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From the 2008 Preservation Durham Ghost [building] Tour:
Frederick K. Watkins, known as â€œThe Movie Kingâ€, lived at 1218 Fayetteville Street (across the road from where the Stanford L. Warren library is currently located), and opened the first movie theater in Durham for African-Americans. Eventually, he operated 16 theaters throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
The Wonderland also offered vaudeville acts and dancing, and is featured prominently in Lewis Shinerâ€™s 2008 novel, Black and White:
The crowd was mostly male, mostly in coats and ties, though there were some turtlenecks and open sport shirts. The main thing that struck him was the obvious care and effort that virtually every one of them had spent on his appearance: hats, slickly processed hair, brightly shined shoes, rings, cufflinks, tie tacks. Then there were the women. Some wore furs and broad-brimmed hats, others simple linen dresses and dime store gloves. They had an ease with their own bodies, no matter what size or shape, that Robert found both alien and appealing. And some of them were simply stunning.
Watkins retired from the cinematic career in 1929 and according to the City Directories, competitor George Logan (of the Regal) took over operations for at least one year. The theater appears to have closed by 1933 and was subsequently used for a variety of commercial and social purposes: the John Avery Boys Club, grocery stores, a package store, a barber shop, and apartments were all tenants of this building.
Like all of the Hayti structures along East Pettigrew Street, this one was also demolished as part of the Urban Renewal plan.
George Logan built and operated the Regal, a 500-seat theater that offered films with all-black casts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and westerns on Mondays and Thursdays. Logan was a competitor to Frederick â€œMovie Kingâ€ Watkins, who owned 16 African-American theaters across the southeast region, and who had already opened the Hayti-based Wonderland and Rex Theaters.
Prior to becoming a movie house, the Regal had provided a variety of live entertainment and held performances by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. Along with its next door neighbor, the Biltmore Hotel, the Regal provided a place for Durhamâ€™s black community to engage in social and cultural exchange â€" with each other, and with traveling musicians and artists.
At 12:30am on Monday, June 22, 1970 this movie house was bombed with ammonia dynamite. The explosion â€œdamaged the front of the theater building and shattered windows in two adjoining firmsâ€, according to the following dayâ€™s Durham Morning Herald. The blast also shook the car of two Durham officers and an SBI agent who were in the area on another investigation. No injuries were reported. The Morning Herald article included the following passage:
The Durham Chapter of the United Klans of America at their regular meeting Monday night voted to â€œoffer a $100 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the party or parties responsible for the â€œbombingâ€, according to CP Ellis, chapter president.
Ellis said, â€œWe do not agree with this type of destruction.
â€œWeâ€™re serious and thereâ€™s a hundred dollars waiting for anyone who comes up with the information,â€ he said.
CP Ellis would eventually resign his position as Exalted Cyclops of the Durham KKK in 1971, after working alongside and forming an unlikely friendship with Ann Atwater, a black community activist. This relationship is detailed in Osha Gray Davidsonâ€™s 1996 book, The Best of Enemies.
The theater was demolished in 1977 as part of the Urban Renewal plan for Hayti.
Herald Sun columnist Wyatt Dixonâ€™s article from June 7, 1943 states, â€œIt was in the Rialto theater that the first sound picture was shown. Conrad Nagle was at the height of his popularity as an idol of the cinema when he appeared in the history-making production, only part of which was in sound.â€ Dixon also stated the Orpheum had vaudeville shows before the talking movies supplanted them as entertainment.
Local historian and community activist R Kelly Bryant, Jr. recently told a story about the Orpheum theater. The theatre was segregated, but blacks were allowed to sit in the balcony â€" provided that they entered a structure on Parrish Street, crossed the roof, and entered the Orpheum from its back door. Kelly remembered watching The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, from this balcony. In one scene, Chaney turns to face the camera, revealing his hideous face for the first time in the film. Kelly fondly remembered all the white ladies gasping in horror â€" and he and his friends laughed from above.
Chapel Hillian Henry Thomas also remembers the Rialto. Thomas recalled that August in the 1960s meant back-to-school shopping in Durham, because Chapel Hill had a dearth of stores. Watching movies in the Rialto was another mainstay. He wondered, though, what his parents thought of him attending movies next-door to the Malbourne, which had acquired quite a seedy reputation. â€œEvery 13-year old boy in Chapel Hill knew that one could find a prostitute at the Malbourne,â€ although he added that not every boy knew what that meant.
