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Cornelius News

History: When going to the movies was Black and white

April 14. By Tonya Rivens. Movies of the 1930s represented Hollywood’s Golden Age. Some of the biggest stars included Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

But movies weren’t the only thing in Black and white, the seating arrangements in local theaters were also based on Black and white.

The Star Theatre on Zion Avenue had seating for whites on the ground floor and Blacks upstairs. Blacks used the wooden stairs hugging the outside of the building to get to the Blacks-only seating.

The building’s current owner, Charles Wilber, renovated the property in the late 1990s. Wilber says the repairs were pretty extensive and that the entire roof and floor were gone. The goal was to keep the shell intact. There was not much discussion about preserving history. 

One section of the original brick wall remains inside next to the stairs with some names carved in the bricks. According to Wilber, there has been little interest in the history of Star Theater.

Separate but not equal

Cornelius native Lucy K. Roddey attended the movies at Star Theatre nearly every weekend. She described the whites-only section on the first floor as a spacious area with nice seats. 

The Black section was small with a few seats and a bench placed against the wall. Since mostly Westerns were shown, her favorite actor was Roy Rogers. 

Her dad would accompany the children to the movies or drop them off, go to the barbershop then return to pick them up. 

In spite of the segregation, Roddey said she didn’t experience any harsh treatment from white citizens.

“At the time, Black parents knew there were no options and instilled that concept in their children, not acceptance but tolerance.  We never knew any different therefore we accepted the arrangements,” she said.

Everyone understood

Gladys Henderson, another Cornelius native, said going to the Star was the highlight for their family as well. She says the segregated theater didn’t bother her since there were limited forms of entertainment during that time period.

Henderson said everyone was respectful of the rules and she neither experienced nor witnessed any conflicts at the theater. 

“We knew that we had to climb all of those stairs and take a seat. In many ways, people were more respectful and kind to us then than people are to one another today,” she said.

There wasn’t a lot in terms of entertainment beyond church, Tucker’s Grove Camp Meeting—a Black only camp meeting ground in Iron Station—and trips to Belmont Park. 

Marshall Lowery, who grew up in Cornelius, said his only visit to the theater as a child was to see a horror movie about grasshoppers. His girlfriend’s parents extended the invitation and they all sat together in the balcony. 

Blacks and whites were segregated in the theater, in school and on the bus but the children all played together afterwards, he said.

Tonya Rivens

Tonya Rivens is a multi-skilled journalist in radio and television and is currently heard on Streetz 103.3/100.5 FM, blogs at tonyarivens.com.