Harmony, NC is and always has been a small town. At a little over 500 people today, for most, it’s a stop sign and some buildings where highways NC-21 and NC-901 meet and a pause on the way somewhere else.
Like a lot of small, rural towns, there have been hints of what might come, what might be possible, and future possibilities that flickered for a while, but ultimately burned out.
Today’s story concerns a seeming impossibility. How in the world a tiny rural town became the site of a modern movie theater.
Harmony sits in the northeastern part of Iredell county on the inside of a triangle formed by Union Grove to the northwest, Statesville to the south and Mocksville to the southeast. It’s history is one of Christian camp meetings, and it was these meetings that gave the town it’s name. It’s a history that carried on even into the recent past, as there were still occasional “Christian Harmony” singings, in which shape note music was used. The town was eventually incorporated in 1927.
Just after WWII, when the town population was barely above 300 souls, a man named William Lewis Hager had an idea.
Hager, along with Zeb Vance Williams had previously opened a furniture business called the Iredell Furniture Store in Harmony in September of 1940.
Whether a money making scheme, or because his family had a genuine interest in the business, in 1947, Hager set out to build a movie theater in the sleepy little farming community.
Work would begin towards the end of ’47, and by August of 1948, the theater was open for business. The building was a modern brick structure with metal roof beams, air conditioning and heating, a balcony area for “negro” patrons, pine panel on all the walls, and a very bright, very beautiful neon marquee that must have lit up the entire crossroads at night. When completed, the theater could apparently hold over 400 people. A number greater than the entire town’s population.
The two projectors for the theater were new Sunlite models and those and the equipment necessary for their operation was purchased from Devry Theater Equipment Company of Charlotte.
It seems much of the operation of the theater was handled by Hager’s wife Claudia Hager, who was the actual owner of the theater and co-owner of the building property. In truth, the theater could have been Claudia’s passion project, but I have no way to be sure. The theater seems to be something the family had a penchant for, and looking for information in newspaper archives about them, we even find that Hager’s son was something of a Thespian himself while in college.
The first movie to play at the Center Theater was “Are You With It?” a movie adapted from a Broadway musical starring Donald O’Connor. It was likely a sold out showing, as people from all the other rural communities such as Turnersburg, Williamsburg, Jennings, Olin, Eagle Mills, Union Grove, and Houstonville travelled the highways to Harmony to forget about the labors of farm work and be entertained for an evening. From the start, Center was playing two shows a night with a weekend matinee and late show as well.
The theater was always an outlier. Even though it played the latest movies, including first runs that screens in Statesville didn’t get. It was independent of those other theaters and theater systems in the area. Most notably, it had no ties to A. F. Sam’s Statesville Theater Corporation, which had at least three theaters of it’s own in Statesville at the time and several others in such far flung locations as Sparta, NC.
The Center seemed to do well for a time, with various ads for the biggest movies appearing in the Statesville newspapers. The theater was certainly a welcome source of entertainment for the whole area, not just the town of Harmony.
Then, on the afternoon of July 6th, 1954 less than six years after opening, it all came to a tragic end.
That morning, Mrs. Hager had started the job of laying some new tile at front of the building. Sometime during her labors later that day she had smelled smoke and rushed into the theater only to find a wall of smoke so massive she couldn’t even determine the source of the flames.
The Harmony VFD was right across the street, where the alarm was sounded at 4:40PM, so it wasn’t very long before they were on scene. Other fire departments in the area also received the call, and even Statesville, about 16 miles south, sent trucks to the scene. Trucks from Turnersburg and Troutman also showed up and assisted later on that day. Mooresville also sent a truck all the way from the south end of the county, but it arrived too late to help.
Unfortunately, Harmony had no town water system at the time, and after the Harmony engine depleted it’s reserves of water it had to make trips to ponds, the high school, and even the Henkel Mill in Turnersburg to get water. Harmony Fire Chief Charlie Jenkins believed this was the ultimately the reason the theater was not able to be saved. Jenkins claimed the fire was nearly under control before his truck ran out of water and had to leave to get more.
The fire had started in the main theater space when a hot floodlamp had made contact with heavy velvet curtains. The massive fire must have quickly spread to the flammable pine wall panels and then the rest of the building. It gutted the theater, leaving nothing but the outer brickwork and some steel beams of the roof. The building was partially insured, and the Hagers received some payment for the loss, but it was either not enough to rebuild or the couple simply didn’t have the heart to try it again.
And that’s the end of Center Theater.
But it’s not the end of the building.
At some point after the fire and before the 1970’s, the building was repaired, and a brick addition was made to the front. I do not know who was responsible for this or when it took place.
However, ads begin appearing in the early 1970’s for A&H Factory Outlet, a carpet seller who took over the building. It’s unknown how long that business lasted, but it likely wasn’t very long. Ads continue into the mid 1970’s, but not afterwards. The property was finally sold by them to a private owner according to the deed.
After that, nothing of consequence happens with the property. There may have been a couple small business ventures that tried to make use of the property and failed.
Eventually, it just became storage space.
Which brings us to today. July 10th, 2021. 67 years ago this week, the theater burned. But the building still stands.
Who can say what might have been if the theater lived on. The economy and the changes in how we purchase and view media haven’t been kind to independent small town theaters, but it might have carried on for a number of years.
What it leaves instead is only the faintest memory of a brief and different time, when neon lights and Hollywood pictures lit up a little town in Iredell county.
We’ll never know what it might have been like, but we can watch the same movie they did opening day, and pretend.