Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Carolina and the Winston: A Tale of Two Downtown Theaters

For the first nine years of my life, the only indoor movie theaters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were the Carolina, the Winston, and the Center. I never saw a movie at the Center. My dad said it was located in a “bad part of town,” though I have no idea precisely where that was. According to urban legend, the Center Theater had rats, which made it a pretty unappealing place to watch movies. I think Dad and my brother saw a revival of The Adventures of Robin Hood there in the late 1950s. Other than that, I know of no one who ever went to the Center.

The Carolina Theatre was a large, ornate theater located downtown. At one time, it was part of the ground floor of the Carolina Hotel, but the hotel was long out of business by the time I was old enough to go see movies. For most of its existence, the Carolina was the crème de la crème of Winston-Salem movie theaters. A sculpture of a woman, looking like a Greek goddess, protruded from the wall above the screen. She was flanked on either side by chariots. A humongous crystal chandelier formed the focal point of the lobby. The Carolina was the only theater in Winston-Salem to have a balcony, though I only sat there twice (during Flipper while attending YMCA Day Camp and with my sister during That Darn Cat!, probably because the theater was full).

The Carolina seemed to get most of the Disney films because it’s where I saw The Sword in the Stone, Those Calloways, and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. It also ran “kiddie shows” with older movies and games on Saturday mornings and on weekdays in the summer. Briefly, it hosted weekend “midnight monster shows,” showing horror flicks while ushers in monster costumes ran up and down the aisles. I didn’t get to attend the monster shows and am sure I did my share of pouting.

Sadly, the owners of the Carolina let the theater run down during the early 1970s. They also painted the once-attractive lobby a hideous shade of lime green. During that period, the movies shown at the Carolina underwent a major change, too. Instead of Disney, it began to specialize in horror films, “blaxploitation” movies, and martial arts pictures. I still saw movies there with my sister and best friend Herb, such as Enter the Dragon, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Ssssssss.

During Terror in the Wax Museum (not one of Ray Milland’s better pics), Herb and I saw a patron singe a girl’s Afro with a lighter. At the same movie, a stranger ran up to Herb’s brother Johnny and told him: “There’s girl up there (in a row toward the front) that’s sweet on you.” The last time I can remember seeing a movie at the Carolina was when I was a senior in high school and convinced a group of friends to see Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Dragon Squad (this was during the kung fu movie craze of the mid-1970s.)

The Carolina was finally closed in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but its story has a happy ending. It was eventually sold, remodeled, and reopened as the Stevens Performing Arts Center, a venue for concerts and plays.

The Winston Theatre was located just a few blocks from the Carolina. It tended to show more adult fare; it’s where we saw Dr. Zhivago, Charade, The Great Escape, and Stagecoach (the remake.) However, it also showed family films. In fact, The Sound of Music played there for almost a year! It was an attractive theater with an aqua-blue interior, although the décor lacked the lavishness of the Carolina. It underwent minor remodeling in the early 1970s and became the first theater in town with Ultravision (a large slightly-curved screen).

The Winston's Ultravision screen.
Courtesy of my sister, I have very fond memories of the Winston. She worked there for a summer and, during that time, I saw every movie at the Winston for free! I would go with her when she left for work, watch the feature presentation a couple of times while she toiled at the concession stand, and then go home with her. It was a great deal and I saw two of my favorite films during that time: The Day of the Jackal and The Chinese Connection. In fact, I may never have become a Bruce Lee fan were it not for my big sister. When Bruce Lee’s first martial arts film, Fists of Fury, was released in the U.S., I snickered at the trailers because I knew him only as Kato from “The Green Hornet” TV series. But since I could see The Chinese Connection (his second martial arts pic) at the Winston for free, I did—and I loved it.

Unfortunately, as the suburbs of Winston-Salem expanded in the late 1970s, the Winston suffered a gradual decline and began to show second-run movies at a discounted price. My last visit was when some college friends and I were on spring break in 1979 and saw The Boys from Brazil (or rather The Bo s from Brazil…the “y” was missing on the marquee). Before we left for the movie, my father mentioned that couple of robberies had occurred recently downtown. That night, while we standing in line to get tickets, we heard the girl in the box office tell a patron: “We’ve been held up.” We looked at each other in shock—wow, my dad wasn’t kidding about those robberies! Later, we learned that that some employees had arrived late and caused some delays—that “held up” opening the box office on time.

