As Robert Hughes watched freshmen students and their parents roam Garner Magnet High’s new Ninth Grade Center during last week’s open house, he couldn’t help but think back to watching that same hallway for kids sneaking into the theater for a free show.
Hughes spent a decade as the general manager for the building’s previous tenant, a movie theater that closed in 2009. Over that time he had developed a tight-knit group of employees. As the school prepared to open, more than a dozen of them showed up to check out what had become of their former workplace about four years after the theater closed its doors.
They enjoyed witnessing the end result of its transformation, which opens Jan. 22.
“Awesome. Just beautiful,” Hughes said. “As long as we were at the elevator we knew exactly where we were. And the hallway. But the rest of it -- which room was that again?”
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The new beginning sharply contrasted with their description of the theater’s sad end. It slipped into a magnet for trouble as White Oak Crossing’s new multi-plex wiped out its business.
“It was just getting so depressing and slow,” Hughes said.
Meanwhile, its close proximity to Garner High made the theater a popular hangout for students, and at a time when the theater staff and Principal Drew Cook said students had a little more of a wild-to-out-of-control side.
“We dealt with a lot of troubled kids. We all grew close through that. We had to watch each other’s back a lot,” Hughes said.
Staff told of all-out brawls in the parking lot, often with teens but sometimes with mothers. Once Annette Rhodes issued a mayday call over the radio as mulitiple cars drove around in circles in the parking lot, occupants trying to hit each other with water balloons.
“We’ve had some experiences in this parking lot with kids,” Hughes said, standing in that lot after leaving the open house. “There were little hoodlums around here. You’d make them mad and they’d come out and break people’s car windows out.”
“You had all four tires slashed,” former employee Tim Hobson interjected.
“Yeah, I had all four tires slashed in one night,” Hughes confirmed.
The staff noted that the school had grown up a lot in recent years, gaining magnet status and improving in both academics and discipline. And they were glad the theater, formerly just a ruin and casualty of progress, had newfound purpose for a school that can now barely fit in all of the students who want to attend it.
Victim of progress
The United Artist Theater once had been a busy, bustling theater. Then White Oak Crossing opened complete with a newer, slicker theater a couple miles down the road in 2006.
Hughes had already seen this movie, and knew the sequel wouldn’t be pretty. He managed the theater Mission Valley in Raleigh for 16 years until 2000, and said that when Crossroads opened in southeast Cary -- another theater in a shopping complex the intersection of two major roadways -- it ate up the competition.
“As soon as White Oak opened it started dropping year after year after year. We held on as long as we could,” Hughes said, noting that being tucked away in the shopping center didn’t help his theater. “The new theaters like that always draw more attention.”
Carolina Cinemas took over in 2008, and the theater tried a switch to a dollar theater, a la the successful Blue Ridge Cinemas in Raleigh. But that takes time losing money to establish a big enough audience, and the Garner theater didn’t have enough time or money.
After that, the theater remained dormant for years. The school and town did not like the idea of a vacant property that size so near a high school, but little use could be found for a theater – and its unique architecture – where another had already failed.
But the county also had a school with too many students across the street, and its already-built walls gave the district an affordable option. Former school board member John Tedesco, who attended the open house along with his replacement Monika Johnston-Hostler and Mayor Ronnie Williams, noted the low cost of construction on a per-student basis. That, despite having to level sloped theater floors and build temporary classroom trailers in the parking lot.
The grand entrance and surprisingly high ceillings remain the only interior telltale signs of the building’s former purpose. Meanwhile new amenities give freshmen – many of whom have never attended a school within decades of being this new – a new interior with state-of-the-art amenities, particularly compared to a high school so old it’s to be torn down and rebuilt before they graduate.
Family away from family
Hughes remains in the industry, as do some of his former employees. He started working in a theater at 16 and aside from a couple years, he’s never worked elsewhere. He enjoys people watching, working with his hands, fixing things and the variety that the job allows. He now works for Carolina Cinemas as a facilities manager.
Despite the theater’s slide, he and his employees stuck it out. The theater had little turnover in its workforce, and employees liked each other.
“We were a family away from family,” Rhodes said.
Not that actual family didn’t get involved. Kathy Hughes couldn’t work for her husband Robert because of company policy, but she helped out in a number of ways – including pitching in during a busy Thanksgiving weeknd with Jim Carey’s The Grinch having just come out and Robert on medical leave for a brief bout with bladder cancer. (They ran out of popcorn and had to go to Sams to get more.)
“I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner each year and come up and feed everyone that had to work that day,” Kathy Hughes said.
“I miss that,” Rhodes said.
Hughes sent Drew Cook an email, saying some in the group would like to see what had become of the theater. Cook happily invited them to the open house.
“It’s really interesting to see. Kids went there for fun, but it’s nice to see them go there and learn,” Robert Hughes said.