Bright signs promise a big night on the town, with broad marquees a throwback to the era of Western movies and a band rolling into town with an upright bass strapped to the roof. Downtown theaters have roared back in recent years, and several across the region merit a drive out of town.
“It’s always an incredible feeling walking into these old rooms to perform your music,” says Darren Nicholson of Balsam Range, the band chosen by the International Bluegrass Music Association as its Entertainer of the Year for 2018. “There’s so much history in the walls and the stories these buildings hold, the music they’ve heard from the pioneers who shaped who I am today.”
His group has performed at the Rex Theater in Galax, Va., and multiple times at the Historic Earle Theatre and Old Time Music Heritage Hall in Mount Airy. They are two of several vintage theaters across the region that have come back to life in recent years. Also on the list: the Reeves Theater and Café in Elkin and the Rives (different spelling, same pronunciation) in Martinsville, Va.
All four theaters feature live music along with movies and other forms of entertainment, and they’re all within an hour or so of Winston-Salem.
The Earle Theatre
When a band walks down a theater aisle to take the stage rather than emerging from the wings, you know its old school. That’s how it works at the Earle, a theater on Main Street in Mount Airy recently named one of the 10 Best Historic Theaters in North Carolina by the website Best Things North Carolina.
“Artists love performing in a venue that has hosted traditional music icons, and audiences love the intimacy of the Earle,” says Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council. “Artists comment from the stage on the portraits of the old-time musicians lining the walls. It’s a special experience for everyone.”
The Earle doubles as a museum, with exhibits honoring traditional music legends from the area such as fiddler Tommy Jarrell and banjo picker Paul Sutphin. The theater keeps that tradition alive with its Blue Ridge and Beyond music series, which has featured Balsam Range and a number of other contemporary greats, including the Earls of Leicester, the Lonesome River Band, and John Cowan.
Upcoming shows include the Gibson Brothers on March 16 and a return visit by Balsam Range in December. The Earle also hosts one of the longest-running live radio shows in the country, the Merry-Go-Round, which has aired every Saturday on WPAQ since the station launched in 1948.
“We recently bought the adjacent building and are adding accessible restrooms and a small gallery featuring women in old-time music,” Jones says.
The Reeves Theater and Café
The Reeves is a classic downtown theater that followed a familiar pattern: open in the 1930s or ’40s, heyday in the mid-20th century, years of slow decline as suburban malls and multiplexes lured people away from town centers, close for a period of time, then reopen after being remodeled and reimagined for a new millennium.
“It’s a throwback to when theaters were relaxing and cool,” Jay French writes in a Facebook review.
Debbie Carson is part of the team that saved the Reeves from collapse, buying it in 2013, overseeing its restoration, and reopening it at the end of 2017.
“It was this much-loved piece of downtown that was boarded up, empty, dark, and sad,” she says. “We thought maybe it would help downtown if we could revitalize it.”
The Reeves shows movies on a regular basis, but live music has become its calling card. The theater has a house band that performs regularly. “The Martha Bassett Show,” featuring its namesake Winston-Salem singer, was scheduled to begin its second season at the Reeves in February.
The theater has also showcased performers such as Darrell Scott, David Holt, Laurelyn Dossett, and the Luxuriant Sedans. Upcoming shows include Molsky’s Mountain Drifters on March 8 and the Honey Dewdrops with Will Straughan on March 23.
The next edition of “The Martha Bassett Show,” on March 2, will feature Minton Sparks, a “speaker-songwriter” who recently made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Bassett is grateful to have a venue like the Reeves where she can perform month after month.
“A lot of love and money went into that theater,” Bassett says. “It’s just beautiful.”
The Rives Theatre
For a town as small as Martinsville (pop. 14,000), the Rives brings in some impressive talent. Performers have included Billy Strings, the War and Treaty, the Seldom Scene, Mipso, and Shooter Jennings. Louisiana blues man Tab Benoit will perform on April 5.
Music fans across the region have paid attention, according to Johnny Buck, executive director of Rooster Walk, the nonprofit organization that operates the Rives as well as the annual Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival, held in May.
“Over the last two years or so we’ve seen a lot more North Carolina folks coming up,” he says. “A lot of the times, they come up the first time for a favorite band, they have a good experience and keep coming back—a lot of Greensboro and a lot of Winston folks.”
Unlike the Reeves, Rex, and Earle, the Rives wasn’t built to be a movie house. It opened in 1932 as a playhouse for live theater, Buck says. It became a movie theater about a decade later. The space was divided into two theaters long afterward, split into an upper and lower floor.
“We only use the lower theater for live music,” he says. We took out some seats and we put in a stage. The upper theater still has a movie screen, and maybe once a month we’ll show a classic film or an art film or something like that.”
The theater was well maintained over the years and didn’t require major renovations, he says. But his organization invested in high-end sound equipment.
“We get a lot of feedback from the patrons and the musicians that the acoustics are really, really good from both sides,” Buck says. “It’s not always the case: Sometimes it sounds good to the musician but it doesn’t sound good when you’re out in the crowd, and vice-versa.”
The Rex Theater
The Rex followed a trajectory similar to the Reeves: It opened as a movie theater in 1939, closed in 1983 because of competition from a theater in a suburban shopping center, and sat vacant for about 10 years before the Galax Merchants Association bought and restored it, according to Ray Kohl, director of tourism for Galax.
“The projectors were gas-fired, carbon-lit projectors, and they’re still in the theater today,” he says.
Since 1999, the Rex has hosted the Blue Ridge Backroads radio show, which airs on WBRF (98.1 FM) every Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. The theater regularly hosts traditional and gospel music and draws visitors from across the Piedmont, Kohl says.
“Probably our biggest area of people from out of town is North Carolina,” he says. “From Mount Airy down through Winston and over to Greensboro.”
Nicholson finds himself transported when he plays in vintage theaters such as the Rex and the Earle.
“There’s a history and a magic that happens in these places,” he says. “Performers, songs, and music live forever and change people’s lives. These places are a physical emblem of the spiritual—a reminder that takes us beyond ourselves.”