The City of Kannapolis and the management of the Gem Theatre held a celebration Tuesday to celebrate the Gem’s 85th birthday and the selection of the theatre to the National Register of Historic Places.
During a brief ceremony Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant spoke of the importance of the theatre in the Kannapolis community. “The theatre has been a touchstone for the City for 85 years. It's where people go for their first dates, first kiss, people have gotten engaged and married here. It is simply a key part of the fabric of our community. Its prominent marquee is iconic and impactful, and the City Council knew the investment to restore it had to be a top priority. We are so pleased that it has been named to the National Register of Historic Places.”
Steve Morris, who owns and manages the operations of the theatre commented, “I am happy to have this partnership with the City. We are working together to ensure there will be another 85 years of the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis. We are looking forward to what the future holds for this historic building.”
“This is a very special historic building, and it is thrilling to see it being maintained and in use. By receiving the designation of the National Register of Historic Places we are ensuring that the theatre will be protected and preserved for generations. We are very pleased to be here to celebrate with Kannapolis today,” said Brett Sturm, with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office. The N.C. Historic Preservation Office has been working with the City with the restoration of the marquee and the application process for the national register designation.
Following the unveiling of the National Register of Historic Places bronze plaque attendees were treated to birthday cake, the famous Gem popcorn, and a tour of the new first floor accessible bathrooms.
The City purchased the theatre property in 2015 as part of the Downtown Revitalization Project. While the Gem Theatre property is owned by the City, the operations of the theatre are managed by Steve Morris.
The City has completed a master plan to determine the immediate structural needs of the theatre as well as planning for the future uses of the facility. Over the last two years the City has replaced the roof, the HVAC, restored the historic front marquee and added accessible first floor restrooms.
History of the Gem Theatre
The theater was built in 1936. The theater was built by Cannon Mills to provide recreational opportunities for millworkers. One of many amenities built in Kannapolis for Cannon Mills employees. (Mill owners built four single-screen movie theaters operated under the banner of Towel City Theaters. The Gem Theatre opened in 1936, followed by The Palace in 1938, The Dixie in 1939, and The Swanee in 1940. The Dixie was closed in 1957 and demolished in 2006. The Palace, a segregated theater for African Americans, closed in 1969 and has been converted to a mortuary. The Swanee closed in 1971 but is in the process of being renovated as live music venue).
The Gem Theatre suffered a serious fire in 1942. The facade, offices, projection booth and portions of the lobby were saved but the balcony, auditorium and stage were destroyed. Those areas were re-constructed in 1948 amidst World War II with materials and labor shortages causing a delay in completing the repairs. Other renovations and additions over the years were made without interfering with the historical significance of the building. These changes include additions to the screen and sound systems in 1953 with the addition of a fixed wide screen and stereophonic sound. In the 1960s the decorative gold and silver leafing from the 1940s was painted over and a new concession stand was built. In 1986 Dolby Stereo was added and the current concession stand, was built in the 1990s. The bathrooms were updated in 1997.
The theater is also notable for its Art Deco architecture, the marriage of work by two different architects over an extended period. Drawings salvaged from the former Cannon Mills engineering department show the original theater was designed by Charlotte architect Marion R. Marsh. Marion R. Marsh (1893-1977) moved to Charlotte, North Carolina from Florida in 1916 and opened his own firm in 1922. Architect Charles Benton (1887/1888-1960) of Wilson was hired to design the rehabilitation of the theater after the 1942 fire significantly damaged the auditorium and stage in 1942.
The Art Deco design of the theatre is considered one of the finest examples still in existence in North Carolina and it follows in the tradition of late period picture palace theaters. Near the stage on the east and west sides of the hall are fire exits with large painted carved screens featuring depictions of exotic birds flying along a floral vine framed in a sinuous wave. Its flattened, vertical facade features stylized floral accents rendered in terra-cotta, its geometric trim, and its streamlined railings. Other structural items of note include original terrazzo and terracotta floors and wooden doors. The original balcony structure is in place and operational.
Through the years the theatre has seen a variety of performances including Roy Rogers, Jimmy Dickens, the Grand Ole Opry and the Avett Brothers. Admission and concession prices are reminiscent of the past and remain affordable allowing families to enjoy first run movies annually.
The City is working with Clearscapes, a Raleigh based firm who specializes in historical preservation and renovation of theatres and performing arts centers, who helped the City develop a master plan for the expansion and improvements to the Gem Theatre. Next phases of renovations include new seats and renovations to the auditorium and stage areas of the theatre.
For information on the Gem Theatre Master Plan – visit www.kannapolisnc.gov/gem
We would also like for you to share your favorites memories of time spent at the Gem Theatre. Please send us your memories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.