Movie theaters played a uniquely important role in isolated sections of West Virginia, says a historian who's helping breathe new life into historic theaters across the Mountain State.
Now being used to attract visitors back to historic downtowns, their restoration can be expensive, but financing programs and a new theater-trail project are easing those burdens, says Kelli Shapiro, Ph.D., program associate for the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia and author of the book "Historic Movie Theatres of West Virginia."
Especially in the mountainous south, Shapiro says geographic isolation made small community theaters more valuable to residents than would normally be the case elsewhere.
"With these towns being so cut off from centers of population, in terms of both distance and difficult terrain, the theaters were, arguably, the primary conveyors of mass culture to the locals, at least in the era before television," Shapiro said.
"They provided a crucial cultural link to the rest of America, presumably making the residents feel somewhat less isolated and part of a broader American culture."
In southern West Virginia's mountainous coal-mining regions, theaters were even more distinctive, she said.
"One aspect that was fairly unique there was the presence of movie theaters that were built and, generally, operated by coal companies as part of their amenities for the miners and the miners' families in their company towns and coal camps.
"Their existence made life in coal towns more appealing, especially in the more isolated areas where reaching a town that had another theater was neither easy nor fast. Examples with photographs and historical information in the book include those in Affinity, Caretta, and Glen Rogers among others.
Unique to the southern coal camps, movie theaters were not necessarily recognizeable to passerby, Shapiro said.
"Also unique, coal-town theaters were part of multipurpose facilities, not individual structures in downtowns, as is normally the case. They might share a larger building with the company town's soda fountain, billiard hall, dance hall, or barber shop.
"They often didn't even have separate entrances from the street, meaning that the typical markers people recognize today—marquees, ticket booths, poster-cases—weren't present or at least weren't visible to passersby. Examples in the book include those in Scarbro, Stirrat, and Widen, among others."
Several historic theaters in West Virginia were notably designed by an African-American architect, she said.
"Something else distinctive about historic movie theaters in West Virginia was that several of them were designed by an African-American architect, which was rare nationally during the era of segregation.
"John C. Norman, whose papers are now part of the state archives, designed at least three theaters that we feature in the book. He also designed numerous other buildings across the state. One of them, the Art Deco Shanklin's Grand, in Ronceverte, is still standing, though vacant with a collapsed roof. Ironically, at the time Norman designed it, it was segregated."
Increasingly across West Virginia and much of the U.S., historic theaters are playing a vital role in attracting visitors to formerly busy downtown commercial districts, Shapiro says—not necessarily as movie theaters but as performance spaces.
"From a revitalization standpoint, events in these theaters help attract residents and visitors to historic downtowns—where they not only attend those events but may also benefit the local economy further by eating and shopping there.
"Theaters help make, and keep, downtowns vibrant. Their presence can even help bring new businesses to the area. They also provide valuable community-engagement opportunities for local youth and adults, offering things such as acting and dance classes and a multitude of performance opportunities. Theaters get people involved and help them stay active."
Adapting an old theater is not necessarrily an easy task, though Shapiro says financing is often available to offset the expense when theaters which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Funding is often an issue for those hoping to reopen a closed theater or to further rehabilitate an open theater, but excellent options exist to help—including state and federal tax credits, grants through the State Historic Preservation Office, and the new revolving loan-guarantee fund through the Preservation Alliance," she said.
Marketing theaters can also be a problem, though the alliance's "West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail" is helping to provide a solution by promoting historic theaters as destinations for heritage tourism.
For more information on restoring theaters in West Virginia, visit the theater trails resource page.