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A History of Theaters in Caldwell County, North Carolina

Will England's Hippodrome (1915): Lenoir's First Outdoor Theater

Opening for only a brief period in the summer of 1915, the short-lived Hippodrome Theatre demonstrates the early informality and novelty of film exhibition in a small Southern town. Run by local newspaper editor and columnist William Lenoir England (1881-1963), the Hippodrome was the first, and for many years the only, outdoor theater in town.  In August of 1940, over 25 years after the event, England remembered his outdoor theater as follows:

"It was a boarded up enclosure built on the rear of the lot where my sister and myself still live--just above the Baptist church, then the Graded School. There were an upper and lower deck of 'box seats' built around an old oak tree which has since been taken down; this section had a roof and was only large enough to take care of aristocratic patrons coughing up the advanced price." [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

England had only recently begun his first tenure at the Lenoir News with a weekly column entitled, "Dope by the Doper," a title that has lost much of its early twentieth-century slang meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines one older definition of "dope" close to what England must have intended: "Information, esp. on a particular subject or of a kind not widely disseminated or easily obtained . . . ." The term may also carry a reference to the relatively recent popularity of carbonated beverages such as Coca-Cola, sometimes referred to as "dope." Working for the newspaper, one of the primary sources of film advertising of the day, England was well-positioned to begin his side-business during the warmer months of 1915. What develops from there is a story of novelty, ill-fortune, and small town entrepreneurship.

            Although films were occasionally exhibited in the courthouse and other public buildings, the first building in Lenoir to be used with regularity for film exhibition was the Henkel Opera House, advertised as the Electrical Theatre and beginning in 1908. This outfit soon moved next door to the Cloyd & Johnson Building (late 1908) and then across East Main Street to the Harshaw Building (1909-1914), where it went through a variety of name-changes as well as different owners. The Shell Building and the Jones Building were also used as storefront theaters from 1912-1915. [More information about all of these theaters will be provided in forthcoming articles.] None of these, however, occurred outdoors.

            Open air film exhibition began as early as 1896 as exhibitors in major (mostly Northern) cities sought to attract a higher class of clientele than might normally attend the more common nickelodeons:

"There was a suggestion that the popular open-air theaters of summertime brought in a higher class of people, those who had hesitated to visit the darkened nickelodeons." History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 by Eileen Bowser (New York: Simon & Shuster Macmillan, 1990), p. 39

By 1909, there were several large outdoor theaters in New York City:

"The Open Air Theater Park at 138th Street, operating in the hot summer months of 1909, had a program lasting three hours. This undoubtedly included a lot of vaudeville and illustrated songs. They supplied a place for checking baby carriages and all kinds of refreshments at five cents a portion." History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 by Eileen Bowser (New York: Simon & Shuster Macmillan, 1990) p. 125

Outdoor exhibition had the advantages of fresh air—in an age when contagious diseases frequently occurred—and economy: aside from the projector itself, only a relatively modest amount would be incurred for a canvas or cloth screen and improvised seats. The disadvantage of open air film exhibition is obvious: the weather. While the expensive projection equipment could be housed under a makeshift roof of some sort, most of the audience would need—in fact, wanted—to be seated under the open sky.

            Large immigrant populations were unknown in Western North Carolina and a small town such as Lenoir had little problem with "darkened nickelodeons," but the idea of public film exhibition was still in its infancy. No doubt many in town had already seen films at the courthouse or local schoolhouses, or in trips to larger neighboring cities such as Charlotte and Winston-Salem. Where Will England received the immediate inspiration for outdoor theater is not known, but by May of 1915 he was busy planning his theater, beginning literally in his own backyard:

"OF LOCAL INTEREST. . . . Mr. W.L. England has been in Charlotte for a few days on business relative to the opening of the Hippodrome on Thursday evening, May 6th. This open air amusement theater, located near the England House on North Main street, was built and planned by Mr. England himself, and it is unique, perhaps none can be found like it anywhere. The grand opening tomorrow night is to be an elaborate affair, and a large crowd is expected." [Lenoir Topic 5/05/1915, p. 3]

The map here shows the location of England's house and possibly some of the buildings associated with the theater in 1915:

            No doubt there is a tongue-in-cheek element to England's venture from the start, but it is interesting to note that an estimated crowd of about 600 attended the opening show, surely larger than any of the indoor film venues in town:

"OF LOCAL INTEREST. . . . The Hippodrome opened last Saturday night with about 600 people present who enjoyed the novelty of seeing pictures in the open air. Mr. England plans to open the show on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights, weather permitting, otherwise show will be given on night following." [Lenoir Topic 5/12/1915, p. 3]

Whether the crowd size was estimated by someone from the Lenoir Topic or its competitor, the Lenoir News—for which England worked—cannot be determined, but the amount of press coverage indicates that something new and novel was happening in town. More details of the venue can be gleaned by short press clippings: 

"MATTERS ABOUT TOWN. . . . When lighted by the many different colored lights the Hippodrome presents a pleasing appearance and the crowds that attended seemed well pleased with the pictures. The Hippodrome will be open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights weather permitting, otherwise the pictures advertised will be shown the following night." [Lenoir News 5/13/1915, p. 5]

From the same article in 1940 mentioned above, England recalled the early days of the Hippodrome's success and also adds details of the equipment he used:

