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Appalachian Theatre celebrates 75th Anniversary

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If the walls of The Appalachian Theatre talked, it could be a long conversation. The charred brick and wood beams could spin stories of movie premieres, plays, fires and tales of first dates. The theater could even tell the history of Boone if given the chance.
The Appalachian Theatre celebrated its 75th birthday in November. During its 75 years of business it has undergone many transformations, but The Appalachian Theatre of the High Country (ATHC), the group in charge of the theater’s restoration, hopes that its most recent metamorphosis will be its last.
Newcomers to Boone have known The Appalachian Theatre as either a takeout window for the now closed Pssghetti's or a dilapidated building. Since the restoration of the theater began the memories and stories from the theater’s glory days have changed its reputation completely.
The ATHC acquired The Appalachian Theatre property in July. Very little documentation remains from the days of the theater’s original operation, so the first goal for committee members was to discover the history of the theater.
Eric Plaag, chairman for the history and archives committee, said this is where help from the community has been essential.
“The first task was to find images of the theater, and figure out how they would affect things,” Plaag said. “We spoke with people who worked here, like the woman who ran the soda shop, the girl who ran the concession stand, people who went here as kids. All those stories and memories have helped us piece together what this theater actually looked like.”
Since the history project started, original photographs, lighting sconces and roofing tiles have been recovered in storage units and from Boone residents. They are small donations but have great historical value, especially for Plaag.
“In the early photographs I knew as a historian that the theater was art deco, but in the later pictures I could see art modern things going up and you could tell that they were not original,” Plaag said. “We want to do this restoration as completely and faithfully as possible, and the more we find out the better off we will be.”
In the rich history of Boone and the High Country, The Appalachian Theatre plays a small but vital role. It is now one of the only remaining examples of art deco, an influential visual arts design style which first appeared in France after World War I, remaining in the High Country. And in its heyday, it was one of the only movie theaters.
According to long time Boone residents the theater was the place to be on a Friday night, or any night because movie tickets were only 9 cents in 1947.
“There are so many memories here, I could probably sell that back row 70 times over if I had to,” said Keith Martin, the theater restoration’s vice chair of operations and programming. “I can’t count the number of people who mentioned their first handhold or kiss was on the back row.”
The stories that have been retold after so many years, mainly by people who came to the theater as children or as teenagers have helped the committee with the limited knowledge of the building.
A favorite story seems to be about the ticket lady who inhabited the front of the theater in her small booth. Whenever a ticket was purchased, the window would open and a billow of cigarette smoke would float out. Or how moms who needed a respite from their children would drop them off at the theater for an entire day where they would see two movies for 5 cents.
“The original theater manager was said to be the best babysitter in town because all the kids would wind up here on the weekends,” Martin said. “And if one of the kids got in trouble, he would call the mom to come pick them up and they would not be allowed back for a week acted like a death sentence back then.”
When the original Appalachian Theatre was opened in 1938, it was the epitome of entertainment in the High Country. Vaudeville acts, movies and local theater productions and concerts all happened there. It was gutted in 2008, leaving very little behind for The Theatre of the High Country to work with.
The redesign will reflect its original layout but will also accommodate the needs for the performing arts in Boone.
“We want this restoration done right, but we want to meet the needs of the user groups too The Blue Ridge Theater for example has never had a home, and we want this theater to be a home for them and anyone who needs it,” Martin said. “Our final goal for the restoration is a combination of restoration and modernization.”
The original theater had 999 seats, enough for the population of Boone to be in the same place at the same time, but only had one bathroom. And W.R. Winkler, the original owner, was such a penny pincher he wouldn’t allow 1,000 seats because he didn’t want to pay the extra 10 cent tax, Martin said.
The theater also had an attached soda shop and apartment on the second floor for the theater manager and his family. The Theatre of the High Country will use the original theater space for local productions and concerts, but the soda shop and the apartment space will be given a whole new purpose.
“The soda shop will probably be sacrificed for office space, but the apartment will hopefully be turned into a black box theater,” Martin said. “Appalachian does not have a space like this, except for Vahlborg, so this kind of theater will be perfect.”
The Appalachian Theatre is just a shadow of its former glory right now, but the ATHC says that with such an extensive renovation there is still a large amount of work to be done. But with such high attendance at their October open house, board members are confident in the project.

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