Movie Theaters of Downtown Raleigh

Cinema Fandom

July, 15, 2009, by Ladye Jane

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The UNC Library has put together a wonderful new website called Going To The Show as part of their Documenting the American South series. The site overlays Google maps with old Sanborn Insurance Maps which are marked with the locations of old movie theaters in North Carolina. The site focuses on the introduction of the moving pictures (1896) through the end of the silent era (c.1930), but also has a listing of theaters that existed outside this frame. The site features 45 cities in North Carolina, one of them being Raleigh.

Raleigh’s moving picture theaters go all the way back circa 1905 when the first theater was opened in the popular gathering and multi-purpose spot, the Metropolitan Hall (Editors Note: The GTTS website states that the Gem opened in 1909 at 105 Fayetteville, but Wake: A Capital County Vol.2 and City Directories say it opened in Met Hall in 1905). Before that, there had been a few silent features shown in the Academy of Music, but the Gem was the first in Raleigh to dedicate itself to the moving picture. A relatively new phenomenon, movie theaters had begun to spring up around the country, with the first opening in 1896 in New Orleans.

Since that first theater opened in Raleigh, around 23 movie theaters have existed downtown throughout the years. Most were only around for a year or two, like the Lyric (1914-1917),  and The State (1924). Theaters like the Ambassador were around for many years, and people still remember going to movies there as a kid. There have been 8 theaters on Fayetteville alone (the Lyric, Grand, Superba, Gem, Almo, Ambassador, Gaiety, and the Grand), with the longest running, The Ambassabor, closing in 1979.

The Raleigh City Museum will be hosting a kids program Saturday, August 15th called “Let’s Go To The Movies.” Children will learn about the early history of movie theaters in Raleigh, and even make their own flipbook movies to take home. Visit the Raleigh City Museum website for more info.

Palace Theatre in the 1920s

The Capitol Theater interior, c.1930s

The Capitol Theater entrance, c.1940s

Shot from above The Capitol Theater marquee, c.1940

An Ambassador audience in the 1940s. The theater was named after Josephus Daniels, who was the Ambassador to Mexico under Woodrow Wilson.

The audience above as seen from the back at a Piggly Wiggly cooking program.

The Ambassador at night

The Ambassador had a separate entrance for “Colored” (to the left of Adler’s) who at one time were restricted to the balcony.

The stage of the State Theatre

Ushers of the State Theatre

The Wake

Images courtesy of the Raleigh City Museum and the North Carolina State Archives




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Olde Raleigh, Other posts by Ladye Jane.


Olde Raleigh


  • Rick
    07/15 04:31 PM

    Maybe turn the Lincoln Theatre back into a movie theatre - with the acts they book they’re just wasting space anyway.

  • JayNite
    07/15 04:45 PM

    Over the past year, Raleigh has definitely stepped up the restaurant scene. I would be nice to have both a dinner and a movie downtown. I think a multiscreen theather would best work in today’s time. I think the best site for one would be the existing Lincoln theater area, the parking lot near the Federal building or just east of the Convention Center which could serve as a connector between the warehouse district and Fayetteville Street.

  • NCSU
    07/15 05:21 PM

    One of my fondest memories growing up was going downtown to “the show.” That’s what my parents used to call going to the movie theater: “Y’all wanna go to the show tonight?” And we’d respond with an enthusiastic “YES!” I only remember the State and the Ambassador, but saw lots of movies at both. We’d often eat at Alison’s aka the Upstairs Restaurant.

    Good times.

    BTW, anybody see a “G” on the roof of the Capitol? They need to fix that “dager.” :)

  • mwyatt
    07/15 07:05 PM

    The first theater building in Raleigh that was constructed specifically to show movies was the Revelry Theatre at 215 Fayetteville Street, which opened in 1908. About a year later, the name was changed to the Almo. In the early days, the theater had no seats- the projector was in the center of the room, and patrons stood along the walls to watch one-reelers. It was so hot in the summer that the theater manager had to put ice in a large vat and blow fans over it. Later seats were added, and a proper projection room was built. A fire broke out in that projection room in the early morning hours of July 15, 1925- exactly 84 years ago today- and the theater burned to the ground, a total loss. On the evening before the fire, my father, Edgar Wyatt, eight years old at the time, had attended the final showing of the final film ever projected at the Almo. It was a race car action picture called “The Speed Spook,” starring Johnny Hines. In 1933, a new theater, The Wake, was erected on the site. Today, the Foundation bar is located there.

  • mwyatt
    07/15 07:28 PM

    The Grand Theatre opened in 1909 at 115 Fayetteville Street- maybe that’s the one that the GTTS website is actually referring to?

