Fifty years ago this month saw the death of one of downtown Raleigh's historic movie theaters. Clay Williams gave readers of The Raleigh Times a taste of the theater's rich story.
The last curtain came down a few days ago in the old Wake Theater on Fayetteville Street. It was rung down not by a stagehand as in bygone days, but by a member of the demolition crew making way for expansion of facilities of Raleigh Savings and Loan Association.
Almost grudgingly the old building, which was once the focal point of entertainment for Raleigh residents for years, gave way to pounding of sledge hammers and the prying of wrecking bars. Only the shell of the once proud structure stands now, but oldtimers still hold vivid memories of the drama, humor, and near-tragedy that marked its history.
Indeed, one particular event that occurred at the Revelery, as it was known during the early years of the century, would be hard to forget -- for it was here that many of the town's theatrical enthusiasts saw the first silent movie ever shown in a commercial theater in Raleigh.
The man mostly responsible for pioneering movie houses in Raleigh and North Carolina, is Ollie R. Browne.... Browne, a kindly gentleman, whose keen mind and sharp eyes belie his 83 years, came to Raleigh in 1908 from Henderson. He, along with Barney Arronson, had purchased the Revelery Theater.
One of the first acts of the partnership was to change the name of the theater to Almo -- fitted the marquee better, it appeared. "It took more than a flashy marquee, however, to convince me that there was much future in the movie business," Browne pointed out. He was so skeptical, in fact, that it was three years later before he moved his family to Raleigh.
"There were no seats or elevated floor in the Almo in those days," Mr. Browne recalls: "movie goers stood by the walls to watch the one-reelers. The operator who was situated in the middle of the crowd, would show the film and then rewind it backward on the screen -- much to the amusement of the audience."
"Heat generated by the machines and the weather, was terrible," Mr. Browne remembers, "but we did our best to make them comfortable by placing ice in a vat and blowing fans over it."
"Movies were a long time attaining technical perfection," Browne mused. "So it wasn't much of a money-making business. Matter of fact, our best profits came during the week of the State fair when seats were rented for 25 cents each for sleeping after the theater closed."
Tragedy struck the Almo on a hot summer night in 1925. Soon after the theater closed, a fire, which was believed to have started in the projection room, was reported. While helping fight the fire, James A. Briggs, one of the city's leading citizens, ... came close to plunging through the burning roof. He was snatched from sure death when a fireman grabbed his shirttail -- which ripped to his collar, but held. The Almo, however, was completely destroyed.
A few years later, after another business had failed in the location, the theater was reconstructed under different ownership -- this time it was named the "Wake." The movie industry fairly leaped to the forefront in the entertainment field in the 30's and 40's -- as production and acting improved and the technical quality of equipment was perfected.
The Wake thrived, too, until the early 50's when television came on the scene. The Industry entered into the era of competition with bigger, more expensive productions -- but still had to settle for only a share of the entertainment dollar.
For the Wake Theater, this was the beginning of the end. Its once regal status now relegated to second rate features and westerns as part of a chain. Its facilities and equipment dated, the Wake, like many small-town theaters, found competition from television and the finer movie houses too keen. Then, in early 1961, Raleigh Savings purchased the property for an expansion program, and the doors at the Wake, the Almo, and Revelery, were closed for good. -- The Raleigh Times 8/11/1962