In the 1970, the Rialto (along with several other buildings on this block) was demolished using Urban Renewal funds, clearing the way for the third Durham County Courthouse.
Located less than a block from the Trinity United Methodist church (which sits on the highest point inside the Loop), the Criterion was, in its later years, a skin-flick movie house. The City of Durham purchased the theatre and the adjacent property in 1963, causing some eyebrows to raise. When asked about the leasing arrangement with the theatre operator, then Mayor Wense Grabarek sanguinely replied that movies are viewed â€œwith different levels of acceptabilityâ€ (quoted in Morning Herald article of July 9, 1970).
Durhamite Howard Margolis recalled the 1957 showing of And God created Woman, featuring a young Brigitte Bardot and her bared breasts. Ticket reservations were quickly sold and the theater was packed tighter than if a Duke-Carolina basketball game had been scheduled.
The Criterion, or the â€œCritâ€ as it was known, had a less sullied reputation early in its life, when musicals were performed there. Still, it was well-known later for the X-rated films. In particular, visiting conventioneers used to find entertainment at the Crit. The 1970 management spokesman said, â€œWe know theyâ€Ÿre conventioneers because they still have the cards on their lapels. We have more convention people than any other theater because more people are downtown and can just walk around the block.â€
Durhamites had other movie-going options nearby, though, if a show like this was sold out: the Rialto was around the corner to the left (at 219 E Main) and the Uptown was around the corner to the right (at 121 E Main). None of these structures remains today. When the Criterion closed its doors in 1975, the last remaining place to see a movie in downtown Durham was the Carolina Theatre. That is still true today, over thirty years later.
What became of the Crit? She was taken by Urban Renewal when the City of Durham decided that they need more downtown parking near the government offices and agencies.
The wonderful blog, Endangered Durham, lists the Astor at 306 E Main Street, which is on the SE corner of Main and Roxboro. Read the full blog entry, complete with photos, here.
The address is confirmed by the City Directories. The space was formely occupied by the State, Russell, and New Theatres (this latter one listed in 1935).
The 1950 Durham City Directory (the only one I could find that lists the Booker T) identifies the theater’s address as 430 E Pettigrew Street. Many Durham blocks changed addresses over the years, though, especially in Hayti.
Learn more about the Regal from the Endangered Durham blog entry.
The Wonderland sat at the southwest corner of East Pettigrew and Ramsey Streets. Ramsey Street was taken during Durham’s Urban Renewal projects of the late 1960s.
The 1937 Sanborn tax map of this area identifies the Wonderland at #418 East Pettigrew Street, but to see the <a html=“http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=470+E+Pettigrew+St+Durham+NC&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&resnum=1&ct=image”>approximate location<a/> of the theater on a contemporary Google Map, type in house number 470.
Moving westward on Pettigrew Street from the Wonderland were a series of (mostly) African American-owned businesses and establishments: a restaurant, an auto repair shop, a filling station, another restaurant, the Biltmore Hotel (one of the few places a travelling black person could stay at in North Carolina during Jim Crow), the aforementioned Regal Theater, the Donut Shop, and finally the Venable Tobacco Warehouse and operations (not black-owned). I believe the <a html=“http://dclibrary.net/prod1/ncc/photoarch/i044.htm”>Malcolm X Liberation University</a> also opened for instruction in 1969 along this block (although on the north side of the street.
This block formed the northwest corner of a community called Hayti. Hayti was a predominantly black neighborhood and it formed the backbone of the successful black middle class in Durham. The 150 or so black businesses of Hayti were supported by the financiers and insurance companies of Parrish Street, nicknamed “<a html="http://www.durhamnc.gov/departments/eed/parrish/”>Black Wall Street</a>“.
During the middle of the 20th century, however, Hayti fell victim to increasing poverty and neglect. The City of Durham decided to utilize federal Urban Renewal monies to fund several transportation projects. One such project was the construction of the Durham Freeway (or, NC-147), which cut a swath through the center of Hayti. Many of the businesses, residences, and neighborhood roads were demolished (thus, Ramsey Street no longer exists after 1970), with the promise that the community would be rehabilitated. Many would argue that the City fell far short on encouraging those improvements, and the destruction of Hayti remains an undercurrent to all political discussion in Durham regarding race and public projects.
Interested readers can learn more about Hayti’s past and future at the website for the <a html=“http://www.hayti.org/”>Hayti Heritage Center</a>.
Lost Memory: consider the mystery of the street names solved.
Now who can tell me about these Rex and Carver theaters?