Theater purchase stirs local memories
Thanks to the town of Boone, the Downtown Boone Development Association and the newly formed Doc Watson Appalachian Theatre group, new generations of Wataugans may be able to make memories of their own.
The town purchased the building for $624,000, a decision that didn't just make the holidays for some of Boone's older residents — it made their year, some residents said.
Iva Dean Winkler, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, sold tickets at the theater in the 1940s and has more memories than the theatre has seats.
“People didn't have a lot of money,” she said. “They didn't go to the show every night.”The theatre was also segregated, she recalled.
“They separated the blacks from the whites,” she said. “It was small. They had a middle aisle then. They had two aisles, an aisle on each side that were narrow.”
Renovations may widen the seats in the coming years, but the theatre will show movies again. At least that's the hope of the renovation group. It's also what Winkler would like to see at the theatre where she made so many memories.
“On Saturdays, they always had, in the mornings, movies for children,” she said. “You could take your children and they had somebody that watched them, you know.”
But the theatre's best draw was for dating, she said.
“That's the way you were entertained,” Winkler said. “When you had a date, you went to the movies. You didn't have all the other things you have today.”
Della Pruitt can still remember dates she had at the theatre in the 1940s and 1950s, walking in under a huge marquis — a marquis renovators say they are looking at restoring.
“On Saturday nights, we'd usually go to the movies,” she said. “We would sit there and wait for the movie to come on and eat popcorn and talk. Usually there would be friends around us that we knew.”
“Mostly back then they were mostly westerns,” she said about the movies they would see. But the fun wasn't just in the pictures on the screen.
“There was a balcony and a lot of young people would go up there and throw popcorn down on the ones siting on the bottom,” Winkler said.
Tommy Critcher saw his first movie at the Appalachian Theatre in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
“It was a western,” he said. “I was dodging the bullets.”
As he grew up, his small stature allowed him to keep the 11-and-younger discount of 10 cents a ticket.
“After I got 11, I'd still go and get a ticket,” he said, until the ticket seller caught on. “She says, ‘Tommy, are you going to stay 11 forever?”
In his teenage years, he too brought dates to the theatre.
“That's the only place we had to go,” he said.
Cindy Norris Eller remembers going in the 1950s with her parents and brother while he was on leave from the Navy.
“I remember the big heavy velvet curtain,” she said. “You could get in for a quarter. For a quarter you could get a box of popcorn, a small coke and a candy bar. So, if you had 50 cents, you were set up good.”
Movies were a big deal to Eller, who lived in the Mabel community.
“It was a real treat when we did get to go because we lived way over here,” she said.
Renovating the theatre could make it a “treat” for the next generation, and they can't happen fast enough for Pruitt.
“It hurt my feelings really bad when I heard they was going to close it because there's so many memories of us going to the theatre,” she said. “I remember the first time I went to that theatre. I was about, I guess 8 or 9 years old and I had never been. I had never seen a movie before and it happened to be a western … it had horses in it and it looked like them horses was going to run out and run over us. My sister got down behind the seat.”
Jim Fleri, who worked as a projectionist for 10 years before the theatre's closure, gives the town credit — as long as plans are followed through. The last time someone tried to renovate the theatre was when Floridian Frank Mongelluzzi purchased the cinema. His bankruptcy meant plans were halted.
“I think it's fantastic if it happens,” Fleri said. “We've heard this before. … I feel like the loss of the Appalachian Theatre was really a blow to downtown Boone. You know, there's not that many things that are kind of landmarks in that area anymore.”
Landmarks have disappeared over the years, such as the old Daniel Boone Hotel, demolished for apartments.
“I couldn't believe they did that,” Eller said. “It upset me. … It was just part of going over there and into town. It was just there and I just hated it awful bad when they destroyed it.”
She refuses to think about the theater going the way of the old Belk Department Store and the Gateway Restaurant.
“I definitely don't want to see it destroyed or turned into another antique place,” she said.
The Appalachian Theatre, called an “Ultra-Modern Showhouse” in a 1938 copy of the Watauga Democrat, survived two fires before closing in 2007. Renovators hope to reopen the theatre in time for the 75th anniversary on Nov. 24, 2013.
The next community meeting on the theatre is planned for 9 a.m. Jan. 18 at which time committees will further discuss plans for the theater. The DBDA is still looking for interior photographs of the old theater. For more information, call the DBDA at (828) 262-4532. To donate, mail a tax-deductible donation to the DBDA at Appalachian Theatre Project, P.O. Box 362, Boone, NC, 28607.