City buys Center Theatre for $250,000

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 04:54 PM

The City of Monroe has purchased the Center Theatre in Downtown Monroe for $250,000.

The building cost $225,000 and the additional $25,000 was needed to “secure and stabilize” the building, according to a staff report. 

The City purchased the property from Larry and Lane Vickery. The Vickerys purchased the property in 2007 for $300,000. The tax value is now about $230,000. They will not close on the property for a month or two.

The theater, on 120 S. Main Street, opened in 1940. It has been closed since 1991. 

Pete Hovanec, Monroe communications and tourism officer, said the city had been interested in the theater pretty much since it closed down. It was not until they got a significant group of people interested in its renovation that they seriously started looking at it, which was over the past few months, he said.

According to a feasibility study received last year, renovations to the theater could cost millions of dollars. According to a staff report, there is a group planning to raise private and foundation funds in conjunction with the City. The public-private partnership would share the cost of renovation. 

While Monroe wants to help the organization, they do not want to be in the theater business by raising money and running the theater, Hovanec said. 

Nathan Hopper and David Nelms are spearheading the organization to reopen the Center Theatre. 

“He and I have been working on this for about seven years,” Hopper said. “Working on the idea of building a performing arts center where the Center Theatre is now.”

Hopper grew up in Monroe and said he had fond memories of going to the theater Saturday mornings to watch cowboy movies. 

“There’s just something about downtown Center Theatre,” he said.

They plan to show movies, have live performances and other uses in the multipurpose center.

“It’s going to be very exciting,” Hopper said. “It’s a big dream...we are amazed at how conducive the project is turning out to be and how excited so many people are.”

Hopper said things have been falling into place and it feels like the right time for this project.

“We think Monroe is ripe for something like this,” he said. “I think the timing is perfect.”

When the theater opened in 1940, Mayor V.D. Sikes declared Feb. 12 Center Theater day. There was a big grand opening celebration, according to information compiled by The University of North Carolina Library on the website “Going to the Show.”

“They were certainly thrilled about it,” Patricia Poland, who works in the Dickerson Genealogy and Local History Room at the Monroe Library, said. “It was one of the most modern theaters, I think, in the state of North Carolina when it opened.” 

She said that Wheeler Smith, who managed the theater, wanted top-of-the-line everything, from the chairs to the sound equipment.

The theater had a small stage, but not much space for live shows, though live shows were held. There were no dressing rooms for the actors.

Smith owned another theater in Downtown Monroe.

“He lost that to fire in 1939,” Poland said. “So he was absolutely determined that the next theater he built” would not be entirely lost to a fire. She said he used steel-enforced beams, which had never been done before. 

In a reflection of the time, the theater included a balcony for African-American theatergoers. There was also a separate entrance and box office. It was the first time African-Americans were able to watch a movie at the same time as white patrons, Poland said. There was also an African-American theater, The Union, which was on Windsor Street. Movie theaters in North Carolina were not desegregated until the 1960s.

The Center Theatre was designed by Erie Stillwell, an architect who designed theaters throughout the Southeast. According to “Going to the Show,” Stillwell would design more than 60 theaters during his career, more than any other architect in North Carolina and perhaps the South. 

The Center held about 900 people and according to “Going to the Show” admission was 10 cents for children at all times. Matinees on Mondays and Tuesdays were 25 cents, night shows 30 cents. Wednesdays through Saturdays matinee was 20 cents and night shows were 25 cents. 

Poland said another theater was built for soldiers at Camp Sutton during the 40s. 

“It was kind of weird for such a tiny little town like us in 1943 to have three movies theaters,” Poland said. “That was pretty much unheard of...with all the soldiers, we had to give them more (things) to do.”

She said for a town the size of Monroe then, having two theaters was also unheard of. 

At the time, the opening of the Center Theatre was a big deal and meant a lot to the community, she said. 

“We think it will be a good catalyst for Monroe” and Union County, Hovanec said. 

Hopper said he and Nelms are not experienced in doing this. They have been learning along the way and visited other theaters. This is being done successfully with small, downtown theaters across the country, Hopper said. There are many steps that need to be taken. 

“We would like to see something probably the earliest, near the end of 2015,” Hopper said. He added that sounds very early, but they hope that can happen and think it is possible.