The Winston Theatre in downtown Winston-Salem, NC.
I’m not sure when the Winston Theater closed, but the Hanes Mall Cinemas and other twin theaters (before the multiplexes) forced the closure of the largest movie theaters in Winston-Salem. There was no stopping the trend of building more screens with more movies (sometimes)—but the price was steep for those of us who got to experience the thrill of watching a film in a true movie palace.

(The photographs for this article are courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection. Additional historical photographs of Forsyth County, NC, can be viewed at 


  1. Rick, this was a superbly written and thoroughly enjoyable read. I find a great number of films fascinating, but sometimes the movie watching experience is just as memorable (on occasion, more so than the actual movie being watched). I love reading stories of the history of movie theatres, particularly the smaller ones, although I'm saddened by the inevitable ending, as many of them are forced into closing. I'm envious of your many free films, thanks to your sister (who should've made you work at least once a month as payment), but it's nice to hear that you were able to discover films that became favorites. The little stories involving your theatre experiences (such as the mysteriously missing marquee letter) were a joy to read. Thank you so much for sharing some of your cinema history with us!

  2. Rick...your fascinating histories of the Carolina and Winston Theaters took me back to my own early movie-theater going days. And you also inspired me to take a couple of my much younger relatives to the Castro and the Paramount here in the Bay Area so that they can have the experience of seeing films in a movie palace. A totally different experience than the multiplex. Thanks so much!

  3. Rick, what a wonderfully told tale of two theaters! I especially enjoyed your memories of seeing movies for free when your sister went to work at the Winston. The photo of it makes the chairs look so spacious -- unlike the ones today where you sit very up close and personal with whomever is on either side of you.

    I grew up in a large family and we never went to the movies together. I only saw a couple of films at a movie theater as a child. So those experiences are extra special to me, too.

  4. Rick, I really enjoyed your article about the two movie theatres. I love ornate theatres with beautiful statues and carvings. I also envy you getting to sit in a balcony! I have always thought the outside round ticket box offices looked so cool. I always wanted to go inside one to see what it looked like. You sure had a nice sister. Most sisters would never take their brother to work with them. You two sound like you are close. It's nice to hear family stories. I envy you getting to see one of my favorite movies, Sssssss, in a cool theatre. Enjoyed reading your articles.

  5. Sark, you are so right! A movie-watching experience can sometimes make for a better memory than the movie itself. Eve, I so miss the movie palaces and envy that you still have some in SF. Toto, the old movie theatres were so much more comfortable--though I confess I like the stadium seating in newer ones. And Aki, my sister was awesome about taking me to movies. If a film was R-rated, she would even convince the theatre management that she was my adult guardian. I can remember the first R-rated movie I saw: THE YOUNG GRADUATES. I can't recall why my sister and I went to see it. But, in a key scene, a college co-ed explains to her professor (who is married!) that the rabbit died. I had no idea what she was talking about, but Sis was there to explain it to me. She was--and is--the best!

  6. Oh how I miss those wonderful theaters! Indianapolis had some ornate, gorgeous downtown theaters and I was lucky enough to get to experience them before they went downhill during the 70's. I'm going to write about one myself this month. Your pictures are fabulous! I'm not sure I'll be able to find such pics, but I'll try! This was a really excellent trip down memory lane, Rick. Your stories were so amusing and nostalgic. Now I'm anxious to do my article too!

  7. Rick: Can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. The Carolina sounds a lot like the theater I grew up with, the Dolton Theater in Dolton, IL, though the Dolton was much smaller than the Carolina. (It was originally built as a nickoledeon, and seated about 500.) Dolton was a working class community, and the theater catered its programming to the likes of the community.

    I spent countless weekend hours in the early and mid 1970s there as a young boy and saw an amazing variety of films. They constantly ran double features and the program often changed weekly. It was Heaven.

    I saw AIP horror movies, Amicus anthology films, spaghetti westerns, John Wayne movies, westerns, disaster flicks and every Burt Reynolds and Peter Fonda car chase movie imaginable. Every Disney release and re-issue got playtime there. I even saw a Filipino horror movie there ("Twilight People").

    I never did get to see "Soylent Green" and "Westworld" in the theater because that double bill always sold out. Distribution patterns were so much more different then, and if the management didn't like what was being offered, they would ask for older titles. That particular double feature was a perpetual sellout. I never could get in.

