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History found in cinema walls

Article Published: Feb. 18, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
History found in cinema walls

Theater consultant Jess McNiel has unearthed decades of history at the old Appalachian Cinema.

Photo by Lauren Ohnesorge

You may know it as the old Appalachian Cinema building, but to theater consultant Jess McNiel, it's a piece of history.

"It was built in 1938," he said, motioning to old brick.

McNiel, a former technical director at Valborg Theater at Appalachian State University, has researched several theaters, but none quite like the Cinema.

Renovations have already unearthed a wealth of treasures worthy of a museum.

"Back here we found an old magazine from 1945," he said, motioning to an area underneath the stairwell that used to be covered with a wall, "and a cardboard hand-painted sign, 'buy war bonds here.'"

Initially, McNiel was hired to help determine the structure's capabilities as a multi-use entertainment space, research the facility and find grants.

"As things progressed, they kept finding things in the walls and the basement," he said.
As crews unearthed more and more history, McNiel was asked to stay during the demolition.
"The research has just been amazing," he said.

Before marketing prerun movies for reduced rates, the cinema was a full theater, complete with vaudeville performances. Remnants of lost performances remain in the walls.

"When we were tearing out underneath the balcony, we found a booking sheet," McNiel said.
In the area where they used to house film reels, he found what looked like a rolled up carpet.

"It was a giant beautiful color lithograph," he said, for the 1956 movie, The Eddy Duchin Story.
Three-D glasses and an old glass inkwell were among the finds, as were old syrup jugs from when sodas were hand-mixed.

Perhaps the most interesting find is an old leather wallet, discovered behind a wall underneath a stairwell. The wallet comes complete with a pay stub for a Herman Greene and a driver's license issued in 1945 for a Norma Anna Greer of Deep Gap (born in 1927). In its back plastic flaps are photographs, including one of two soldiers.

He isn't the only one interested in the old theater. Teams from places like the North Carolina School for the Arts have dropped by.

McNiel can pinpoint the locations of two fires that hit the cinema in the forties. One, started in 1948 by an overheated popcorn machine, left char marks, still visible on the wood.

"In 1938, this was all open," McNiel said of the stage area.

Complete with its original 1938 plaster, the proscenium still arches over the stage. All McNiel and his team had to do to unearth it was to take away a few layers.

When the newest set of renovations are complete, the theater will be closer to what it was in 1938 than it has been in most recent memories.

"The plan is to set it up as a multi-use venue again," McNiel said.

Construction has been stalled, more because of the economy than the weather, but should pick back up again in the spring. No official opening date has been set.

Read next week's Mountain Times for more on cinema finds.

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