It all started with a phone call on Dec. 7, 2011.
“It became a day that would live in infamy,” community member Bettie Bond said.
A few meetings at the public library followed.
By the beginning of spring, several committees and offshoots had formed with the common goal of saving the derelict Appalachian Theatre on King Street in downtown Boone.
The theater opened to much fanfare on Nov. 14, 1938, and became one of the few hubs in Western North Carolina to bring the silver screen to its quaint mountain communities.
During daytime business hours, the theater’s upstairs offices served as medical and dental offices for the needs of clients, according to theater preservationists.
With a demand for increased showings, a twin theater was soon added to the balcony, said Keith Martin, who serves as vice chairman of the operations and programming committee for the theater’s nonprofit entity.
Throughout the years, the aging entertainment venue survived several internal and external challenges, including a devastating fire in 1950 and the arrival of multiplex theatres, which had made their debut in Watauga County by the 1990s.
By 2007, the theater had finally run out of steam and closed its doors. The front façade began to deteriorate, and the Appalachian Theatre had become history.
Then, in 2008, a developer spurred renewed interest in the theater with a plan to transform the auditorium into a bar and restaurant hybrid that would capture the nature of the iconic building with an added kick.
The excitement, however, soon fizzled out, and, with bankruptcy looming, the town of Boone was able to save the building from the auction block.
A few years passed, and the Downtown Boone Development Association got involved. The loan to help save the theater was soon repaid to the town, and the nonprofit entity, Appalachian Theatre of the High Country, was formed and assumed ownership.
While much of the building has remained unchanged since it was gutted in 2008, a multitude of plans are now in the works to reopen the theater so it can serve the High Country as a community performing arts center.
Organizers are hopeful the theater will reopen on its 77th birthday on Nov. 14, 2015, Bond said.
Finalized plans for what exactly the theater will be used for are still on the drawing board, Martin said.
Several ideas have been bounced around, including a stage for live performances, an orchestra pit and a new movie projector and screen.
“I’ve never been on a project this energized,” Bond said of the community’s commitment to reopen the theater. “Normally, you would lose people over time, but not in this case. I’ve been on a lot of committees since 1971, and this is the most amazing thing I’ve seen.”
After all, Bond said it was the memories of the theater’s patrons from throughout the decades that kept interest afloat.
“There are so many memories there,” Martin said. “I can’t number the people who mentioned their first handhold or kiss on the back row. I could probably sell that back row 70 times over if I had to.”
The theater became more than a place to catch the latest from Tinseltown or the ideal necking spot with one’s first crush. It had become an integral part in the history of Boone and the rest of the county.
The late Doc Watson was known to frequent the sidewalk in front of the theater to pick a few tunes.
“When we had our first meeting at the library to talk about saving the theater, Doc stood up and said, ‘I want my name to be part of this,’” Bond said.
Within two months, however, Watson had died.
The memories packed into the theater have likely far surpassed the movie titles that have lit up the marquee.
Pat Maddux, whose image was featured in a picture of a late 1940s grade school performance at the theater, said the downtown cinema was the place to be on a Friday night.
When asked if she remembered the price of a ticket in 1947, she was quick to reply, “Only nine cents!”
Much legend and mystery still weigh heavy in the theater’s auditorium.
To this day, members of the theater’s nonprofit committee cannot remember the exact details of the events that led to the infamous 1950 fire.
Martin said the common belief is that the young man attending the popcorn machine in the balcony likely snuck down to the concession stand to flirt with a young female attendee. Within a matter of minutes, he said, the theater was ablaze, and the roof collapsed. No injuries were reported, but responsibility for the fire resulted in a lawsuit between theater parties and the manufacturer of the popcorn machine in state superior court.
Theater organizers are currently developing plans for an open house birthday celebration for the building on Nov. 14.