Church looks for its history as a black theater
By Shavonne Potts
Do you remember when there was a black theater on West Horah Street? A local church that now owns the building hopes you do.
Outreach Christian Ministries has owned the 1940s-era Quonset hut for about five years. It operated for a short time as the Ritz Theater.
The theater was not the only African-American cinema in Salisbury, but it is the only one still standing. It is located at 722 W. Horah St. Church officials are hoping to get the building listed as a historic landmark.
Much of the building remains as it was when movie-goers filled the seats, though the church has made some modifications over the years.
Apostle Ray E. Taylor, pastor and founder of Outreach Christian Ministries, is also a contractor by trade and did the renovations himself.
His wife, Alease Taylor, said the building is a WWII Quonset hut, which was sold after the war ended in the mid-1940s. The Quonset hut is a semicircular building made of a lightweight, prefabricated structure of corrugated steel.
What they don’t know is how the building arrived in Salisbury and who shipped it to its current location on Horah Street. They do know that L.H. Hall, for whom Salisbury High School’s gymnasium is named, worked as the theater’s manager in the 1940s.
“The building wasn’t immediately used as a church, but sat empty for years,” Alease Taylor said.
The church acquired the building in 1964 from Traugott “T.H.” Lash and bought it five years ago.
According to the Rowan County Register of Deeds, Nannie J. Lash was willed the property, most likely from her husband, T.H., who died in 1986. A year before her death in 2002, Nannie turned the property over to her daughter, Sylvia Holman.
T.H.’s brother was Wiley Lash, Salisbury’s first black mayor.
Ray Taylor’s sister, Linda Hunt, has been one of the driving forces to get the historic designation. She has been at it for about six months, she said.
“I hope to classify the building statewide and then nationally,” Hunt said.
Ann Swallow, a national historic register coordinator with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office in Raleigh, has toured the church building.
Swallow said the national register recognizes places of historical or architectural significance. In this case, the building’s distinctive method of construction is of great interest to the Historic Preservation office.
“The fact that the theater is constructed out of this very identifiable construction method is significant,” Swallow said.
She said the office does list theaters on its registry.
“Linda has been trying her best to track down the history,” Swallow said.
She, like Hunt and the Taylors, hope people who may have attended the theater, have memorabilia or took photographs of the theater will come forward.
Before the building is registered, Swallow explained, officials need to find out more complete information, which includes any memories from movie-goers.
There are hundreds of buildings in Salisbury listed on the registry, Swallow said. Once the building is registered it would officially have an historical designation and the church could possibly receive grants toward renovations.
There’s been no change to many parts of the building, Alease Taylor said. In fact, a case that once held movie posters remains to the right of the front door. It now displays the name of the church. The marquee still hangs over the entrance. The exterior bricks on the front of the building are original to the theater.
Once inside and to the immediate left, a bathroom in the lobby area, though not being used by the church, has not been reconstructed. A stairway to the right that narrows to what was the projection room is undisturbed, except for a coat of paint. The structure of the projection room itself is largely unchanged. It’s now used as the pastor’s office. The hole from where the camera projected onto the screen can still be seen. It is shielded now with plywood.
The sloped floor of the theater has also not been touched, except for a coat of paint. The stadium style seats, popularized by theaters of the 1940s and ’50s are the same, with the addition of some paint. The seats are still divided by two aisles. The seats did, however, cascade farther down the aisle than they do now. In order to make a pulpit and altar, Taylor removed a couple rows of seats.
The stairway leading to the altar, walls and chair railing, as well as light sockets along the wall, are all the same.
In what is near the pulpit and altar area of the church, the frame for the screen remains in place. The screen was taken down long ago and a mirror erected in its place.
The doors, including an interior front door and a metal back door, are all unchanged.
One of the most notable changes is the ceiling. Just looking at the building from the outside, the dome shape is unmistakable, but inside that shape has been concealed by a drop ceiling.
Alease said her husband added the ceiling and lights years ago.
The original door, where theater goers bought tickets, was destroyed during a car accident. Alease recalled someone in a car chasing a man on foot. The car crashed into the front of the building. “The front caved in and the door collapsed,” she said. Alease recalled the end result of the crash with a bit of laughter.
Her husband had just told his church during a Sunday service he wanted to change the front door. The next day the accident occurred and the door came crashing down.
Other additions include a baptismal pool at the front of the church, a drum stand to the right of the pulpit and some dry wall that camouflages the hole where the movie camera could be seen with a glance to the back of the theater. When the church began regular radio broadcasts, Ray Taylor built a radio booth off to the side of the pulpit area. The booth is now used as the church’s media room. The church also reconstructed the former box office area, which was destroyed during the car accident.
One question Hunt said she’s been unable to answer is whether the theater had a concession stand.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the church at 704-637-9955 or Linda Hunt at email@example.com.