REIDSVILLE — For Shirley Williams, the charming little bluebird from the 1946 film “Song of the South” still has its perch on the shoulder of “Uncle Remus.”
News that the glamorous movie palace of her youth has closed kept Williams awake Thursday night, cataloging the many enchanting films she enjoyed from the plush seats of The Rockingham Theatre during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
“I was born in 1934 and grew up in the Golden Age of Hollywood,’’ said Williams, 85, a former Reidsville Junior High School special education teacher.
“I had a couple of little classmates at South Bend Elementary who tried to convince me that going to the movies was a sin,’’ she said with a chuckle. “But I loved the movies, and I was so thrilled when my aunt and my little cousin took me to see “Song of the South” ... that little animated blue bird that sat on Uncle Remus’s shoulder … And I loved “Snow White,’’ “Bambi,’’ “Lassie Come Home,’’ “My Friend Flicker,’’ and “Wizard of Oz.’’
The man behind the magic curtain who brought the razzle-dazzle to Williams and generations of townspeople — week in, week out — was longtime theater owner, the late Bill Hendrix of Reidsville.
His father, W. H. Hendrix Sr., built and opened the Gilmer Street theater just two weeks after the stock market crash of 1929 that plummeted the nation into the Great Depression.
Ninety years later, The Rock, as it’s affectionately known by locals, has closed in the face of needed major repairs. And it’s a time when crowds are too small to support such an overhaul, said owner Tim Robertston, whose family bought and modernized The Rockingham in 1991.
Citing major roof leaks and a water-damaged ceiling and walls, Robertson said, “It was not an easy decision to make. Our customers over the years were wonderful and loyal to us, but to make the theater successful, there just weren’t enough customers.’’
By contrast, back in 1929, there was little entertainment, besides a few radio shows, to compete with films for the attention of Reidsville’s citizens.
And The Rockingham’s Nov. 15, 1929 opening night had a packed house when velvet curtains opened for the film, “Illusion,’’ with Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll — one of the first movies to feature new sound technology created for the advent of such “talking pictures” as silent films phased out.
A commemorative program from the premiere evening noted organ performances, as well as newsreels and the theater’s pledge to be, “A beautiful motion picture palace for Rockingham and surrounding counties that comes as near offering the comforts of home as any theater could.’’
Indeed, the stucco-front theater, designed by Kinston Architect Charles Benton with Spanish and Colonial Revival style architecture, was built in the heyday of opulent movie houses.
It was a grim economic time and theater designers and owners hoped the experience of seeing a motion picture would transport families from the stress and hum-drum of daily life with grand accoutrements, ornate fixtures and luxury writ large.
Built by the elder Hendrix after he tore down the Grand, a picture house that had stood for decades on the Gilmer Street lot, The Rockingham had the added distinction of housing the state’s top sound system.
Constructed by Roland Edward Haga, “The Rock” was home to a “Widerange” audio system by Western Electric, designed specifically for the era’s advent of “talking pictures.’’
In fact, movie companies and Western Electric regularly sent theater owners and industry reps to the “The Rock” to experience the premiere audio set up. A brass placard touting the system remains in the lobby today.
But even more than the technical excellence and elegant trappings, patrons said they appreciated the warmth of their host Hendrix and his assistant manager and investor Roy Wagner.
“Mr. Hendrix was babysitter for the whole town every Saturday,’’ said Calvert Smith, branch manager of the Reidsville Public Library, reminiscing about matinee days at “The Rock” as she leafed through archived articles chronicling the history of her childhood movie house.
Noting a 1958 photo of Hendrix with children and a friendly dog posed in front of the theater, Smith recalled the story of how Hendrix enlisted a lively hound to console youngsters who were distraught by the death of the star pooch in the popular movie of the day, “Old Yeller.”
Another vintage photo of the theater from 1961 shows happy teenagers cutting up in front of Hendrix’s marquee tribute to Reidsville High School’s graduating class.
Once dubbed “Reidsville’s Best Liked Person,’’ in a Reidsville Review headline, Hendrix was a king of high jinx, according to accounts from former moviegoers.
The 1940s and 1950s were decades in which movie theaters often staged sensational stunts and staffed their aisles and lobbies with costumed characters to great effect.
For example, on opening nights for horror and sci-fi flicks, theater owners would recruit local ambulances to idle out front while actors in nurse’s uniforms stood guard to heighten tension and the fear factor for show goers.
On one evening, Hendrix and staff staged a fake fight between patrons and one of the men fired a faux gun containing blanks to shock the crowd.
On another occasion, the owner’s scheme involved a young woman with a ladder who climbed to the balcony for laughs.
Those crazy days were a time when going to the show was a real event, explained Williams.
With two teenager sisters, Williams enjoyed special nights out with her siblings during the 1940s.
“One of my special treats when I was a little girl was when one of my older sisters would take me uptown to the original Sanitary Café. It was really nice. I would always order breaded veal cutlet with tomato sauce,’’ Williams said, “and then we would go to the movie at The Rockingham. It was wonderful!”
Owner Robertson, whose late father David Robertson bought The Rockingham 28 years ago, is proud of his family’s stewardship of the historic theater.
He noted that his family made a big investment in the property by converting to digital projectors and did a lot to bring people back downtown with affordable ticket prices and fun films. Robertson also owns Eden Drive-In, Kingsway Cinema in Eden and Badin Road Drive-In, a two-screen facility in Albemarle.
Several investors have reportedly toured “The Rock,” but Robertson said the property has not yet been officially listed for sale.
“It’s gonna take a lot of money to get it back in shape,’’ he said of the need for the ceiling and plaster walls to be “gutted.’’ But Robertson emphasized that aside from the plaster issues, the building is structurally sound. “I’d love to see someone do something with it.”