Seventy-five years ago today, ground was broken for Raleigh's new Ambassador Theater. Ambassador Josephus Daniels did the honors. The theater was a showplace for years, but it went the way of many downtown theaters in the 1970s, a fate worsened by the conversion of Fayetteville Street to a pedestrian mall.
On the eve of its 1989 demolition, former N&O writer Judy Bolch reminded readers of the theater's better days.
She was the Ambassador Theater, the last of Raleigh's old-time movie houses. She closed in June 1979 after years of declining health. But nobody ever got around to a funeral.
The lady's luck has run out.
Raleigh will be the only major North Carolina city that has lost all its downtown theaters.
The Ambassador never was a grande dame like the State, the 1924 Raleigh Vaudeville house/musical theater/cinema demolished two years ago. The ambassador was a flashy flirt, an example of the Art Deco design that was the last word in modern when she opened in 1938. In her glory days, she had 1,700 leather and chrome seats. She had rhinestone-trimmed curtains, golden doors, a curving chromium staircase and a 40,000-watt marquee called the brightest spot in the city.
Much of the Ambassador was lost long ago. The bulldozers will flatten an empty building where pigeon droppings are a foot deep. They will crush elaborate plaster trim hidden behind '60s renovations. They will demolish a theater that began its run with stars and closed with kung-fu movies.
But the spirit of the Ambassador lingers.
"We turn the lights out at night and still hear Elvis sing," says Richard W. Vanderpool, who directed the removal of asbestos in the theater.
Photo Courtesy NC State Archives
Passersby told him about Elvis Presley's stage appearance there in the 1950s, when both were still in their prime. They recalled "The Sound of Music," which had a year-long run there.
The Ambassador's curtains opened for the first time on Monday, Feb. 21, 1938, and the screen lit up with "Radio City Revels" starring Ann Miller. Bargain hour tickets were a quarter. Children could come any time for a dime.
The ambassador was built on the site of the historic Grand Theater, which had burned a decade earlier. She was named for Josephus Daniels, who had been editor and publisher of The News and Observer and ambassador to Mexico.
"It was high class," says Nell J. Styron, a long-time Raleigh film-goer. "If your date wanted to make an impression, he took you to the Ambassador."
The Ambassador was Raleigh's A movie house, a "theee-ate-tah" as Mrs. Styron calls it. For years, popcorn was banned from its elegant interior. Only first-run movies played there, and the feature changed twice a week. The theater's own artist turned out original posters to advertise the films.
Male moviegoers wore coat and tie; women donned their Sunday best. The ushers had blue gray Eton jackets with double rows of buttons.
Patrons never waited for the start of a movie. They walked in when they arrived; they saw the end of one show and the beginning of the next. Sometimes they sat there all day, seeing the same movie again and again. - The News & Observer, 7/5/1989