    Like the Almo, the Grand burned to the ground, on January 4, 1927.

    For years, the State Theater had the name “ASBESTOS” printed boldly across its theater curtain, to assure patrons that it was fireproof!

  • John
    07/15 08:15 PM

    The answer to that question is: YES!  While I have several sites in my sights for a multilevel multiplex theater, the location that I like the best bridges Glenwood South and the Warehouse District.  It’s the block bound by Hillsborough on the North, Edenton on the South, West on the ...err..West and Harrington on the the East. 
    This has got to be the best located under-utilized block downtown.  The stacked model for a theater like this is the Regal 14 in South Beach.  It’s stacked 3 floors high and has ground level retail and a parking garage. 
    This location is not only walkable but served by the a nearby Rline bus stop & a parking garage across the street at Powerhouse Station.  The block is an eyesore and would be a perfect location IMO.

  • Micah
    07/15 08:47 PM

    Raleigh simply cannot support a downtown cinema at this time.  At present, the city is terribly “over-screened” for the population…There are too many cinemas as it is.  Multi-level cinemas with multi-level parking garages attached are really only feasible in big cities where there is no choice both for the operators and for the customers.  North Hills Cinema is really the closest thing we have to the South Beach cinema posted above.  If you were to pick up North Hills Cinema and move it downtown, it would likely close in under a year.  Another problem with cinemas in general is that they take up a lot of square footage, and the profit per square foot isn’t as high as other types of retail.  In a downtown area, a cinema will pay an average, or near-average, prevailing rent per square foot.  With today’s downtown rents in most cities, they cannot afford it.

  • Aaron
    07/15 10:34 PM

    Damn what a let-down!

  • richardfoc
    07/16 01:27 AM

    Good stuff. I can remember going to see “Family Plot” (Hitchcock’s final film) at the old Ambassador with my dad. I understand the economics of it but it would still be pretty cool to have an art house movie theater downtown.

  • Eric
    07/16 06:59 AM

    Thanks for this post.  My pops speak about these theaters with an almost reverent tonality.  Apparently, they were as beautiful as they look in these pictures. It’s a shame so many of these beauties rotted away.

  • RaleighRob
    07/16 09:23 AM

    It would be nice, but yeah Raleigh does seem to have more cinemas than its population warrants I think.  Some of the suburban ones would need to close to make it viable. 

    The best thing we can do in the short-term is support the IMAX downtown regularly, as well as the other cinemas nearby inside the Beltline: the Rialto and Mission Valley.  They need all the support they can get these days.

  • mwbsc
    07/16 01:57 PM

    Absolutely!! What downtown needs is a movie theatre and a REAL grocery store.

    The theatre doesn’t need to be a multi-plex.  I agree that, right now, that wouldn’t survive.  But how about one on the scale of the Rialto or the Colony?  With the same fare as they show.

    A Raleigh native that would LOVE for downtown to be hopping again!

  • corey3rd
    07/16 02:15 PM

    Downtown Raleigh needs a Drive-In Theater. By day it can be a parking lot for the offices. They can have the snack bar grill serving lunch. When the sun comes down, they can crank up the projector. Sit around under the stars drinking beer and watching movies in your car.

  • Micah
    07/16 02:31 PM

    For a cinema to survive nowadays they HAVE to be a multiplex.  Small cinemas like Rialto and Mission Valley have a really hard time with today’s film booking contracts.  Some films require a 4 week minimum run in order to show a film.  If you only have 5 screens or so, then you have to pass up some new openings because you don’t have a screen available to play them on since you have all your screens under contract with other films.  Sometimes you have to pass up some films because the length of the contract will tie that screen up too long and you will have to miss another film in the near future that would do well (like Harry Potter!).  This is one major reason why the multi/megaplex revolution happened.  When you have 16 screens, you have a few for your new blockbusters every week, and several more smaller auditoriums that you can put the blockbusters from two weeks ago in until their contract runs out.  There are also other reasons, such as the fact that you can run a 20 screen theater with only a minimal amount of additional staff, utilities, rent compared to a 5 screen cinema.  The whole roll-out process for mainstream films is different now.  They are usually opened in as many locations, and as many screens in that location as possible.  Yesterday at Crossroads, they had 6 different theaters all showing Harry Potter with showtimes about every 15 minutes.  20 years ago only the big cities would get new releases that big at the release date, and then only a couple of theaters would have them.  They would sell out for weeks and play sometimes for over a year at the same theater.  Now, people want convenience.  They want to show up at the theater knowing that there is a show starting within a half hour that isn’t sold out on opening night.  Now, a film is “played out” in only a few weeks tops since there are so many screens showing the same feature in each city.  Two or three months after the theatrical release it is out on DVD.  DVD is what the studios want.  They make TONS more money from DVD sales than they do from their (ridiculously high) cut of ticket sales in theaters.  The studios will keep raising their film rentals and the only thing the theaters can do to turn a profit is to raise their concession prices.  Eventually, I think most theaters in average American cities will be a thing of the past.

