Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 7, 2012
CHINA GROVE — Climb three flights of stairs to the top of the China Grove Roller Mill museum, and you’ll find a corner devoted to the Grove Theatre.
Four seats from the old movie house line the wall.
An ancient projector, an original clock and seat from an old ticket booth are up there, too.
There are grainy, black-and-white photographs showing the seating inside the theater. In one of the pictures, owner Lola Saunders stands on the sidewalk next to the front doors.
If you look across North Main Street from the front window, you get a pretty good view of the former Grove Theatre, which was in business from 1938 to 1955.
Grey Corriher bought that building in 1962, so its days as a movie theater were already over when he took ownership.
Even so, Corriher still likes the history of the Grove and the fact that the museum has preserved, with his help, some artifacts from it.
Barbara Doby, president of the Historical Association of South Rowan, remembers going to movies at the Grove when she was young.
For 25 cents, she could see the movie, buy popcorn and a Coke and still have 3 cents to give back to her parents when she returned home.
“The first movie I ever saw was in the Grove Theatre,” she says.
Corriher can’t believe it has been almost 50 years since he moved Grey Corriher Floor Covering and Supply from the basement of his Five Forks home into the former movie house.
(Prior to making it home for his business, the building also served briefly as a garage and even a roller-skating rink.)
Corriher retired in 1991. Today, he rents the front end of the building to Christi Austin, who operates Christi’s Custom Hair Salon in the recently renovated space.
“She’s got a fancy, modern beauty shop,” says Corriher, well-pleased with his tenant.
Corriher also owns the building next door, at 301 N. Main St., where H&R block had offices for 29 years. It served as home for the Blackwelder and Yost grocery store until 1947, and Corriher bought the property from Herman “Pete” Faggart 20 years later.
Now Amanda Eller rents the street-level space as her photography studio.
Out of the former grocery store and movie house, Corriher also fashioned five apartments. He bought the house off Park Street behind the buildings as another rental property.
Now 84, Corriher says the time has come to sell his little slice of downtown China Grove. He’ll miss it. He enjoys showing parts of the building at 303 N. Main St. that betray its original use as a movie theater.
Outside, it’s pretty obvious. Front indentations in the wall are the perfect size for movie posters which advertised coming attractions. You can determine where the box office window was and easily see how the marquee would have hung over the sidewalk.
Inside, it takes a little more imagination, though a secret door from the hair salon opens into the old ticket booth.
A side stairwell, going up to two apartments was the entrance for black customers, who had to sit in the theater’s balcony during the days of segregation.
While he was in business, Corriher had transformed the large seating area of the theater (and later the roller rink) into his shop and a storage area for tile, carpet and linoleum.
Large overhead sliding doors in back also were installed during its days as a garage.
But Corriher still points out the spots on each side wall where 4-foot fans were attached for the theater. The Grove did not have air-conditioning, he explains.
Thelma Corriher, Grey’s wife, also notes that some of the theater’s original paint scheme remains on the walls.
Grey Corriher shows evidence in the elevated concrete floor of the curved edge to the stage. Efforts were made to level the space when a wood floor was installed for the roller rink, he says.
Corriher looks at the former theater space and still sees how someone with the right dream could transform it into a nice dinner theater.
The building has its original coal-burning furnace in the basement.
“It’s just amazing,” Corriher says.
Thelma Corriher holds a theater pass the couple found from the old Grove Theatre, which was built and operated by Lewis and Lola Saunders.
Through his membership on the China Grove Board of Trade, Grey Corriher played an instrumental role in pushing for preservation of the town’s history.
The Board of Trade formed a History Committee in 1984 to prepare a book and events related to the town’s centennial celebration in 1989.
During the first three years, Corriher served as chairman of the committee, followed by Doby and Judy Haire. The History Committee evolved into the organization Doby heads today.
Grey Corriher has three grown sons — Tony, Mike and Roger. He and Thelma have been married since 1977.
Through Mount Zion United Church of Christ, the Corrihers have been involved in many building projects. In past years, Grey helped to build the outdoor chapel and Mount Zion UCC cabin at Johns River Valley Camp in Colletsville.
He also was involved for several summers in the building of a church in South Dakota.
Back at China Grove Roller Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Corrihers rest in the old seats from the Grove Theatre after their three-story climb to the top.
Later, they follow Doby around the old mill, where business transactions and snowfall measurements often were written onto the walls.
It creates a timeline amid all the artifacts the historical association has assembled over the years to create this unique museum.
“I never get tired of it,” Doby says.
Grey Corriher knows what he means.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com