"DOPE / FROM / ENGLAND . . . The first month after opening everything went well and I had visions of permanent social security. Effie Healan (now Mrs. Offet Heffner) was cashier and that shot-bag half full of quarters and dimes was really something to gloat over. Edgar Bisanar was official machine operator. I had an old Edison and an old Motiograph both turning by hand but I soon hitched up a motor to them--probably the first time this was done in any Southern Movie shows, anyway. Also I invented an automatic contraption to keep my light carbons just the right distance apart." [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

 

            While the short local notices in contemporary papers give some information about the Hippodrome's shows, we find relatively little information about the actual films shown, in large part due to the fact that there were few paid advertisements for the theater. England recalled in 1940 some of the earlier films he used and how he obtained them:

"I traded an old Thor motorcycle for the two machines and twenty or more films--one I remember being a Trip to the Moon which was colored by hand. Another was a comic showing a boy and girl in a boat and tumbling out during a love scene; this I'd run backward sometimes and the couple flying up out of the water and kissin' and doing their [illegible?] scene backwards, always made a big hit." [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

One imagines that A Trip to the Moon was the familiar film by Georges Méliès. Other films perhaps included the widely distributed Edison shorts and material that no doubt would have bored the more jaded audiences in larger cities. However, two major films appeared at the Hippodrome that summer demonstrating England's ambitions in competing with the regular theater venues in town: Samson starring William Farnum and A Fool There Was from the Fox Film Corporation. For the former, England includes a short synopsis of the film's story—noting that this is not the Biblical Sampson (Lenoir Weekly News 7/29/1915, p. 5):

image/jpeg thumbnail

For the latter, in early August, the film was shown at both the Hippodrome and the local Princess Theatre, in the Jones Building on South Main Street. A connection with an indoor theater no doubt helped cover costs in case of rain:

"MATTERS ABOUT TOWN . . . Mr. W.L. England has taken charge of the Princess Theatre, this week and will operate it in connection with his open-air Hippodrome. The same pictures will be shown at each place and patrons of either show may be assured of good service and polite attention. He will run three of the highest class pictures made, the World, Fox and Paramount pictures." [Lenoir Weekly News 8/5/1915, p. 5]

Rain had threatened to all but ruin the Hippodrome's summer exhibitions, as England remembered later:

"So much rain this past summer [i.e., 1940]--and at the most inopportune times--reminds me of back when I ran the Hippodrome [1915], only open air picture show ever to be held in Lenoir. . . . it came to pass that I'd advertise a feature picture and would raise the money to get the films from the Express Office, the sky would invariably begin to darken and if it wasn't pouring down by show time it was threatening enough to keep the crowd away."  [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

The Hippodrome also exhibited slides of local scenes and persons at a show that summer [Lenoir Weekly News 6/17/1915, p. 1], an early example of the technique of encouraging an audience to view themselves on screen at the theater. By the end of August, rain had ended the season for the fledgling cinematic venture:

"I recall distinctly 5 rainy Saturdays in succession--then bankruptcy."  [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

            There was no attempt to brave the weather in the summers of 1916 or 1917.  Obviously, the American entry into World War I in April 1917 would have made the venture risky, although film exhibition did continue in town. By January of 1918, England was moving to California and leaving behind his entire exhibition outfit:

"W.L. ENGLAND TO LEAVE SOON--WILL SELL A FEW THINGS

I expect to leave Lenoir soon after the first of the year and would be glad to dispose of a few things at a bargain for cash." . . . One 110-volt, 1/4 horsepower alternating current motor, suitable for running light machinery such as emery wheel, churn or moving picture machine; cost $35; will take $10. . . . Two complete moving picture outfits with exception of reel winder and take-up on one. The lamp houses are practically new and cost $75 each. The lenses for these machines cost more than $50. Will take $50 for the whole outfit." [Lenoir Topic 1/1/1918, p. 4]

With the dissolution of the equipment the Hippodrome had officially taken its place in history.

            England returned to Lenoir and his column with the merged Lenoir News Topic in 1938, changing the title slightly to "Dope from England." A few later columns mention the old Hippodrome and Hall E. Cobb even wrote in to recall his days as an ice cream peddler at the theater, as well as fellow employees Ed Bisanar and Fred Dula as operators, and the African-American Hobe Scott, referred to pejoratively as an "all round flunky." Cobb even jokingly suggests reviving the theater:

". . . I fear that I have become loquacious when all I set out, to say was that I wanted a job in your New and Better Hippodrome and that I'm darned glad to see the Dope Column back in the News-Topic—that alone should justify at least $1.95 of my annual subscription." [Lenoir News Topic 10/28/1938, p. 4]

While England's column returned to its former popularity in town, by 1938 Lenoir had three successful movie houses in town: the Avon, Imperial, and State, and the days of drive-in movie theaters with parked cars were yet to come. A final, tantalizing note from a later column discusses England's possession of a photograph showing some of the workers at the old Hippodrome:

"I find in the attic a real good picture (8 x 10) of the old Hippodrome in its prosperous days. Maybe some of you old timers who donated occasionally and sometimes got wet, would like to see it. If so, you may do so at Ballew's Drug Store. There are six kids, Hobe Scott, and myself shown. Top row left to right--Vannoy Miller, John Nelson, Fred Dula (see what a sport your Doctor Fred used to be). Lower box left to right--don't know the girl swinging on the rail, next is Carolyn Poe, and to the right is Mary (sis) Nelson." [Lenoir News Topic 8/30/1940, p. 4]

The current author knows nothing of the whereabouts or survival of this photo, but it would surely add to the brief, rather ill-fated first attempt at outdoor film exhibition in Caldwell County—please notify me if you think it still exists.

 

Dr. Gary R. Boye, Appalachian State University

boyegr@appstate.edu