  • Micah
    07/16 02:50 PM

    Re: IMAX…When you buy anything in Wake County, you are supporting the IMAX, since a lot of their funding is via tax subsidies.  I don’t believe this is fair to some competing businesses that actually PAY taxes.  Here is an article from 2005 that is still valid:

    Another fact that is interesting is that the latest Harry Potter is not playing on the IMAX screen in Raleigh.  The reason is that they are stuck with their TRANSFORMERS contract and have to run that film for two more weeks!

  • myk
    07/16 04:10 PM

    Harry Potter is coming to the Raleigh IMAX July 29th.  Paramount was supposed to release Half-Blood Prince last Novemeber, but pushed it back to this summer.  The date they chose for their regular movie release was the date already booked by Transformers for IMAX release.  This is at all IMAX theaters (except NYC and LA) - the IMAX Harry wait is not just in Raleigh.

  • Micah
    07/16 04:43 PM

    myk, you are correct.  NYC, LA, Chicago, and Atlanta were able to get out of their time contracts for the HP Imax (fake Imax) release.  I did not say this was a Raleigh only thing.

  • Micah
    07/16 04:55 PM

    Well, I just looked at a RENTRAC booking sheet…Scratch Atlanta.

  • Matt Huffman
    07/17 01:56 AM

    Micah is preaching the truth here, kids.  Of course it’s fun to be nostalgic about atmospheric downtown theaters and drive-in movies, but the truth is that for the most part, these are just not realistic business ventures.  Even someone with the acumen and vision to carry this out would never be able to sustain it for the long term.

  • Horatio
    07/17 07:21 AM

    The picture of the audience at the Ambassador in the 1940’s appears to be all women. Could this be because of WWll?

  • dmj
    07/17 07:46 AM

    No, I beleive the photo was taken during the very first showings of the original Sex & the City.

  • RaleighRob
    07/17 09:16 AM

    ^  LOL Funny!
    I see a few guys in there…not many.  Probably due to WWII yes, but could also be a daytime/matinee thing…men would be at work I guess, and the housewives just had to venture out to see the latest romance flick.

  • Ladye Jane
    07/17 10:07 AM

    ha. It was all ladies because it was the audience from a Piggly Wiggly cooking school.

  • corey3rd
    07/17 10:17 AM

    was the balcony in the picture “black only” or was there a balcony above the one in the shot for blacks? There was a long standing protest outside the Ambassador over their racist seating policy. It does seem from talks with people who protested at that cinema that the rise of mall cinemas in the ‘70s was helped by the new theaters having no history of telling black patrons where they couldn’t go,

  • Ladye Jane
    07/17 11:56 AM

    Corey3rd: Just added a photo which shows the “Colored” entrance that led straight up to the balcony where they were required to sit (it’s just to the left of the Adler’s sign).
    Horatio: Added a photo to show what all the ladies were watching.

  • NCSU
    07/17 03:37 PM

    At some point after segregation ended, the Ambassador was remodeled and that balcony door disappeared. When I was growing up and going to movies there, I remember a sweeping, red-carpeted staircase, with brass handrails going up to the balcony.

    I have a VHS-taped news story that was produced just before the Ambassador was demolished. It shows one of the pictures above and the reporter is walking through the abandoned auditorium. I think it appeared on the old WRDU-Channel 28 newscast. If I can find it, I’ll transfer it to a DVD and try to post it on YouTube.

  • Micah
    07/17 07:24 PM

    NCSU, I would LOVE to see that!  BTW, the original colored entrance to the left balcony stair was turned into a fire exit.  There was always a big carpeted stair from the lobby that swept up to the left and went upstairs to the 2nd level lobby.  There were bathrooms, a lounge, the offices, and some dressing rooms up there.

  • Raleigh Boy
    07/17 10:39 PM

    I love these photos, especially the interiors—a real treat! Like NCSU, I remember only the Ambassador and State theaters. Their interiors had been drastically altered by my day—the 1960s, and appeared nothing as shown in these historical photos!

    One inaccuracy I’d like to put to rest once and for all is that the Foundation bar is not located on the site of the Almo (and the later Wake Theater). The Foundation building was once occupied by the Vogue men’s shop from the 1920s until well into the 1960s. I covered the “geneology” of this building (and the Almo/Wake) in comments to a New Raleigh post on the Foundation last September.

