Past Times

Raleigh always ready to put on a show

April 3, 2014 


Raleigh’s Academy of Music was the site of many theatrical productions, including Fredrik the Great.


Raleigh’s appreciation for quality entertainment has deep roots. In 1942, N&O readers got a look at the history of the city’s theater scene.

Raleigh always has been known in show business as a good customer for amusements with reasonably high entertainment values.

Provided the show held attractive possibilities, the citizens have flocked to see everything from a medicine man with a fake Indian princess to an internationally famed diva or artiste, and even a smooth-talking pitchman on a side street can draw a crowd if his tricks are good enough.

In the early 1900s Raleigh was considered the best theatrical town in the United States for its size.

Of course some lemons have played the city – on stage and screen and under canvas – with their promoters figuring hopefully on realizing a golden harvest from the city’s reputation as a good spot for a show. But most of these passed on without attracting the turnout given to superior entertainment. The city insists on a run for its money and it will give any good show a full house, as it has demonstrated over a long period of years.…

Raleigh likes old favorites, and a newcomer with no widespread reputation or local build-up has tough sledding. Thus it is that our townsmen will pack the tent of a one-horse circus it has known for years and stay away in droves from a really meritorious attraction which boasts of no background, glittering stars or high-powered ballyhoo.

Prior to 1900 the city was host to the usual run of minstrels, lone performers with a flair for entertainment and the old-time circuses which labored from town to town on horse-drawn wagons. It was really after the new century started that Raleigh blossomed as a center of high-class entertainment.

In those days the city had three theatrical spots – Tucker Hall, Metropolitan Hall, and the Academy of Music, which occupied the big upstairs space above the store and office building on the southwest corner of Martin and Salisbury streets directly to the rear of the postoffice. There were no movies.

There is little on record about Raleigh’s earlier theatrical enterprises, and sometimes the record is confused. Luckily, J. Sherwood Upchurch, who operated the Academy for years and who has a show-business background running 55 years into the past, has retained in scrapbooks and in his long-range memory much of Raleigh’s theatrical lore. He is our best authority, and he knows whereof he speaks, although sometimes he can’t be too sure about dates. J. Sherwood got into show business by going out with the Buffalo Bill Wild West outfit as a billposter. … He has never lost contact with show business. He ran the Academy between outdoor show seasons.

The dapper Sherwood – he’s still spry and occasionally active in amusement enterprises – started out as a program boy in Tucker Hall, then worked himself up to the position of door keeper at the Metropolitan. Feeling the call of the open road, he spent two years with the Buffalo Bill horse opera, went with Wallace Brother Circus as a lithographer, and after two more years joined the Gentry Brothers Circus, beloved dog and pony show, on which he sold tickets and made announcements. After a couple of years there, he joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus as extra agent, leaving in 1912. He knew all five of the Ringling brothers.…

It was at the Old Academy of Music, though, that Sherwood really hit his stride. He played two to four New York shows every week during the theatrical season, which ran from October to March. These shows came to Raleigh with the original New York casts and gave the city the best in theatrical entertainment.…

In one season the Academy played 103 different productions, form September 1 to the following April 25. People came from miles around and the Academy always was well filled.

Movies began to take their toll of cash customers from stage productions and finally Upchurch closed the old Academy and it became a prosaic office and warehouse space for the cotton co-ops.…

Raleigh witnessed its first motion picture about the year 1903 – and it was a talkie. It was exhibited in Metropolitan Hall by a traveling outfit which brought along its own projection machine, screen, and phonograph. Animation was jerky and often aimless, and the wheezy phonograph kept getting out of time with the picture.…

It was crude but still something of a miracle. The figures moved and there was talking of a kind. The idea of silent drama hadn’t taken. As the motion picture industry improved ts technique, it dropped these talkies – only to resume use of sound many years later in a form much advanced over the previous product.…

Lyman Howe, traveling showman, is given credit for inspiring the debut of Raleigh’s first regular moving picture house – the Gem, operated by Foster and Mansfield in Metropolitan Hall above the old market.… Howe brought some of the first collections of movies to Raleigh, and he left the idea that resulted in the Gem. Upchurch also started playing movies in the Academy. Between 1905 and 1910, Raleigh saw a number of movie houses bloom, some to fade and some to prosper.…

Foster and Mansfield … went to the top of Fayetteville Street on the west side and opened the Airdrome, a tented affair on the site occupied later by the old Supreme Court building which now houses the State library and other State departments.

The Airdrome featured dancing girls and a reel or two of pictures, and church circles in Raleigh looked down on it. Many a prominent citizen, after seeing the girlie show and flickers, sneaked out with his head deep within upturned collars, just like he slipped in. The N&O 4/26/1942

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