Wonderland Theatre

418 E. Pettigrew Street,
Durham, NC 27701

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Opening in 1920, the Wonderland Theatre was a vaudeville & movie theatre for African Americans. The location given for this theatre was the corner of Pettigrew Street and Ramsey Street. Google won’t map that location so I don’t know if these streets were renamed or even exist anymore.

It is listed in the Negro Yearbook 1921-1922 and the owner manager was K. Watkins (African American). Film Daily Yearbook’s 1931-1933 list it as a Negro theatre.

There is a Booker T Theatre operating at this location in 1949-1955 editions of Film Daily Yearbook.

Contributed by Lost Memory, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 7 comments)

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on July 14, 2007 at 6:14 am

I am wondering if Ramsey Street is actually Ramseur Street as this meets up with E. Pettigrew Street?

There were also a couple more African American theatres located in the area; Rex Theater, Pettigrew Street which had vaudville and movies from 1920, the Regal Theater, 334 E. Pettigrew Street with 518 seats (1937-1955) and there was a Carver Theater listed in 1948 (no further details given)

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on July 14, 2007 at 6:21 am

Great photo…well we know for sure it was located on Pettigrew Street.

Ross Melnick
Ross Melnick on July 14, 2007 at 6:38 am

For more on this theater, check out Charlene Regester’s article, “From the Buzzard’s Roost: Black Movie-going in Durham and Other North Carolina Cities during the Early Period of American Cinema” in the 17.1 issue (2005) of “Film History”, pages 113-124. The link is http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/film_history/v017/17.1regester.html, but subscription access to the Muse Project is required.

Regester’s research on the Wonderland notes that it was Durham’s second black theater and that it was originally a vaudeville house but later became a movie theater. According to her, the theater was bought in the late 1920s by George Logan, owner of the 500-seat Regal Theater.

Ross Melnick
Ross Melnick on July 14, 2007 at 8:35 am

Yes, it’s the same article. Good find!

asedmonds
asedmonds on July 28, 2008 at 10:00 am

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?

asedmonds
asedmonds on November 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm

From the 2008 Preservation Durham Ghost [building] Tour:

Frederick K. Watkins, known as “The Movie King”, 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 Shiner’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.

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on May 9, 2011 at 10:40 am

Thats a great name for a theatre.

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