    In this 1945 photo you can see the Wake theater building next door to the Vogue (now Foundation). Next door to that is the Charles department store, and next door to that is the Royster candy factory building, which still stands on Fayetteville St., virtually unaltered.

    And yes, NCSU—if you can find the video of the Ambassador, please post!

  • Raleigh Boy
    07/17 11:15 PM

    oops—the photo of the 200 block of Fayetteville St. ca.1945 seems to have fragmented for some reason. What you CAN see is the Haywood Building, next door to Royster’s. I guess if you want to see the original, you’ll have to go the original comment!

  • Brian
    07/18 07:09 AM

    I don’t know about any of the others, but that picture of the Capitol entrance is hanging on the wall at Cooper’s.

  • mwyatt
    07/18 01:14 PM

    I stand corrected regarding address of Foundation bar. Thanks for pointing that out! (again)

  • rkt
    07/18 06:52 PM

    A big multiplex would be boring, obviously.  Clearly what would bring people in would be a one screen theater more like the vintage ones in the photos, that would show hip independent or art films, and retrospectives once in a while as well.

  • Micah
    07/18 08:20 PM

    You mean like the Rialto?  They are art/indy only.  They only survived the wrecking ball due to the fact they aren’t right downtown and can afford the rent.  They struggle at times now.  All the big theaters were demolished in the downtown areas around our country in the 60’s and 70’s because they could not pay their own way.  What makes you think this would be any different now?  A theater the size of the Ambassador would have to fill their auditorium half way EVERY NIGHT nowadays to pay their rent and taxes.

  • Alice
    07/19 01:06 AM

    studio I and II?

  • Micah
    07/19 01:34 AM

    Studio I and II closed (October 2000) because the rent got too high (for less than 2000 sq. feet!), customers had problems parking, the (entire) building was in bad shape, the film rental contracts were requiring longer contracted runs (mostly due to the decline of true “independent” studios that would only run their films in indy cinemas), and the bums on Hillsborough kept people away.  The Studio was owned by Ambassador Entertainment (Rialto, Colony, Studio).  They closed Studio one week and re-opened Mission Valley the next. The Studio space was untouched until about 8 months ago, and was available for rent until about 2 years ago. No one was interested once they saw how hard it was to book films there and calculated what their profits might be. It has now been converted to some other use.

  • skip
    07/19 07:41 PM

    I would love to see somebody open a theater following the model of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. Those folks have really figured out how to put on shows to draw people and make most of their money with food and beer. The food is very good and the beer is cheap. They run a lot of older films (which are cheaper to rent) and do fun things like film sing-a-longs, air sex competitions, food themed shows (like All You Can Eat spaghetti western nights and the Cool Hand Luke egg eating contest). Granted Austin is a lot bigger than Raleigh, but they’ve managed to open three different theaters.

  • NCSU
    07/20 09:19 PM

    I’ve found the videotape and burned it to a DVD. I have a YouTube account, but have never uploaded anything. I’ll have to see if I can figure out how to do it.

  • NCSU
    07/20 09:39 PM

    This should do it:

    When I watched it, the sound didn’t match up perfectly with the picture.

  • Raleigh Boy
    07/20 10:20 PM

    Awesome! (the fact you found it, figured out how to post it, and the vid itself!)

    Bob Phillips is the reporter. He also covered the “Boylan Ave. Bridge Funeral” in 1981.

  • smitty
    07/20 10:38 PM

    That video is awesome.  I got a giggle at the part about Moore Square.

  • Heather
    07/24 08:28 PM

    I think that a movie theatre in Downtown Raleigh would be awesome!

  • Keith Phillips
    07/02 04:39 PM

    In the above posted Youtube link:
    That is me, Keith Phillips, trying to (unsuccessfully) save the Ambassador. This was filmed by WPTF, at the time a NBC station, Channel 28 in March of 1989. The City of Raleigh was trying to QUIETLY have the theatre torn down, so it could become a parking garage for the First Union building being built on the west side of Fayetteville St. It was so sad to see such a structurally sound(and beautiful interior) theatre building being torn down. The Ambassador marquee had been updated in 1964-1965 to the modern zig-zap canopy to match the Belk’s Dept. store zig-zag canopy further on down Fayetteville St.  In fact, two years earlier in 1987, they tore down the State Theatre over on Salisbury St. The State Theatre marquee entry was through the Lawyers Building (still standing).

  • Keith Phillips
    07/02 04:41 PM

    For those who might remember the State Theatre on Salisbury St. in Raleigh (accessible through the entrance of the Lawyers Building) here is a following link showing pictures of the theatre taken in 1987 right before it was tore down to make room for the Wake Cty. Justice Center:

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