Popcorn and Memories: The Tryon Theatre Through the Years

Published 1:35 pm Wednesday, March 1, 2017

WRITTEN By Vincent Verrecchio

PHOTOS by Vincent Verrecchio and submitted

To preserve the charm of an old time local theater, Barry Flood wants the popcorn hot, fresh, and smelling good. Milk Duds and other sweet glimpses back in time are served from under glass.

The hum from the auditorium below told him that the capacity audience of 566 wanted the lights to dim. A disappointed crowd of another 334 milled outside on a December evening unable to get into the first ever show at the rebuilt Tryon Theatre. Heat from two 400-pound carbon arc projectors at his side radiated though the cramped booth. Uncomfortably pressed, literally and figuratively, he was responsible for the transition of five reels of combustible nitrocellulose film from one projector to the other, one every 16 to 20 minutes, with care that no one would see a flicker of interruption between reels. On this festive night in 1938, the folks of Tryon had paid to celebrate a community event and also forget Depression-era troubles for 84 minutes with Mickey Rooney in “Out West with the Hardys.”

The projectionist had to be alert to refocus before anyone yelled “focus, focus.” And, he had to guard against the white hole that could appear in Andy Hardy’s face if the film jammed. The carbon arc burned at over a thousand degrees, and the film, with an ignition temperature from 320-338 degrees Fahrenheit, had to keep moving at 24 frames per second. If not, the white hole would spread with a black edge at the speed of a flash bulb into a fire that could be neither smothered nor dowsed.

The original theater, built in 1932, had burned. Even though the fire had not started in the projection booth, he knew that many in the new seats remembered the old, and trusted that all would be well. Show after show, he would never fail them, safely bringing far places, real and imagined, to Tryon. He would open the curtain exactly on time for heroes and villains, beauties and beasts to play their roles in classics and clunkers. On the screen, he assured access to dreams that over time blurred one into the other, becoming one with the smell of popcorn, anticipation and applause, kisses in the back row, friendships, and snippets of fond memories, all distilled eventually into wistful smiles.

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One may conclude that the projectionist on that first night could have been Charles Nessmith based on the many congratulations addressed to him from the likes of David Niven and Fred Astaire. They and other Hollywood stars sent telegrams, many of which are displayed today near the concession counter.

In 1948, Eastman-Kodak introduced less flammable cellulose acetate film so that in the 50s, Marvin Ball was switching reels of “safety film.” Unfortunately, he is remembered more as the shooting victim of an unsolved homicide rather than as a projectionist. The theater thrived through the 70s associated with the names of Scoggins and Fender. Starting in 1985, Bill Crowell kept the reels turning and memories growing, especially when he obtained a license to serve beer in the balcony, a treat still available. Next, a 26-year tenure began in 1991, when a movie lover and high school science teacher decided he wanted to own a business. Barry Flood still wanted to teach and owning a theater provided the flexibility.

The Tryon Theatre opened as a single story in 1932. After a fire, it reopened in 1938, redesigned by architect Erle Stillwell as two stories with a marquee. Known for his “modernist design in small town settings,” Stillwater designed about 37 theaters in North and South Carolina. Today’s marquee is a 2002 remodeling.



“I’ve always been into movies,” says Barry. “That Rob Roy poster in the lobby? Disney, 1953…a reminder of a Saturday matinee in Waverly when I was bouncing and cheering so loudly for the hero that the usher threw me out.”

With his scientific and technical background, Barry was readily swapping reels like the best of those who had come before, and creating new memories for himself and his patrons.

“I think some might remember when I closed the theater for six weeks in 2000 to protest the stuff coming out of Hollywood. I knew what I liked and what my patrons wanted to see. My two favorite movies are “Casablanca” and “Some Like it Hot.” My biggest night was 290 people to see “The Addams Family.” My biggest average daily attendance for a run was “Sleepless in Seattle.” We’re not interested in “Coyote Ugly” or “American Psycho.”

“I also think many folks in town like that I started the Tryon Film Society to show movies not typically found in nearby cineplexes — art films, foreign films, and documentaries I thought we’d enjoy.”

Keeping pace with technology in 2012, Barry exchanged film for digital and started downloading gigabytes from a hard drive into his 119-pound Christie Digital Cinema Projector. He was bringing a brighter, crisper world to Tryon with up to 10,000 lumens of Xenon lamp technology.

“Over the years so many people have shared their memories with me. Now that I’ve sold the theater to Gayle and Scott Lane, all that I’m taking with me are those memories…and the wooden bear from the concession counter.”

Chris Bartol, life-long Tryon resident, remembers the curtain. “Spotlights with rotating color wheels, one at each end of the balcony, shined on a sparkly fabric. Watching that was all part of the fun. Going to the movies was always fun…except when King Kong pushed open the gate.”

Garland Goodwin, local columnist and retired NASA engineer, remembers: “Walking from Lynn into Tryon, you could pick up enough refundable bottles that by the time you got to the A&P, you could turn them in for enough money to buy a ticket.”

Andy Haynes, Tryon lawyer, remembers sharing popcorn with his older brother who ate by the fistful. “I took one piece at a time…one to eat and one to save in my shirt pocket. I still had popcorn for the second show of a matinee double feature.”

Bill McCall, Tryon dentist, remembers: “It was a live show with cowboy star Lash LaRue doing whip tricks with sidekick Fuzzy St. John. With too much popcorn and candy, I was about to be sick in the aisle when Fuzzy swept me up and carried me under his arm in time to the restroom.”

John Vining, life-long Tryon resident, remembers: “When the train passed, the seats would shake like an earthquake…I didn’t really notice when watching “The Love Bug.”

Barry remembers: “I purposely stopped the movie only once. In 2001, I brought up the house lights and asked if anyone wanted to see the last train that would ever come by. The theater emptied.”

In conclusion, Barry adds, “Got to get up there. I’m teaching Scott how to program the playlist that runs the projector. The show must go on.”