Cary resurrects history with old theater

dkane@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2012 

— When Cary’s newest arts and cultural center opens roughly a year from now, “Back to the Future” might be a good choice for the first movie shown.

Saturday morning marked the groundbreaking of what is expected to be a state-of-the-art theater for movies, plays and music performances. It is expected to be the cornerstone of an ambitious downtown revitalization for a once small town that is now bigger than many full-fledged cities.

Plans to grow involve resurrecting the town’s first movie theater -- a 65-year-old brick building -- and more than doubling its size with a three-story addition that includes a cafe, backstage facilities and other entertainment space.

Hence the two usherettes at the groundbreaking dressed in bright red hats, gold suspenders and black high-heel shoes. They passed out popcorn and candy bars to roughly 50 people who were on hand to celebrate.

“Over the years as entertainment tastes changed and as Cary changed, this building evolved to serve a variety of functions, from selling clothes and later, auto parts,” Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said. “Now, as we bring it back full circle to its original purpose once again, it represents optimism for Cary’s future.”

In its heyday the theater showed movies -- cowboy star Lash LaRue made a live appearance -- and country-music legend Patsy Cline performed there. The owners covered up the marquee and turned it into a clothier in 1960, before eventually converting it into an auto parts store.

The town bought it last year with an eye toward restoring it to its former glory. “The Cary” will feature seats for 180 patrons and a luminous marquee advertising movies and performances. Designs suggest it will have an art-deco look.

The project has had some adversity. Its budget nearly doubled to $6 million as construction bids exceeded estimates. But Weinbrecht said he and other council members think the additional cost doesn’t outweigh the benefits of a project that they expect will generate a much greater return in downtown business development.

Ralph Ashworth, 79, owner of the Ashworth Drugs pharmacy and soda fountain a block away, has seen the building in good times and bad. He was on hand Saturday to celebrate the theater’s rebirth.

“This is really exciting,” Ashworth said. “It’s going to make Cary more of a downtown destination.”

Sharon Belk, 55, a former bank employee who moved to Cary 10 years ago, looked over displays of the theater’s past and designs for its future Saturday. She said she hopes the theater will help usher in a downtown renaissance similar to what has happened in Raleigh and Durham over the past several years.

“Cary’s a great little town to live in, and now we have the theater,” she said, “and we won’t let this one close down.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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