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Going to the Movies

by Joel Reese

Playhouse Theater 1950

Perhaps the most important social activity for Iredell County citizens over the last one hundred years has been going to the movies. In fact, other than attending church, going to the local theatres to watch a movie has been probably been Iredell County’s most popular social activity. Movies were being shown locally starting in the early 1900s. The Landmark newspaper reported on May 24, 1907 that, “Messrs Gregory & Turner have moved their moving picture outfit from the Armory Hall to the Opera House and are giving shows there every night at 8:30 p.m. They have an excellent electric machine and the pictures are free from the eye-tiring flickers. Mr. R.L. Flanigan’s electric piano and a talking machine furnish music during the performances.”

The first motion picture theatre in Statesville was the Gem Theater which was located in the Hotel Iredell annex. The March 4, 1908 edition of the Landmark reported, “The Gem electrical theatre is being well patronized. About 1,200 complimentary tickets were distributed at the graded school, the furniture and cotton factories and the business houses Tuesday, and of course there was a large crowd on hand from the time the doors opened Tuesday afternoon until late at night. The object of the free tickets was to introduce the moving pictures.” Early theatres in Iredell County include the Playhouse, Crescent, State, Roxie (Troutman), Center (Harmony), Crystal, Lyric, Dunbar (early Black Theatre on Depot Hill), and Palace (replaced the Dunbar). Drive-ins included the Villa Heights and the Statesville Drive-In.

Concession StandThe Iredell County Public Library Local History Department hosted former Playhouse and Crescent promotion manager Delmar Sherrill for a special program called “Going to the Movies in Statesville with Delmar Sherrill” on October 26, 2010. Delmar is a Statesville native who now lives in Massachusetts. He says he thinks of Statesville every time he sits down to watch TCM Turner Classic Movies. “Last Sunday morning I turned on the TV and the “Harvey Girls” with Judy Garland was playing. I helped to do the publicity for the movie when it played in Statesville in 1946. We set up a carousel in the parking lot next to the Playhouse Theatre to help promote the film.”

Delmar got his first job at the Crescent Theatre as an usher at the age of 14. His keen ideas for movie promotion soon caught the attention of theatre owner A. Fuller Sams who transferred him to the Playhouse as a manager and promoter. Delmar continued to work for the Statesville Theatre Association which included the Playhouse, State, Crescent, and the drive in, while going through college. He remembers the movie theatre business as being completely different when he began. “We had to do our own promotions.” he says. Delmar possessed enthusiasm, energy, and imagination, all of which he used to create sometimes elaborate displays promoting the movies coming to Statesville. He remembers this as a time when actors often accompanied the movies to help promote them. Through the years stars such as The Stooges, Soupy Sales, Smiley Burnette, Little Jimmie Dickens, Tex Ritter, Lash Larue, Minnie Pearl, Rex Allen, Joseph Cotton, Hopalong Cassidy, and Fred Kirby all visited Statesville.

Playhouse TheaterDelmar left in 1953 to enlist in the Air Force. “I became an Air Force Cadet and got my wings and commission and ended up flying jet fighters such as the F-94C and F-89D Scorpion. Later I was stationed at the air base at Cape Cod, Massachusetts where I met my future wife. I left the service in March 1957 and came back to Statesville and worked for two years for Fuller Sams doing advertising and management training for his 17 theatres in North Carolina. I relocated back to Cape Cod when my wife’s father had a heart attack and she wanted to go back home. I went to work in the office supplies and furniture business and finally ended up owning my own office supply company.” The Playhouse Theatre was on the ground floor of the six-story Stearns Building built by Jack Stearns in 1927. The Playhouse opened on February 19, 1927 with a showing of one of George White’s Broadway revues called “Scandal” based on the Ziegfeld Follies. At the time it was one of the eight largest stage theatres in the state, seating 1,100 people. It began by featuring vaudeville acts and live concerts and ended showing its last movie, “The Soggy Bottom Gang” on March 7, 1982. The Playhouse Theatre and the Stearns Building on East Broad Street were demolished in April 1983.

Joel Reese is the Local History Librarian at the Iredell County Public Library.