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White’s Theater: A History

by Roger Kammerer
Guardian Contributor

This early 20th century image of Evans Street at Fifth Street shows the front of Sam White General Merchandise. White had taken over the store from his father. The White family owned several local businesses including a stable, a theater, and a piano distributor. Date approximated. Source: ECU Digital Collections

This early 20th century image of Evans Street at Fifth Street shows the front of Sam White General Merchandise. White had taken over the store from his father. The White family owned several local businesses including a stable, a theater, and a piano distributor. Date approximated. Source: ECU Digital Collections

Sitting silent and boarded up on Fifth Street beside Winslow’s Restaurant, a lone building awaits its ultimate fate. Known first as White’s Theater, then the State Theater and finally the Park Theater, the once beautiful landmark awaits the day when once again it will host Greenville’s best entertainment.

The idea for the theater came after the Masonic Temple Opera House burned in the Great Fire of February 1910, and Greenville was left without a respectable entertainment center. For several years after the fire, cheap shows and small movie theaters were the only diversion in town. It was a local businessman, Samuel T. White, who took the plunge and went into debt to build a large theater building in 1914.

Samuel Tilden White (1873-1966) was a leading businessman in Greenville, who succeeded his father in business in 1894 as a general merchandise dealer. He was prominent in social and public affairs, serving as treasurer of Pitt County and Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. He had large real estate dealings and by 1906 began developing the neighborhood that once existed behind what is now the Joyner Library on the ECU campus. He also built a garage (formerly Pirate’s Den, now Fitzgerald’s) on Fifth Street, and the brick building on the corner of Fifth and Cotanche Streets (now Michaelangelo’s) as the Savage and White stables and Sam White Music Store. In 1921, he built what was to become the White’s Stores on Dickinson Avenue. He was president and chairman of the board of this successful company until his death in 1966.

Interior of White's Theatre, Greenville, N.C. Image taken from letterhead of Samuel T. White, owner of White's Theatre. On the same sheet of stationery is a letter from White to Mess. Ward and Grimes of Washington, N.C., 20 February 1919 (not shown). Date of image approximated. Source: ECU Digital Collections.

Interior of White’s Theatre, Greenville, N.C. Image taken from letterhead of Samuel T. White, owner of White’s Theatre. On the same sheet of stationery is a letter from White to Mess. Ward and Grimes of Washington, N.C., 20 February 1919 (not shown). Date of image approximated. Source: ECU Digital Collections.

It was in 1913 that Sam T. White hired Burrell Riddick, who rebuilt Greenville several times after devastating fires, as contractor. Ground was broken on October 30, 1913 for a large one story, 700 seat theater building with a stage and balcony. The building was finished and opened on the evening of June 22, 1914. The first week’s entertainment was a comedy play entitled “Just Plain Folks,” presented by a stock company specially engaged by Mr. White.

The local newspaper commenting on the opening described the theater: “From Five Points one is first attracted by the long perpendicular mechanical electric sign that extends from just above the entrance nearly to the top of the building. This sign flashes out the name of the house, one letter at a time and then as a whole, with a row of colored lights around it that flashes in and out, having the appearance of revolving around the sign. As the audience assembled all were impressed with the beauty and comfort of the interior of the building, especially the superb scenery, artistic wall decorations, effective lighting, vacuum and electric fan cooling. Mr. White, who stood at the main entrance, was the recipient  of many congratulations and hearty thanks for what he had done for Greenville in the erection of this modern theater.”

White's Theater at its opening in 1914.  Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

White’s Theater at its opening in 1914. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

Sam T. White was remarkable in his ability to bring nationally known entertainment to Greenville. There were comedies, operas, revues, hypnotists and circus acts with live animals that came here and were popular with the entire family. Older residents remembered the piano playing of Miss Annie Freeman. She was a regular accompanist for many of the early shows. In July 1918, White installed an electric player piano in the theater.

Besides the elaborate shows, vaudeville and silent movies, a large number of benefit shows were held at White’s Theater to help the fire department, library, churches and the Evans Street School. It was at White’s Theater in the 1920’s that Edward Hearne, the internationally famous female impersonator and Greenville native, got his start by doing skits between shows.

