A Second Act

The Carolina Theatre’s stunning renovation is unveiled this month

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Lynn Donovan

couple of months ago I toured the Carolina Theatre with Executive Director Brian Gray while construction was fully underway for their $2.5 million renovation and restoration project, slated for completion this month. It’s a floor-to-ceiling facelift of this former vaudeville theater. When I was there, all the seating had been removed and more than a dozen workers were pouring cement and installing new floor lighting.

“What we did to prioritize the work was we did surveys of our audiences, our guests,” Gray notes. “‘What do you like? What can we do better?’ And we heard back from hundreds of people.” The number one thing folks requested was additional ladies’ restrooms. “Number two were the seats and number three was the wait at the concession stand. So these are the things we addressed.”

The bathrooms were few, the ones on the second floor, small, so an addition was made to the north side of the building to accommodate an expansive ladies’ room on the first floor.

Seating in the auditorium was left over from 1969 when the Terrace Theatre converted from one screen to two. That’s when their famous rocking-chair seats were installed at the Carolina. “They were old and uncomfortable,” Gray says. “The new chairs are wider and they don’t rock. With a little creative ingenuity we actually added a row and there’s still the same amount of walking space between the rows.”

The concession stand in the lobby? “We reconfigured it, took out a wall for more space so we can have product waiting for our folks.” To lessen wait times Gray points out, “We’re going to have digital display boards that will fit in with the décor so we can move the lines much more quickly.”

Everything in sight will be polished and upgraded, including new state-of-the-art loudspeakers, “We’re going to be installing a LINA Line Array system by Meyer. It can handle all of our shows.” Now when touring acts arrive, they can plug into a system that’s tuned to the building, with speakers hidden from view.

If you’ve noticed more big-name entertainers playing the Carolina lately, there’s a reason. For the last few years management has been partnering with outside promoters who can book up to 20 acts for a season. “They’ve brought in higher recognition acts and it’s been a financial boon for the theater,” Gray explains. One of those marquee performers in 2018 was soul singer Gladys Knight, “She was wonderful. She’s 70-something years old, she never sat down.” That show sold out, “It was a really wonderful night for the theater.”

In the months while work on the theater’s interior progressed, movies and concerts were staged upstairs in The Crown, originally a sign shop that now serves as an event space. This kept the staff busy — and intact. While the original 35mm projectors are still in place adjacent to The Crown, Gray notes, “We don’t use them. We can’t get the prints.” The Crown is scheduled to undergo its own facelift next summer. That’s when the projection booth will be repurposed for prop and dressing rooms. “We’re going to see if someone has a use for the [projectors]. I don’t want to landfill them but at the same time, it’s taking up space.”

For that effort, “We’re still raising funds,” Gray reminds us. “We haven’t met our goal yet.” Of course, there have been hiccups for their construction team, “There’s just unknown conditions when you’re doing work on a building this old. We didn’t have the original blueprints, so when they went in to cut the concrete [for new seating] they cut some power lines.”

Still, Brian Gray assures me everything is on track for the Carolina Theatre’s early October relaunch, “We have to be finished by then. One of our first events is a member of our staff’s wedding!”

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