College instructor captures theaters in photos

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2013

HIGH POINT — For more than 30 years, Benita VanWinkle has tried to preserve a disappearing piece of Americana — the old, vintage movie theaters of yesteryear — the only way she knows how.
One frame at a time.
VanWinkle, an art instructor at High Point University — and a longtime professional photographer — has been traipsing across America, often finding herself in small, off-the-beaten-path towns, photographing theaters of a bygone era for a book she hopes to publish.
Some of the theaters remain in operation, though that number continues to dwindle. Others stand vacant, inhabited only by rats, ghosts and dim memories of a heyday that has long since faded to black.
“For me, I think the real draw of the movie theater is that it’s something that’s so ubiquitous, so common throughout every small town,” VanWinkle says. “They were bright, colorful, enticing. And they were a way for people, no matter how much money you had, to be swept away to some other place and time, to forget about all your troubles. I think they’re just these fantasy worlds where we allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable, where we allow ourselves to go someplace else.”
VanWinkle also admits being drawn to the old theaters’ architecture: Their eye-catching facades with ornate, glittery signage. Their expansive auditoriums, often including balconies where young couples might steal a kiss in the darkness. Their intricate interiors, with red, velvety drapes, shiny brass fixtures, and alluring concession stands.
“I really try to pick theaters from before 1970, before those multiplex things started coming out that are just horribly ugly,” she says.
VanWinkle estimates she may have photos of as many as 300 vintage movie theaters, including drive-ins, from across the country. She has photographed a number of theaters in North Carolina, including the old Center Theater in downtown High Point, the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, and the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem.
VanWinkle, who has taught at HPU for six years, started documenting theaters as a young photography student at Daytona Beach Community College, beginning with the Carib theater in nearby Clearwater, Fla., where she grew up.
“During my first semester, I heard the Carib was going to be torn down, and I was heartbroken — I loved that movie theater,” VanWinkle recalls. “So I asked the theater manager if I could go in and photograph the inside, and then I photographed the outside. I already knew my interest in photography was documentary. I wanted to save things that were not going to be around anymore.”
From that point forward, she began photographing every old theater she could find. Years ago, when she worked as a college recruiter, the first thing she did when visiting a new city was rent a car and seek out the local theaters.
During her travels, VanWinkle also collected stories about the vintage theaters. Some of the stories are sentimental recollections of the theater during its heyday; others tell about the ghost that refuses to leave, even after the building has stood vacant for years.
“They all have wonderful stories,” VanWinkle says.
Stories, she says, that need to be chronicled in a book.
“With so many theaters closing down, I’m thinking now is the time to do a book,” she says, “and with all the opportunities for self-publishing, there’s no reason not to do it. There are people who would like to see these theaters and hear these stories.”