The crowd was so large it knocked down the brass railings outside the theater.
The octagonal ticket booth with its onion-shaped roof was overwhelmed. When one employee tried to set up an additional ticket booth on the top of a barrel, it was crushed and he was toppled in the rush for tickets. It took a line of policemen to keep the eager patrons from breaking ranks to get inside.The film - long forgotten - was ``Painting the Town.' But it wasn't the film or the vaudeville show or the orchestra that drew thousands to Greene Street. They came to see the theater - the Carolina Theatre.
Opening night was Oct. 31, 1927. And the Greensboro Daily Record wasn't content to compare it to earthly structures. ``There is none like it between Washington and Atlanta, even in the heavens above or in the seas beneath,' the story said.
It was grand - marble floors, cornice molding, mahogany handrails and elegant damask draperies. In the auditorium, a magnificent chandelier with thousands of glass prisms cast a regal light.
It was the first air-conditioned public building in the state - called ``manufactured weather' in the proud newspaper ad taken out by the Carrier Engineering Corp. Almost every company that provided materials and services took out an ad to promote the grand new theater the day before it opened.
The words in the program were prophetic:
``The Carolina Theatre represents to you, and to us, far more than a structure of brick and stone.'
No one knew then how much more the Carolina would come to mean to the Greensboro. It was a place where children delighted in the talent shows and took the Circle K pledge, where teenagers enjoyed their first dates, where people fell in love and where a few got married. It has been both a reflection of the city and a force in shaping its life.
It survives 63 years later because it has a life of its own, made up of all the memories of all the people who have passed through its doors.
Paul Kersey practically grew up there. His father, S.P. ``Possum' Kersey, was projectionist that first night and for the next 47 years. The photos and programs he saved are now part of the theater archives. There's a signed photo of Amos n' Andy; a picture of Richard B. Harrison, drama professor at N.C. A&T State, when he played the lead in ``The Green Pastures'; a photo of the 1928 Junior League Follies; and countless photos of vaudeville stars and dancing girls whose names are long forgotten.
``I was there the whole time I was a kid,' Kersey says. ``The Carolina used to be filled. On Saturday nights, they'd put those ropes up, but Sunday was the busiest. There would be two lines - one to buy tickets and one to get into the theater.'
In the first year, there was vaudeville and movies. Mentalists, comedians and magicians were warm-ups for the main feature. There's a depression in the stage floor to this day from the elephants in one of these long-ago acts.
The first movies were silent. As patrons watched the screen, an organist played dramatic accompaniment on the deluxe Robert Morgan organ down front. The first talkie arrived just a year later - ``Glorious Betsy,' starring Conrad Nagle.
People flocked to see ``Gone With the Wind' in 1939 and donned ``Polaroid viewers' in 1952 for the first 3-D film, ``Bwana Devil.' Whatever the film, the place to go was the Carolina.
As a child, Kersey could go anytime he wanted to - and sometimes when he didn't. He always sat on the left side, halfway down.
``We went to the Carolina every single Saturday when the movie changed,' Kersey says. ``My mother dragged me down there to see all those Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald movies. I hated them.'
Betty Kersey says she spent her whole dating career going to the movies. And that would have been true even if she hadn't been sweet on young Paul Kersey, who was an usher at the theater in the late '40s, while he was in high school.
The standards for ushers were strict. Their black, tuxedo-style uniforms had to be clean at all times.
``They had a cardboard front and collar,' Kersey recalls. ``You talk about being a pain in the summertime!'
There were ushers to take tickets, ushers to seat the patrons and ushers to change the letters in the marquee. Kersey's job was to stand at the head of the aisle and direct people to their seats. The pay was 45 cents an hour and all the popcorn you could eat.
The first major renovation occurred in 1949, with a new marquee, the installation of a concession stand and a complete repainting.
The Circle K Club was started in 1949. Broadcast live from the stage of the Carolina Theatre by WCOG radio, the Circle K Club was a kid's show featuring talent shows, the Holsum Bread Quiz, yo-yo demonstrations and popular kiddie show personalities like The Old Rebel and Pecos Pete. Children sang as ``Uncle Howard' Waynick played the piano. The activities culminated in cartoons, a weekly serial and a shoot-'em-up Western.
In the club code, children pledged to obey their parents, do well in school, go to church, obey the traffic laws, be true to their country and work to be good citizens.
Within weeks, membership had grown to 500. Within a few years, it was in the thousands. So popular was the Saturday morning program that Guilford Dairy named an ice-cream bar in the club's name.
The club thrived until 1961, when Saturday morning cartoons on television lured children away. It was a harbinger of things to come for the theater as a whole. The entertainment business changed. Television was steadily becoming more popular. Smaller modern theaters started to open in suburban shopping centers. People stopped coming downtown for entertainment.
The last first-run movie to show at the Carolina was ``Born Free' in 1968. The installation of new rocking chair seats in 1969 didn't help. The Carolina became a second-run theater specializing in karate films and black exploitation films. By 1974, its offerings included ``Blood Feast,' ``The Klansmen' and ``The Liberation of L.B. Jones.'
At the same time, the United Arts Council was struggling with a need for offices and a performance center.
``We needed a more centrally located facility,' says Betty Cone, then president of the United Arts Council. ``The Community Theater sold tickets one place, rehearsed in another place and performed in yet another. We needed a home.'
One option, the old Sears building downtown, had fallen through. Cone was having lunch with the manager of the Terrace Theatre, with whom the arts council was cosponsoring a film festival, when the subject of the Carolina Theatre came up. The Terrace and the Carolina were both operated by ABC Southeastern Theatres, and the chain was losing money on the Carolina. ABC Southeastern owned the theater trappings inside the Carolina and leased the structure from Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co.
``By 3 p.m., he'd committed to donating the innards if Jefferson would donate the building,' Cone says. ``That same day, we went down to look at it. I was just stunned. I was struck with the warmth, charm and ambience of it.
``Suddenly we weren't just talking about a performing arts center, but the preservation of something there weren't any more of. It was dark and it was dirty, but all the parts were there. It hadn't been changed. There were all these nice touches, like the Tiffany exit lights, that nobody does anymore.'
Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co. didn't agree to donate the building, but offered to sell it to the Arts Council for $300,000 and donate $100,000 toward the purchase.
``The replacement value was $5-6 million - if you find the artisans to build it,' Cone says.
The United Arts Council made a presentation to the City Council in November 1975, which requested further study. When the committee returned to make the report at the April 1976 council meeting, more than 100 people attended.
``What we found out was that a lot of people courted in that theater,' Cone says. ``In the black community, the memories weren't so fond, even though people could see the possibilities for it. We saw making it a performance center as a way to come back and cross over those boundaries with events that would be for everyone in Greensboro - a coming together place.'
The last commercial film shown in the Carolina was ``The Exorcist,' in May 1976. The total price to buy the theater and convert it from a movie theater to a performing arts center was set at $550,000. The United Arts Council took a lease on the theater in May 1976 and began fund raising.
``The whole process of saving it is part of the magic,' Cone says. ``Whatever it is about that building, I do know it was like a virus. Volunteers gave more and more of themselves.'
Initially, the council and battalion of volunteers gave the place a good cleaning, scraping up congealed Coke syrup and petrified gum and steaming the carpets again and again. Then Locke Clifford got the idea to clean the chandelier - more than 25,000 glass prisms held together with a mile of wire. It was a massive job, done completely by hand.
``When we cranked it back up, it looked so beautiful it became our little beacon of hope,' Cone says.
On Feb. 15, 1977, the arts council bought the theater with the combined contributions of more than 2,200 Greensboro residents. The $190,000 raised for renovation covered many of the necessities. They restored rigging, improved lighting, provided handicapped access and resurfaced the stage. They also replaced the theater's lovely mahogany auditorium doors with fire-safety doors, something they'd be thankful for later.
Volunteers took care of the rest.
``We had spent most the money we raised to buy the theater,' Cone says. ``So we stretched our dollars and used volunteers to do the cleaning. We were attuned to patron needs and felt we needed to tend to things people would actually touch and feel. Structurally, the seats were OK, but the fabric was old and worn and grungy.'
The United Arts Council used inmates at the Sandy Ridge Prison upholstery department to stitch new covers for seat backs and bottoms at $2.05 each. Volunteers took off the arms of the chairs and removed the fabric-covered foam padding, which was held down by 20-25 staples per arm. The arms were sanded, then varnished and sealed by ACT Company members.
Volunteers undertook the task of putting the seats back in - no small feat as there were five different sizes of seats. Cone remembers it was like trying to put a giant jigsaw puzzle back together.
``Those kinds of times build commitment. It repositioned the Carolina as a special place for the entire community.'
Blue Bell donated the services of expert seamstress Alma Kirkman to stitch 830 yards of commando fabric into stage draperies. Only the main curtain was contracted out. Volunteer Molly Cooper hand-stitched the old fringe back on when they couldn't afford to replace the 12-inch fringe at $75 per yard.
