First Posted: 2/7/2009
LUMBERTON Under a grand old chandelier, with a ring of red lights glowing inside, the Carolina Civic Center in downtown Lumberton is about to host its third opening night in its long history.
New paint, plaster, carpet and a host of technological improvements will greet guests as they arrive on opening night at 8 p.m. Friday, when the theater welcomes Kellylee Evans and Ensemble, a singer from Canada, to be the first act to perform in the venue this time around.
The Carolina Civic Center Foundation, a nonprofit organization directed by Richard Sceiford, managed the renovation and leases the theater, which is a three-story, 13,000 square-foot building owned by the city. The theater will produce nine events in its first season and host several others from renters who will take advantage of its upgraded production equipment. Later this summer, the venue will begin showing classic feature films.
The building was first opened in 1928, then known as the Carolina Theater. It served Lumberton and Robeson County for more than four decades before it closed the first time. It began by hosting vaudeville acts and performers like Lawrence Redman, an organist and son of a grocery merchant in town, who played in the theater regularly.
The theater began showing films with the advent of cinema and, for a time, it was the only theater in Lumberton that showed films, said Sarah Britt, president of Historic Robeson, Inc.
It was also home to a jewelry store which occupied a storefront on the ground floor of the theater, which belonged to A.J. Holmes at one point. The second floor, where the offices are currently located, was once a dentists office that belonged to Gates McKaughan, the first dentist for Robeson County Public Health. Doctors offices occupied the building behind the theater, and the Carolina Cafe was located right next door.
Alice Briley, a retired teacher, remembers growing up in the 1950s and going to the theater to watch news reels and serials that ran on Saturdays.
Britt remembered cartoons on Saturdays and the late show, where teenagers would usually come for a date to see a sneak preview of the film that would be seen on the coming Monday or Tuesday night.
The theater closed the first time in 1975 after a decline and after controversy over the ratings of films shown in the theater. In the 80s there were plans to demolish the building and to clear the land for a parking lot near what was to become a new, larger plaza that was planned, Britt said. It was saved from demolition by a group of local citizens. The theater was reopened as the Carolina Civic Center in 1985. It closed again in the 90s and many of the venues vital systems fell into disrepair.
With this newest renovation, Sceiford and the Carolina Civic Center Foundation have set their sights on building a season that reaches diverse audiences and are working to make the theater into a regional destination that helps with the economic renewal of downtown. The goal is not only to provide entertainment, but spur development and give people something else to do downtown, Sceiford said. Its a challenge, especially when economic times are so difficult, but Sceiford stays optimistic.
Even in the hardest times, the arts always come through, Sceiford said.
Its a real boost to the revitalization efforts going on in downtown Lumberton, Mayor Ray Pennington said. The private sector is beginning to respond. Black Water Grille has been a good addition (too).
The mayor also said, It should attract people with the proper programming and management. It should draw people not only locally but people who stop on the interstate for the night who are looking for something to do.
As the beginning of the season draws nearer, the question of whether the foundation was successful draws closer to being answered. The first step is to put the finishing touches on the building. The major renovation, which has been completed, started in 2007. Sceiford expects minor work to continue until close to opening night.
Much of the renovation focused on components behind the walls. A new HVAC system was installed in place of the previous climate control system one of the most difficult and expensive structures to update in a historic building. The old system, installed in 1935, was so loud that they had to run it before the performances on full blast, then turn it off during the performance so patrons could hear the show. The system was switched back on at intermission, said Sceiford.
Another major upgrade was a restoration of the theaters power supply. At some point in the theaters history, one of the three legs of electrical supply failed. With only two of the three supplies working, only half the theaters lights could be on at any one time without courting disaster. After the city restored full power, all the stage dimmers can now be run simultaneously for the first time in 20 years. In addition, the elevator had to be repaired to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and eligible for the government money.
The Carolina Civic Center Foundation, along with the city, are financing the renovation through a $1.5 million USDA Rural Development loan designed to help rural communities develop their economies. The grant helped finance some of the biggest costs of the renovation, but fell short of the bids by contractors to do the work.
And those are just the major repairs.
The Carolina Civic Center Foundation also paid for cosmetic and performance equipment related upgrades that were not included in the budget or budgeted out when construction bids came in above the $1.5 million. Those additional repairs included replacing the plaster on the walls of the main theater, paint, carpeting, and sound and performance equipment, Sceiford said.
The performance equipment is a source of pride with the technical crew. Jason Meier, the technical director, said that outdated and inadequate components met them when they started renovations. The speakers were of inferior home-audio quality which were not able to keep up with the demands of a professional stage without distorting the sound.
It would be like comparing a church bazaar P.A. system to a rock show, Meier said.
After the upgrades, the theater now boasts professional audio speakers and updated sound control equipment.
The lighting system has also been updated. A new computerized display and sophisticated control system gives the operator the ability to control every light and design lighting schemes for shows.
Sceiford feels the theater is now capable of handling any type of performance and will be one of the finest performing arts venues in the eastern part of the state. One of the benefits from the investment in the infrastructure is that it will help him book traveling acts and local productions which want to rent the theater.
Examples of those acts are local productions such as the North Carolina Childrens Theater or regional theater companies such as the Burning Coal Theater Company from Raleigh, who will put on its production of Twelfth Night March 30 at the Carolina Civic Center.
The addition of the movie screen seems to be what those who remember the theater 50 years ago recall the most about it. The foundation ordered a new projector and specially ordered projection screen which fills the proscenium. The projector they will use for movies is hidden in a secret compartment in the balcony and delivers top quality images, Meier said.
The projector (quality) is higher than HD, Meier said. Its a true cinema projector.
At a recent meeting for volunteers interested in becoming ushers, some remembered their youths spent in the theater, when you could bring a quarter and get a ticket to a movie for 11 cents. With the rest of the quarter, you could buy popcorn and a soda. Try doing that with a $20 bill these days.
Others may remember the harsh racial prejudices that were spelled out physically at the theater. American Indians and blacks had to sit in the balcony and were separated by a partition. The building has been around a long time and seen radical cultural changes.
Alice Briley remembers a time when minorities entered through the side door facing East Fourth Street and had a separate concession stand.
There werent rest room facilities there for us, Briley said. We would have to come down to find somewhere.
Briley, an African-American, remembers the beautiful chandelier, the decoration around the opening of the stage and the organ from her time visiting the theater before she went away to college in 1960.
It was really beautiful inside. I hope they preserved that, said Briley. After integration we were allowed to go in the front door. This time I wont have to sit in the balcony unless I want to.