In April 1918, the great orator, William Jennings Bryan spoke at White’s Theater to benefit the Woman’s Club and in July 1918, White’s Theater contracted with the Acme Film Company of Jacksonville, Florida, to make a silent movie romance here. Mr. Ben Strasser, the manager of the Acme Film Company, directed the film and Miss Brownie Brown, the Acme leading lady, trained local actors for their parts. The film began shooting on July 29, 1918, using the Pitt County Courthouse and Confederate monument as a backdrop. Some of the local talent appearing in the movie included Miss Nancy King, Howard (Tince) Hooker, Miss Bessie Ricks and an unnamed baby. The film arrived in Greenville from the studio on September 2 and played at White’s Theatre on September 3-4, 1918, to packed audiences.

White’s Theater was leased out in July 1924 to Henry J. Paradon, who operated a chain of 13 theaters in North Carolina. In August 1924, a new $10,000 organ was installed in White’s Theater. During the week of March 10-17, 1925, a movie was made of Greenville entitled, “Who’s Who in Greenville.” It featured stores, schools, streets and the children of Greenville. The film premiered at White’s Theater from April 6-11, 1925.

In the Fall of 1929 new Western Electric sound equipment was first installed in White’s Theater and the theater was totally refurbished. When Paradon’s lease ran out, the theater was leased in July 1930 to the Publix-Saenger Theaters of NC. The new theater, the State Theater, had a gala opening on July 28, 1930 with T. Yoe Walker as local manager and Reddin E. Corbett as house manager. Walker eventually controlled all the movie houses in Greenville; the State, the Pitt and the Colony theaters.

A piece of stationery from White's Theatre, Greenville. On the stationery are exterior and interior photos of the theatre, and a letter from Samuel T. White to Mess. Ward and Grimes, attorneys. Source: ECU Digial Collections

A piece of stationery from White’s Theatre, Greenville. On the stationery are exterior and interior photos of the theatre, and a letter from Samuel T. White to Mess. Ward and Grimes, attorneys. Source: ECU Digial Collections

In November 1933, the western movie star, Tom Mix, appeared at the State Theater for two shows with his “Wonder Horse Tony,” along with his wife and Miss Irma Ward, “World’s Premier Aerialists.”

The State Theater closed for several years in the 1950’s after the lease ran out for the former theater company. It was reopened on August 19, 1960, under the management of Van Jones of Ayden.

In January 1971, Steward and Everett took ownership of the State Theater. They gutted the inside of the theater, taking out the stage, removing the high front steps and installing rocking seats. Changing the name to the Park Theater, it formally opened on March 25, 1971 with the first feature being “Wuthering Heights.” The Park Theater eventually became the property of Carmike Cinemas, who ran it as a $1.50 movie house until it closed in 1999.

It was the hope of local preservationists and Greenville lovers that this beautiful building would be bought by someone who would restore it. They envisioned the theater as a fantastic space for productions of the Pitt County Arts Council and viewings of special movies and concerts.

Carmike Cinemas eventually sold the building, and it has passed through several owners in the last few years. The large metal covering on the outside of the theater has been removed exposing the beautiful brickwork from 1914.

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One Response

  1. Helen J. Bilbro says:

    I started going to the State Theatre on Saturdays during the late 1930’s. My mother would take my sister and me to the “show” while she did her shopping. She gave us 25 cents, which was enough for our tickets and a box of popcorn. There would be a cowboy western movie, a weekly serial show, a cartoon show and newsreels. That was the only way we got world news, except on radio. I loved seeing Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth, and her sister Princess Margaret Rose when they were children. Also, the Dionne Quintuplets from Canada, when they were born. Then, when World War II started, we saw that news. It was so horrible. Some of the cowboys shown were Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, Tim McCoy, Wild Bill Elliott, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Buck Jones and others. I moved away in the late 1940’s, but I still have fond memories of happy Saturday afternoons at the old State Theatre.

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