    To this day, I have never experienced laughter in a theater than the Saturday night the Dolton had a sold-out double feature of "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" and "Revenge of the Pink Panther." Almost 500 people laughing in unison at the top of their lungs.

    They would often get re-issues too. First time I saw "The Ten Commandments" and "Gone with the Wind." It was wonderful. I even remember a revival of "Hercules" and "Hercules Unchained."

    It was tight-knit community and you'd see classmates, Little League teammates, people from church, strangers you'd recognize from the local grocery store.

    It was a truly special place. I still miss it. It's now a nightclub, alas.

  8. Kevin, I loved reading about your experiences at the Doltan Theater! I can count on one hand the number of double-features I got see theatrically, so I'm extremely jealous about that part. But I think I saw many of the same movies you did. Ah, those Peter Fonda chase movies like DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL (which I saw on TCM again earlier this year), and OUTLAW BLUES (with the title song by John Oates of Hall & Oates...before he was famous). That when I also discovered Spaghetti Westerns, starting with the very funny TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME. Thanks for inspiring me to remember more of those good times.

  9. Rick: The Center was located in a section of town referred to as East Winston and it wasn't very nice...or very safe. The popcorn was stale, I wouldn't know about the soft drinks because Dad never let you have them (he might miss part of the movie taking you to the restroom). There were no rats, and not very many people the night we saw "Robin Hood." Of course that didn't matter, it was an Errol Flynn movie!

    1. The Center (formerly the Colonial) was in the 400 block of North Liberty Street and nowhere near "East Winston". It was, however, pretty rundown in its last days as was the State Theater a few doors up the block. Both were replaced by an unsightly parking deck in 1973.

      The East Winston theaters were the Lincoln on Church Street and the Lafayette around the corner on East Fourth. Both were razed for the Phillips Building in 1972.

  10. Hey, Big Brother! Someone in the family started the urban myth about rats at the Center.... Speaking of not taking taking family members to the restroom, I still have a hard time watching DR. ZHIVAGO because no one would take me for a potty break. And it was a very long movie!

  11. Ah, yes, the Bo s from Brazil....I remember it fondly. Seems there were discounted concessions that night, too. Or was that at The China Syndrome?

  12. Rick, I remember as a little girl in the 60's, walking to the theater from my house with my mother, brother and sisters in Riverside, Calif. We stopped off at 7-11 to pick up our slurpee's and our candy, and off we went on our hour journey to watch the film, Hawaii. I do not remember the theater being very beautiful, except maybe the red velvet curtain with gold tassels.

    Then we moved to Ridgecrest Ca. Where the theater reminded me of a basket ball gym with chairs.

    Now, that I live in Tucson, Az. We have the beautifully restored Fox Theater, located downtown.. I think they show only classic movies. One of these days, I hope my husband will take me... Hey wait a minute! I have a birthday coming up!! That would be a great way to celebrate!

  13. Yes, Terry, the "popcorn incident" was a theater in Richmond that showed THE CHINA SYNDROME. I love tell that story, because people always go: "Eeew!" And Dawn, that does sound like a lovely way to spend your birthday.

  14. The Carolina opened in 1929 and closed in 1975 after Hanes Mall opened in the suburbs. (Ironically, the Hanes Mall Cinema has since been demolished and the Mall has no theater today.) In 1979, the Carolina was purchased for $1 by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and reopened as the Roger L. Stevens Center in May, 1983. Leonard Bernstein conducted the UNCSA Orchestra at the gala which also featured performances by Zoe Caldwell, Isaac Stern, Gregory Peck and Jean Stapleton.

    The Winston opened in 1949 and was extensively remodeled in 1968. (The marquee and interior photos in your post date from that year.) The theater closed in 1983 and was remodeled (sans the Art Moderne facade) into offices known as City Center West the following year. The loss of that facade is one of the stupidest and most regretted blunders of Downtown's 1980s redevelopment efforts.

    The Winston, had it survived, would certainly be operating again today as Downtown Winston-Salem is once again thriving with a vibrant nightlife and is now considered one the safest areas of the city. An art cinema recently opened in a former dress shop due to the lack of a more suitable facility. Of the eight movie theaters operating in 1950, only the Carolina remains intact.

    The complete blueprints to the Winston are available online . . . in case any bored millionaires are reading this and looking for a project . . .

    1. The Winston in color, 1968: