II era. Fort Bragg was a small Army post; well before the troop buildup and the hub of activity downtown was the beat of city. We had some very grand cinemas.”
The Colony opened in 1941 as the fourth Wilby-Kincey theater in town. Located at 329 Hay St., its more than 1,000 seats made it the largest cinema in Fayetteville. It had a typical narrow frontage on the commercial street. The theater had two entrances. Black people were seated in the balcony, as was the case in all downtown theaters during that time of segregation.
The facility could accommodate film and live entertainment with its full stage. Dressing rooms were located in the basement.
It became Wilby-Kincy’s venue for first-run movies, relegating the company’s Carolina Theater to second-run status.
“Moon Over Miami” was the theater’s opening night show on May 28, 1941. Its final flick came in 1975.
The Carolina Theater, located at 215 Hay St., opened in 1927 on grounds where the current City Hall sits. At the time it was Fayetteville’s newest theater and was considered one of the most luxurious movie palaces in southeastern North Carolina. Its opening show was Lon Chaney’s “The Unknown.”
Attending movies became a favorite outing in Fayetteville and nationwide. Grand theaters piled in audiences. At the start of the Great Depression, when the population of the United States was about 122 million, Americans were going to the movies 95 million times each week.
The Dixie Theater was the city’s oldest and first theater. Built in the early 1900s it opened with the silent movie, “The Great Train Robbery.” Its building was originally a billiards house. Owner S.A. Lambert bought it in 1908 and moved it to the south side of Hay Street six years later.
Lambert screened as many as 36 moving pictures in the grand facility. It was one of two mirror screens in the state. It featured more than 300 opera seats and 10 electric wall lights. The New Dixie, as it was proclaimed, paved the way for the Miracle and Broadway theaters. Both eventually surpassed the Dixie in terms of state-of-the-art cinema.
Chris and Masim Kuenzel and Eric Lindstrom saw the need for a downtown theater and bought the theater in 1998, renovating it and renaming it the Cameo Art House Theatre. They started with 125 velvet covered, cast iron seats and added an intimate upstairs screen in 2003, which has 38 stadium seats. The Cameo has screened hundreds of art, independent, foreign and classic films, and is also used for parties and fundraising events.
The move away from downtown theater district came via the city’s outward growth pattern, drive-ins, multiplex theaters and, later, the advancement of home video rentals.
In the 1950s drive-in theaters became the rage for families. One of the first was the Fox Twin Drive-in on Fort Bragg Boulevard. It opened in 1952 and was billed as one of the largest in the state and a marquee attraction for Cumberland County. It remained open until 1980. The Boulevard Drive-in was the second-largest drive-in in Fayetteville.
How many people watched movies from their vehicles? Thousands.
The Raleigh Road Drive-In, a popular venue for soldiers at Bragg, had a capacity of 519 vehicles. The Fort Drive-In had three screens where 1,200 vehicles could see a movie. The Midway Drive-In, which opened in 1961 and closed in 1980, had a single screen and room for 1,500 vehicles.
Daws said the vanishing downtown theater district is both a reflection of technology and growth and an era that had unique appeal.
“Life as Fayettevillians knew it from 1900 to the late 1950s was in the downtown,” he said. “It’s where schools, churches, restaurants, shopping and vitality emanated. There’s something to be said for its existence and passing. I’m not sure today there is one central place where everyone goes. Instead, there are several places. But it’s truly not the same.”