A Walk Down Memory Lane
Dr. Leland Grady had a vision. He created an opera house for the people of Wilson from his two-story Nash Street office building. While there were other theatres downtown, when the Wilson Theatre opened in fall 1919, it was the downtown showpiece for the citizens of Wilson. The theatre featured a beautiful palladium exterior, plush seats, brass railings and an elaborately detailed gold-painted plaster interior. It was truly a sight to behold.
During its early years, the theatre served as a performing stage for traveling shows of vaudeville, singing acts, magicians, minstrels and plays. Vaudeville entertained the entire family with a wide variety of acts designed to replaced their daily concerns with fun, fascination and fantasy. In addition, local events, including talent and fashion shows, made the theatre a center for the town's cultural activity. Also popular with Wilson’s citizens were sexy burlesque acts during the early years.
On nights when there were no live performances, the theatre was in demand for silent movies. Talkies didn't make an appearance until several years later, around 1930, but a piano played in sync with the action on the screen and kept the 800-seat audience on the edges of their seats. Like most of America, Wilson flocked to movie theatres, and the Wilson Theatre was no exception. It was a busy place through the war years of the 1940’s and into the 1960's as Wilsonians lined Nash Street to see their favorite stars of stage and screen. Wilsonians may recall with nostalgia donating bottle caps or soup labels as admission for seeing a movie, as the theatre was home to silver screen stars including Ava Gardner and Cary Grant, 3D movies and Saturday morning cartoons, serials and newsreels.By the early 1970's, the Wilson Theatre showed X-rated films. Although met with much disapproval, the scandalous films played there for several years.
The City of Wilson purchased the Wilson Theatre in 1984 and then organized the Wilson Community Theatre, Inc. Under the direction of President Woody Harrison, the Board managed the facility’s use and restoration. Many at the time felt that the theater should be restored to its original splendor and that it still served a necessary role in the community, and for the next fourteen years, Executive Director Carol Blake and many volunteers did just that. The theater improved with such basic necessities, such as updated restrooms and new heating and air conditioning systems. Then, in 1995, the Theater Board and the Arts Council of Wilson merged expressly for the purpose of seeing the project come to fruition. Clearscapes Inc., an architectural firm out of Raleigh, was then hired for the job, and the fundraising and drawing of the plans commenced earnestly.
Edna Boykin led the way with her generosity. However, many groups and individuals share the credit for making the Wilson Theatre renovation project successful and transforming it into the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. The Department of Cultural Resources, under the leadership of Betty McCain, the City of Wilson and its Manager, City Council and Mayor, the Arts Council Board Members and staff and the individuals have been generous with time and money.
Several companies and citizens of Wilson began this historic undertaking including restoration of the beautiful plaster details throughout the facility, refurbishing and adding to the number of permanent theatre seats. The new plans included the addition of dressing rooms, a stage extension and loading dock, a new marquee and 35mm projection equipment.
Workers restored and transitioned the soda and jewelry shops into a lobby, saving some old Brick walls on either side. The walls, amazingly, still showed remains of old movie posters and advertisements from an earlier era and remains intact to this day as a reminder of its history.
Finally, in honor of Ms. Boykin's lifetime contributions and service to the Arts in Wilson, the Edna Boykin Cultural Center opened its doors in January 1998. In the lobby, the first visual arts gallery exhibits were shown in the Hammond Gallery, named by Dr. & Mrs. Mark G. Hooper, in honor of Dr. Robert Hammond. On the new theater’s first opening night, January 31, 1998, Ms. Edna Boykin and Mrs. Eleanor Hammond were among the many in attendance to celebrate this wonderful theater with performances by The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and The Platters.
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