A Depression-era movie house in Mount Airy has made a top-10 list of the best historic theaters in North Carolina.
The Earle Theatre was tapped for that distinction by a digital media company called American Towns Media, headquartered in Westport, Connecticut.
After taking shape about 15 years ago as the Internet revolution was gaining momentum, it now claims to “know America’s towns and cities like no one else.” American Towns Media has online connections to tens of thousands of communities across the country and uses surveys and other input to develop “Best Things” lists in such categories as restaurants, zoos, activities for children and much in between.
The top-10 rankings focus on different attractions in states across the country as part of a mission to identify the best places to live, eat and visit.
In the report on historic theaters in North Carolina, the Earle, located in downtown Mount Airy, is number four on the list that’s topped by Thalian Hall in Wilmington, one of the oldest such facilities in the nation, having opened in 1858.
Also included are the Sunset Theatre in Asheboro, the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis, the Temple Theatre in Sanford, the Carolina Theatre in Durham, the Carolina Civic Center in Lumberton and the Howell Theatre in Smithfield.
The breakdown by American Towns Media mentions how the Earle Theatre has been “providing the Mount Airy area with entertainment since 1938.”
Owned by the Surry Arts Council, the Earle seats 424 people for concerts, movies and other presentations.
In its early years in the late 1930s, the theater was chosen as one of the sites for a Southern premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
The Earle Theatre originally was operated by P.A. Boone and E.Q. Benbow. It was said to have been named after Benbow, whose first name was Early. The facility changed hands over the years until being donated to the Surry Arts Council, which spearheaded a major renovation of the Earle.
Today, in addition to movie screenings, it is a home base for traditional music due to its merger with the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall in 2011. The theater hosts live performances, jam sessions, school shows and weekly live broadcasts.
One major milestone was reached in 2015 when the Earle was upgraded with digital projection capabilities, replacing its traditional 35mm film operation. The first movie shown after that conversion was “Gone With the Wind.”
Surry Arts Council Executive Director Tanya Jones said Tuesday that she was unaware of the Earle being considered for the state’s top-10 list until the report recently was released. No nomination or application process was involved.
Jones mentioned the array of well-known and prestigious theaters cited. “So we‘re certainly excited to be included.”
Being part of the American Towns Media compilation also is coming at an opportune time, according to the Surry Arts Council official.
“We’re in the process of trying to make the theater better, so it’s very timely,” Jones said of an effort involving the musical performances held there. “We are finishing up a project to enhance the green room space of the mezzanine.”
This was made possible through a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, an organization dedicated to perpetuating Appalachian traditions.
The project has involved developing a “musicians-only” area commonly found backstage, which is lacking at the Earle.
“We are up-fitting the mezzanine area to create a space for bands,” Jones said, as well as individuals participating in informal jam sessions.
“The intent is to create a space for performers to gather before the show because we don’t have that backstage area.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.