“And, of course, I watched ‘Old Yeller’ here too,” Smathers says.
But the once proud icon of Canton eventually fell out of use. It stood empty for years, and there was talk of demolishing it.
The town intervened, acquiring the property in 1998 and helping to secure the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The whole theatre had to be gutted and modernized with new wiring, new seats, a new stage, backstage dressing rooms, an elevator, a meeting room and kitchen for conference meetings and receptions.
And just when the theatre found its luster once more, disaster struck — not once, but twice.
The town withstood two devastating floods in September 2004. Torrential rains from two back-to-back tropical storms caused the nearby Pigeon River to rise to record levels. Water poured through the heart of Canton’s downtown district and into the beloved Colonial — 10 feet high in the first flood and 18 inches higher in the second week.
“It just came so quick and so fast,” Smathers said. It came through the sewer system first, then through the front doors and annex and rose over the lower seats and stage. “It just kept getting worse and worse.”
Now, nearly two years later, the Colonial Theatre has once again returned from ruin.
“Here it is again — a lot better than it was,” Smathers says, admiring the balcony view of the 300-seat theatre. “Most people wouldn’t believe what it took to get it back to what it was.”
As the Town of Canton prepares for its 100th celebration of Labor Day, marking its history with a month of festivities leading up to its long-running tradition of the Labor Day Parade on Sept. 4, the Colonial Theatre will be one of the key venues set to host all sorts of events from Grammy Award-winning entertainers such as Mark Pruett and David Holt to movie showings of “Cold Mountain” and “Last of the Mohicans.” Also coming to the theatre will be singer/songwriter Kate Campbell (Aug. 3) and roots musician Tim O’Brien (Aug. 31), the traditional Miss Labor Day Pageant (Aug. 26), the Third Annual Mountain Mater Festival (Aug. 4-6), and free programs featuring North Carolina Poet Laureate Kay Byer (Aug. 8), the one-woman play “Ivy Rowe” by Barbara Bates Smith (Aug. 29) and Labor Day history lectures and presentations throughout August.
More than a movie theatre, the Colonial Theatre continues to be a gathering place where businesses can hold district meetings and local wedding parties have receptions. The Town of Canton regularly holds meetings in the restored annex room adjacent to the theatre, and businesses can hold conferences in the theatre, taking advantage of the giant stage screen and SurroundSound speakers available for PowerPoint or DVD presentations. And yes, the Colonial still shows regular reel movies just like the old days — only without the concessions (all those renovations come with some changes).
“A lot of our movies are free,” Smathers said. Sponsors help recover the $250 cost of showing the film, and if there’s no sponsor, the bigger the audience, the cheaper the ticket.
In its earlier years, the Colonial Theatre was the place to go, according to Canton Town Manager Bill Stamey, and a lot of people had their first dates there. From the time it opened in 1932 through the 1960s, the Colonial, along with the YMCA, were the two places besides church where most everyone was sure to be seen.
“It was a place you could go and feel welcome and secure,” Stamey said. “It was kind of a growing up place, a meeting place.”
The younger kids went to the 7 o’clock movie, and if you were a little older you could stay up for the 9 o’clock movie.
Before the days of cable TV, big malls and the Internet, the world came to small towns like Canton through the big screen of movie houses. It’s where people would see pre-show news reels about the latest events of World War II, where folks could journey to Africa in a travelogue, where stars like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart grew larger than life in the wide eyes of popcorn-munching teenagers.
And, of course, it was the only place you could find the Three Stooges, Stamey recalled.
“Everybody looked forward to that,” he said.
The beginning of the revival
The town came to own the Colonial Theatre through an odd series of events. Just at the time when the building seemed ready for the bulldozer, Stamey and his family were vacationing in Williamsburg in the late-‘80s when they came across another Colonial Theatre — same design, same construction. It was, in fact, an identical match to the one back in Canton. The same architect worked on both projects.
So when the Sprinkle family was unable to use the historic theatre in its ABC business, the Canton town board stepped in and accepted the property as a donation.
But with its dilapidated stage, caved-in roof and old wiring, the theatre needed a lot of work. Town officials went about raising the money. The Department of Transportation provided a grant that was designated to be used to improve historic sites. The town added $450,000. Eventually more than $1 million came in to pay for technological amenities such as the SurroundSound speakers, lighting, and the giant screen as well as careful restoration that retained the original walls, railings, seats and antique light fixtures.
“Anything you see that’s red, gold or blue is original,” Smathers explained, pointing out the color scheme that gives the theatre its regal atmosphere. In an attempt to make the theatre as authentic as possible, Smathers and fellow town employee Jimmy Flynn visited historic movie theatres from Burlington to Charlotte, and took back ideas for the reconstruction.
After the floods, the town was able to piece together federal and state funds — and not a penny of local taxpayer dollars, Stamey notes — to pay for the $1.3 million reconstruction of the Colonial Theatre.
For one of its first performances (before the floods), the Colonial Theatre welcomed the famous Western radio show, “Riders in the Sky,” and the actors gave the theatre a glowing review — they said it had the best acoustics of anywhere they’d ever been.
Since then, the theatre has hosted music groups such as IIIrd Tyme Out and Steep Canyon Rangers, corporate meetings for local companies, and dancing performances as part of the international Folkmoot festival.
“People love it,” Smathers said. “It’s out there for the public — for any use.”
While the Colonial can hold its own with any venue in the region as a cozy, state-of-the-art facility, one of the challenges of operating it continues to be staffing. Smathers, the former Canton Fire Department Chief and longtime town employee, also serves as the town’s building inspector in addition to his day-to-day duties overseeing the Colonial Theatre. He has one assistant who also splits her time with inspections. Events have to be staffed by volunteers or town employees, and Town Hall does the bookings, which run through December.
“We keep a master list of what’s going on,” Smathers said.
Eventually, the plan is to have a full-time theatre manager and a regular lighting and sound technician. A pair of offices on the second floor of the theatre are waiting to be used.
Also upstairs, framed on the walls, are old movie posters of “King Kong,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane” and “Rio Bravo.” Other original posters feature those classic Hollywood stars of bygone days — Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne and Clark Gable.
You can almost here them whisper in the dimly lit hallways where generations found their thrills in that movie-world suspension of disbelief, a journey far beyond a small town realm of Haywood County. After nearly 75 years and a world of change in the movie business, the Colonial Theatre has its stage set for another lifetime of memories.