By Doug Dodson
The year was 1906. Teddy Roosevelt was President and Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, with Charlotte hot on its heels. A form of entertainment which had been presented mostly at carnivals and traveling shows up to that time was going to find a home at 205 North Front Street.
Wilmington was about to become one of the first cities in the state with a permanent motion picture theater, called a “nickelodeon” because admission was one slim nickel. This theater was named “Bijou” which means “jewel,” or something “delicate, elegant or highly prized.” Two men with circus and carnival experience would create this new enterprise.
Their names were James Howard and Percy Wells and they had the distinct advantage that Howard owned a circus tent and Wells owned a film projector. They leased one of the only vacant lots on Front Street and set up their tent with a wooden facade to give it a sense of permanence. The use of a tent may seem odd to us today, but at a time without air conditioning, it gave them the advantage of being able to stay open in summer when an enclosed building would have been unbearably hot. Howard would act as carnival barker, standing in front of the theater shouting, “Never out and never over. Right this way! New picture showing! For five cents, the twentieth part of a dollar!” Wells would crank his projector and tell the story of the film to the audience using a script that was written out to match the images.
Keep in mind that this was the silent film era, and the use of title cards for dialogue was just getting started in 1906. At first they showed one single reel film, which would have lasted about 12 minutes. They would change films every two days. Later, another single reel film was added to the bill. To augment this limited motion picture fare, live entertainment was offered, with Percy Well’s wife Alice Fisher Wells playing the piano and singing along to projected slides illustrating the words of popular songs. The floor of the theater was covered in sawdust, upon which the patrons would toss the shells of their favorite snack, the peanut. This attracted rats which were dealt with through feline extermination, so if customers felt something brush against their legs they could never be sure if it was rat or cat.
The Bijou would be transformed into an actual building in 1912. The tent collapsed in a freak snow storm in January of that year and a handsome theater would take its place in May. Howard and Wells must have been doing well since they were able to pay $20,000 for the land and $40,000 for the new building, while still only charging a nickel, a price that would continue until World War I.
Wilmington did have one indoor venue that began showing movies as one part of its list of programs in 1897. That was the Opera House, which became the Academy of Music in 1902 and is now our beloved Thalian Hall.
Building a permanent Bijou was probably a reaction to the competition that Howard and Wells were now facing. In 1910 the Grand Theater had opened at 25 N. Front Street, with seating for 500, carpeting, a balcony and live orchestra. Its owner was Jacob Solky, who had left Russia in 1880, and ran a successful haberdashery in Wilmington. The Grand was in the first floor of a building that still stands just north of the Masonic Temple building on Front. It’s often called the “iron-front building” because of its beautiful three story iron facade. Solky opened a second theater in 1914 on the site of the Bonitz Hotel, called the Victoria. You can see the empty lot where it once stood just east of the St. John’s Building on Market Street, which now houses Slice of Life Pizza. The Victoria was designed to present not just movies, but “big-time” vaudeville shows, provided by the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit. It had an orchestra, seating for 1,200, a stage and backstage area, and “young lady” ushers. It became the Carolina Theater in October of 1925 after a renovation and new management. The Carolina was the first Wilmington theater to show talking pictures. The very first was “Lucky Boy,” a Vitaphone picture starring George Jessel. It played to a packed house in February of 1929. All of the other major movie houses would be converted for sound within a year. The Carolina was considered Wilmington’s most elegant theater during the Depression era of the 1930’s. Local film goers would see “Gone with the Wind” at the Carolina in February of 1940.
Howard and Wells had built their second theater in 1915 at 121 N. Front Street. Called the Royal, it had a Seeburg Motion Picture Organ and featured films produced by World, Paramount, Metro, and Fox Pictures, which was considered a selling point at that time. The Royal featured Wilmington’s first animated electric sign, with “Royal” surrounded by illuminated “running” rabbits. It was located just north of the Orton Hotel, which would bring about its demise in 1949, when the Orton burned down, taking the Royal with it.
In November of 1915, Jacob Solky turned over management of both his theaters to Howard and Wells, which gave the Howard and Wells Amusement Company control of all four major downtown theaters. They bought the Grand in 1923, then closed it to convert the space into a McLellan Store, part of a chain of dime stores.
Beyond the Grand, Royal, Bijou and Victoria, Wilmington had over a dozen movie houses come and go during these early years, including the Lyric, a theater for African-American patrons from 1911-1915, and the Brooklyn on North Fourth Street, which started as a black vaudeville house and later added films before it closed in 1928. The historical record is cloudy about which theaters admitted black patrons during these “Jim Crow” years, but it is known that the Bijou admitted blacks from the beginning in a segregated section, and then relegated them to the balcony in the new Bijou, which was a common practice in those days.
Howard and Wells were the kings of the Wilmington movie world for two decades, but their reign would come to a bleak end in 1933, when they were unable to make payments on their mortgages and lost all their holdings. In a bit of irony, Jacob Solky, the man who had sold his two theaters to Howard and Wells, bought all of their theaters at auction that same year.
The last great figure of the downtown Wilmington movie world was George Bailey, who arrived in Wilmington in 1915 to manage the Academy of Music, and later managed various theaters, including the Royal and Carolina. In 1940 he purchased land at 16-18 North Front Street and began construction of a movie palace equipped to show wide-screen films and designed with two balconies, the lower one for white patrons and the upper for African-Americans. Bailey died before construction was complete, so the theater was named in his honor. The Bailey was open for forty years and was torn down in 1983, but preservation groups managed to get the developers to preserve the art decor facade and marquee. Later, the marquee was deemed unsafe to walk under, so it was removed, but the crumbling facade, propped up by iron beams, is still part of the Front Street cityscape.
There is one theater, built a year after the Bailey in 1941, whose building still survives on Market Street, downtown. The Manor was a whites only theater with no balcony and seating for 700. It closed in 1985 and became Jake’s at Jacob’s Run, which had movies, live music, a restaurant, and served as a substitute for Thalian Hall while it underwent renovations. (I know this mainly because I performed in two shows there for the Thalian Association around that time.) The building now houses the live music venue, Ziggy’s by the Sea.
It’s a shame that none of the old movie palaces have survived. The Bijou closed in 1956; a victim of the rise of TV. It was torn down in 1963 and the lot is now a park. The only reminder of the Bijou is a black and white tile sign in the sidewalk that says, “Bijou.” The Carolina, which was renamed the Colony in 1953, was torn down in 1975; a casualty of the suburban spread that would send the multiplexes away from downtown. Wilmington is lucky to have Thalian Hall, which does show films on a regular basis, but it would be nice to have a dedicated movie house downtown to show classics or indie films every night. That’s not going to happen, so we must be content with memories of the ghosts of movie palaces past.
“Early film exhibition in Wilmington, NC 1897-1915,” by Anna Morey
“Going to the Show” online resource
“Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten” by Beverly Tetterton