By the start of 1978, the theater was on its way to becoming a performing arts center. The Carolina Film Club was founded and sponsored the first film series in 1980. By then, community theater groups, the symphony, and other events had the theater occupied about 200 days a year.
At 10:45 a.m. July 1, 1981, somebody saw smoke coming from the theater and called the fire department. Cone was home working on a payroll when she heard the news. By the time she got to the theater, smoke was boiling out of the southeast corner. Cone wasn't the only one who came. Traffic had to be rerouted because of the crowd that gathered.
Firefighters battled the blaze for three hours; four were injured. In the stairwell where the fire started, firemen found the body of a 47-year-old Greensboro woman with a history of emotional problems. An investigation concluded that she started the fire.
The balcony stairwell on the theater's southeast side was gutted. The fire also gutted the third-level lobby and adjoining rooms. The fire doors installed during the renovation proved to be the theater's saving grace. The southeast fire door was buckled but kept the fire from sweeping into the auditorium. Fire investigators said later the door wouldn't have held 30 more minutes. The auditorium was, however, covered with sooty grime from smoke.
The legacy of the fire lingers. The sooty smell filters from the walls on the third-floor level, and one bathroom remains a blackened testament to the fire's destruction.
And, although nobody realized it at the time, the fire had strengthened support for the theater in a way that nothing else could have.
``With that event, people suddenly realized we could have lost something that really means a lot,' says Louis Patseavouras, chairman of the Carolina Theatre Commission. ``They realized what a great loss it would have been.'
The fire took the theater out of operation for a year and forced the arts council to tackle restoration that had previously been a long-term option. But it also engendered support for a more extensive renovation that was once envisioned.
``All of a sudden, the theater was a victim,' Cone says. ``Before, the restoration cost had seemed staggering for a theater that was in OK shape.'
Insurance covered the bulk of $400,000 in repairs and renovations to get the Carolina back in operation, but it was only enough for a partial renovation. Although the proscenium was regilded and the columns re-marbelized in the front of the auditorium, the walls still bore the gray tint of smoke damage past the balcony.
The Carolina reopened in September 1982 and began raising funds for a complete renovation, one that would restore the original glory and use all the space in the theater for many purposes.
``We aren't in any hurry to rush this project,' theater manager John Bell said in 1985. ``When you're spending the community's donated dollars, you'll only get one chance to do the job. So you'd better do it right the first time.'
Friends of the Carolina, formed in 1980; The Impressarios, formed in 1982; and Carolina SRO, formed in 1984 - all worked in different ways to raise money and support for the theater. With underwriting by the Impressarios, the Carolina brought Ben Vereen, Chet Atkins and Ray Charles to Greensboro.
While study, planning and fund raising continued for the eventual restoration, yearly events like Jazzfest, ``The Nutcracker' and the Black American Arts Festival grew and prospered and earned the theater a new place in the city's cultural life.
The last two years have been the most successful for the Carolina. And finally, that long-awaited renovation is happening. The theater closed last summer so that Matteson Construction Co. could begin taking the Carolina back to the look of the '20s with the technical systems of the '90s. A grand reopening is scheduled for November.
``All this work really carries to fruition the efforts that started back in 1976,' Patseavouras says.
The $3 million renovation, funded entirely through the United Arts Council's Renaissance Campaign, will restore the terra cotta facade and replicate the marquee of the 1920s; double the lobby area; provide new concession areas, box office, staff offices and rest rooms; replace sound, lighting and rigging systems; convert the segregated balcony to a technical area; and replace the 1927 heating and cooling system.
The most dramatic change will be two glass stair towers constructed on each side of the building that will allow access for the first time to a large room over the lobby. It will become a reception room capable of accommodating 300 guests.
``People call her a grand old lady, and she is a grand, grand building,' says Bob Matteson of Matteson Construction. ``But by building standards today, she's not really old. Our job is to stand her up, put on a new pair of shoes and a new suit, and send her out for another 60 or 70 years.'
During construction, workers have found a few odd reminders here and there of their 1927 counterparts - Starboy soft drink bottles, buffalo nickels and other old coins. Ulf Teigen, a craftsman restoring the plaster molding, finds himself wondering about the original craftsmen who made that molding so well that he can't find the seams where it was pieced together.
``We want people to have the same feeling of the person who walked in that first night in 1927,' Patseavouras says. ``There are buildings and there are buildings, but the theater has a special feeling. It has an ambience you don't get anywhere else.'