The Center Theater of Harmony

Center Theater, Harmony, NC
Statesville R&L June 19th, 1947

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.

The projection booth and the new Sunlite machines. Unknown projectionist. Possibly Hager himself?
(Iredell County Library)

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.

A photo of the neon sign when lit.
You’ll notice the pine wood doors and façade at the entrance. This is the same material that would have covered the walls.
Iredell County Library

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.

“Building up” prints on the prints table. Movies came in several reels and had to be spliced together before being played, then broken back down when shipped out.
(Iredell County Library)

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.

April, 1950

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.

September, 1975

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.

The attached NAPA auto parts store is still in business, but the spaces to the left, which have been various things including a cafe, are not.
The A&H banner still adorns the top of the building.
If you look closely at the upper right window you can see sky where the roof has collapsed. I’m not sure the date this brick outcropping was added, but I have a picture of what it looked like after it was built below.
Unknown year, but this would have been after the fire. The old theater building is seen at left above the fuel truck with a number of cars, suggesting it might have been in use for something, if nothing more than a parking lot. At the time this photo was taken there were numerous windows in the addition, which you can see the ghost of in the picture above. The white building to the right is the Harmony fire department.
This area is much the same today, and the garage at left is still in operation, though the VFD has moved down the road and the area where the cars are parked next to the theater is now filled by the NAPA and a small drug store.
This is on NC-901 looking northbound. The road that crosses right to left is highway NC-21.
Iredell County Library
Another portion of a picture from the series above showing the front more clearly, with boarded up doors.
The back of the building.
Notice the sloped roof. the front of the building is the back of the theater and the rows of seating were sloped downward to the screen, which would have been on the back wall.
The inside is trashed, the roof has fallen in, the floor is unsafe and there is a large amount of water in the middle of the floor, which means a large amount of mosquitos are present.
However, the general outline of the theater is still visible. The balcony for “negroes” is still in place, and in the top left, you can just see the projection booth with it’s two projector ports.
Cleary someone was using it for storage, as evidenced by at least two Volkswagen Beetle carcasses.
The back wall where the screen would have been, and where the fire would have started. The line along the bottom may have either been the original height of the stage or else part of a construction done during the carpet outlet years to level up the floor.

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.

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Published by Abandoned NC

I went back to my old home and the furrow of each year plowed like surf across the place had not washed memory away. -A. R. Ammons

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