An alderman for the Canton Town Board and community native, Smathers takes a sip of coffee and pauses for a moment of reflection at a local café last week. He leans forward over the table, eager to tell any and all willing to listen about how Canton is not a “dead mill town.” It’s an enthusiasm second-to-none in the politics of Haywood County and beyond.
“We here in Canton have had good days and rough days, but we should be committed to making our town better, and the Colonial is a symbol for that — something that was great, that fell into disrepair, and now is something that’s back, which we can make better,” he said.
Situated in the heart of downtown Canton, the Colonial is surrounded by innumerable buildings with signs saying “For Rent” or “For Sale” in the windows. It’s the single remaining cultural crown jewel of a downtown that has seen better years. One could hit a golf ball from the theatre’s parking lot and hit the nearby Evergreen Packaging paper mill — the economic heartbeat of Canton. The two entities are vital bookends of a town without seemingly anything to put on the shelf. But that doesn’t mean the community drive is lost to reclaim its glory, with the Colonial being the catalyst for positive change.
“When you start tracing the recovery of small towns, it usually centers around entertainment,” Smathers said. “And for us, that starts with the Colonial — we want people to believe that small towns like us can bounce back.”
Built in 1932, the theatre has remained a beacon of culture and pride ever since. Although it did fall in disrepair in past decades (with a renovation in 1992), a push in the early 2000s brought the old building back to life, back into a modern world that still had an appreciation for its architectural beauty and societal importance. It has withstood several economic declines and a devastating flood in 2004, only to remain a place of curiosity and possibility.
“[The Colonial has] an ambiance and intimate charm that creates an indelible experience for visitors in the likes of the famed Fox theatres,” said Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss. “The theatre is one of the town’s most significant defining assets and represents the potential for Canton’s entire downtown building stock to glow once again in dignity with the right amount of care and capital investment.”
In 2000, it was listed on the Register of National Historic Places and also nominated for a “Momentum Award” by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2014. The IBMA nomination comes as a result of innumerable shows at the Colonial by Haywood County’s beloved musical sons Balsam Range. The bluegrass group, who won the 2014 IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” award, has called the theatre home for their highly successful Winter Concert Series the last five years. Headlining each sold out show, the band also uses the series to showcase an array of acclaimed regional, national and international string acts.
“Being in the Colonial, a smaller venue of 300 folks, presents a very intimate setting for our concerts, which gives off a very special vibe that radiates throughout the building — there’s not a bad seat in the house,” said Caleb Smith, guitarist for Balsam Range.
“We love using the facility because of its incredible sound, the feel of the room, how nice it is, and its wonderful history,” added Darren Nicholson, mandolinist for Balsam Range. “The Colonial is a wonderful tool for the community. It hosts shows, movies and is a great meeting place, with lots of positive things for the community’s benefit — it’s truly the only venue of its kind in our area.”
Opening the door of possibility
With the success of the Winter Concert Series, the town (which owns the Colonial) has been using the platform as a launching pad for new ideas to take shape in the theatre. Already a once-a-month event in 2015, the facility has screened two blockbuster kids films, each of which had a turnout of several dozen folks.
“In the vein of access, the town kept the ticket price at $3 to make movies an affordable option for families,” said Hendler-Voss.
And it’s that keen awareness of being a suitable option for community residents that Smathers sees as the door being opened to the possibility of tomorrow.
“It’s about economic development, it’s about bringing people into downtown,” he said. “The movie series has been a great word-of-mouth successful thus far for our families, who have said they liked being able to do this instead of having to drive all the way to Asheville to see a film.”
With the ball rolling on new avenues for the Colonial, Smathers looks to the recent success of The Strand at 38 Main in Waynesville as an example of what good can happen to a downtown when community support goes hand-in-hand with a changing perception of what nightlife can be within a small town.
“The Strand has done great things for Waynesville. We want the same for downtown Canton, and there’s no reason the Colonial shouldn’t be in use all the time,” he said. “We as a board and town staff can’t do everything, so we want people from the community to get the word out, look to get shows booked, become a volunteer, help out with cleanups and repairs — the theatre is for the community, it’s theirs.”
On the heels of the Winter Concert and movie series, the town encourages any input from residents and businesses on what could be put onstage at the Colonial. All options are on the table, with an open door policy being offered to any looking to book, host or sponsor an event, private or public.
“We have a spirit in this town to be bold and try new things. Yes, there are budgets and things we need to do, but first we need to try,” Smathers said. “As Asheville expands and grows, we’re seeing more people come our way, and we’re laying the groundwork for that. We’re putting together events at the Colonial, working on a food truck policy, urban farming policy and an event policy. We’re repairing that base of our community so that when people come to us we’re ready to do business.”
Want to know more?
The Colonial Theatre in Canton is in need of public input, ideas and volunteers. To get more information, call Denise Holcombe, theatre supervisor, at 828.235.2760. Due to licensing rights, the March film title cannot be advertised in the paper, but you can find the listing and times at www.cantonnc.com or by contacting Holcombe.