It has probably been over a year since most of us last stepped foot in a movie theater. The pandemic has been an unprecedented time for the film industry, with new blockbusters going straight to streaming on services like HBO Max and Amazon for a high rental fee. But even group-watching sites like Netflix Party don’t quite capture the same excitement of going to see a movie in a theater with friends or family.
Film scholars and critics alike have been puzzling over the future of moviegoing after the pandemic. Martin Johnson, an assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ English and comparative literature department, said that moviegoing has always been a shared experience, even in the early silent film era.
“When we think about particular movies, we often think about things like who we saw it with and where we saw it, and it’s as close to a universal experience as we can get,” Johnson said. “So when we look at the history of moviegoing in a particular place, we see a blend of the universal and the local.”
The experience of going to the movies has changed since the first movie theaters were built in the early 1900s. In contrast to what we imagine movie theater etiquette to be now, the first movie theaters encouraged rowdiness and talking during films, especially in a student-dominated area like Chapel Hill.
“Chapel Hill students were perceived to be a very rambunctious audience,” Johnson said. “You might not want to go to the movies with college students if you weren’t one.”
Johnson imagines that after the pandemic, moviegoing will look different than it did a few years ago.
Johnson said the pandemic has resulted in a willingness on the part of filmmakers, film distributors and audiences to embrace films that might be perceived as more challenging, or more difficult to find a market, because people have expanded their tastes with streaming services. Audiences might also be more interested in going to an independent movie theater to see an art film rather than their local multiplex, which will help keep smaller theaters in business during a difficult economic upheaval.
“There’s this desire to have an event and a gathering to celebrate cinema, which is what makes moviegoing so distinct from other kinds of visual entertainment,” Johnson said. “And I don’t see that going anywhere. We have a hunger for shared moments of contact and cultural conversations.”
Here’s a look at Chapel Hill’s earliest movie theaters.
The Pickwick Theater, originally located on 11 E. Franklin St., was the first movie theater in Chapel Hill. It opened on Nov. 13, 1909, in the location now occupied by Jed’s Kitchen (below). Two years later, in 1911, the Pickwick moved next door into a larger storefront space, currently home to Starbucks.
An advertisement from 1913 shows the interior of the Pickwick’s second location. Standing inside Starbucks, it’s easy to imagine college students gathered for a silent movie. But, said George Watts Hill, a Carolina graduate from the class of 1922, in a 1986 interview, “… you had to be careful [at the Pickwick]. You had to sit in the back of [the building] because if you sat even three rows down, somebody’d hit you with raw peanuts on the back of the head.”
Samuel J. Brockwell, a Chapel Hill businessman who owned the Pickwick, purchased a lot across Franklin Street, near where the Carolina Coffee Shop is today, in October 1915 and began building a new theater. This space would include an attached auto station and repair shop, which was Brockwell’s primary business. Construction completed on the Pickwick’s final home in early 1916, and the theater moved one last time.
There was another theater located next to the Pickwick’s third home, called the Tar Heel Theater, but it was no match for the Pickwick. it started screening films in 1916 and closed the same year.
The Pickwick’s new home, while larger, was not without its struggles. In 1919, the theater was closed due to the influenza epidemic sweeping the country. There was a fire in the building in March 1924 (possibly due to the flammability of the era’s film celluloid along with poor ventilation), and the theater was gutted. The Pickwick would be closed until May 1924.
After the fire at the Pickwick and its temporary closure, a number of buildings on Carolina’s campus were used to screen movies. The YMCA used Gerrard Hall to show films during this period so Chapel Hill would not be without a movie theater. Phillips Hall and Venable Hall were also used to screen educational films at least once during this era of early cinema.
After reopening in May 1924, the Pickwick was renovated with better ventilation as well as a new projection machine and more comfortable seats. According to the Chapel Hill Weekly, a crowd so large showed up to the theater’s reopening that “… two or three hundred [people] had to be denied admission to the first show, and by the time [the first show] was over, enough of a crowd had come to fill the hall for the second.” The theater stayed in this building until it closed its doors in 1931, due to dwindling attendance during the Great Depression and competition from the Carolina Theater, which opened in 1927.
In 1927, the Carolina Theater (later known as the Village Theater) opened across the street from the Pickwick, in the Sorrel Building. The Carolina Theater made town history when it became the first theater to show “talkies,” or sound movies with synchronized dialogue, in 1929.
All theaters in Chapel Hill were racially segregated until the 1960s, when boycotts and federal pressure forced them to allow Black moviegoers. If they were allowed inside movie theaters at all, African Americans were made to use a separate entrance from white patrons, and had to sit in a balcony section instead of the main floor area where white patrons sat.
The only physical remnant from the early days of Chapel Hill movie theaters is the Varsity, which opened in 1952 in the space once occupied by the Carolina Theater. Only time will tell if the Varsity survives.