If you live in Durham and wanted to see an independent film last week, you could have headed downtown to the Carolina Theatre to catch the acclaimed Away From Her or The Situation. This week, unless you’re willing to drive a bit farther, your options are likely limited to the Phoenix and a variety of summer blockbusters whose titles end in “3.”
The Carolina Theatre, which first opened in 1926, stopped showing films today (May 30), and shuts down altogether after a performance by the Cary Dance Academy. The hiatus is for repairs that will last until early August, with a reopening tentatively scheduled for August 3. It’s another blow to summer film-going in Durham: The beloved Starlite Drive-In has been closed since the death of owner Bob Groves in March, and while its official web site (www.saveourstarlite.org) has shot down rumors of the property being purchased by Wal-Mart, it nonetheless laments that “the unfortunate reality… is that we will likely lose another Durham landmark to history.”
However, Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc. President/CEO Connie Campanaro says that the theater’s closing is both temporary and necessary. “This is the last remaining historic theater in the entire county, and it needs repairs, it needs work, it needs an upgrade,” Campanaro says.
The effects of the repairs might not be visible to the naked eye. “I can’t say that it’ll be real clear visibly, that people will walk in and say, ‘Wow! This is different!’” Campanaro says. “But those chronic behind-the-scenes things that are causing the theater to crumble will be gone.”
Those “behind-the-scenes” problems include resealing the theater’s leaky roof, which has resulted in water infiltration damaging the plaster. “On a rainy day, customers have come here and seen water pouring down in the middle of a movie,” Campanaro says. She hopes that plaster repair can begin in January 2008.
There will also be a replacement of the theater’s HVAC system, which is badly out of date. “The heating and air conditioning system has sort of been limping along with, I don’t know what, obscure Frankenstein parts we managed to find on eBay,” Campanaro says. “The way it is now, we can barely predict whether you’re going to be too hot or too cold on any given night. We almost have to tell people, ‘Dress in layers.’”
Repairs also include work on the theater’s dimmer system, which regulate the lights for each theater within the building. “I won’t pretend to completely understand it, but I do know thisthe company we purchased it from in the last renovation went out of business,” Campanaro says. “Every day we get up and knock on wood and go, ‘Today, we’re going to get through the day without the dimmers crashing.’” She added that there might also be some additional repairs in other areas of the theater, depending on what funds were available after the initial work.
The repairs are funded by the city, which owns the theater. According to City Manager Patrick Baker, the improvements will be part of a $4.5 million large-scale effort to improve several downtown facilities. Campanaro says that the Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc., a nonprofit private company that manages the theater for the city, will not receive any funds from these repairs, and in fact, face a loss. “We’ve been out of debt for a year now, and we are surely going to slip back into debt once more,” Campanaro says. “I don’t see where there’s any other choice. But we want to be here, waiting and ready when the building’s ready to open again, to continue managing it.” The theater will throw a fundraising reception before a performance by comedian Steven Wright on Wednesday, June 6 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. (tickets to the performance may be purchased separately).
Campanaro adds that the theater’s box office and administrative offices will remain open throughout the duration of the repairs, and that all employees who would typically have shifts during this time have been offered jobs. While summer usually represents an off-season for most of the theater’s business, planning for upcoming events is a time-consuming process. “Ironically, it’s the busiest time of the year for the rest of the staff,” Campanaro says.
Still, she has a warning for regular patrons. “If you’re planning dinner and a movie during this time period, don’t come to downtown Durham,” Campanaro says. “The last thing we want to do is disappoint you.” Zack Smith
For more information, visit www.carolinatheatre.org.
Steven Wright is Steven Wright: For the last 28 years, he’s been himself, professionally speaking. The comedian delivers jokes in his naturally monotone voice, as he’s wanted to do since he was 14 years old, watching Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. “I didn’t really think what [being a comedian] would be like. I just wanted to tell jokes on Johnny Carson for five minutes,” he said recently by telephone from his home in Carlisle, Mass.
His trademark style of deadpan humor was born from nervousness. “When I first started going on stage, I was very, very nervous. I was really just trying to concentrate on saying the joke the right way. That’s why I had such a serious face. I wasn’t trying to have a style. After so many years, it’s just naturally how I talk when I’m on stage.”
After creating a Grammy-nominated album, two HBO specials, two films (one of which earned him an Academy Award), and performing countless stand-up shows, his goal is still as simple as it ever was: to find what’s funny.
Wright has always been attracted to words. “I would put groups of words together, like ‘a flock of false teeth,’ I would say to my friends, just because it was a strange set of words.” On stage, he jokes, “When I was little, in our backyard we had a quicksand box. I was an only child… eventually.”
Just as he enjoys the quirks of wordplay, Wright observes the oddities of everyday life, a skill he initially borrowed from George Carlin. “What I picked up from him is how he observed all the little things in life that people don’t usually notice. Everyone’s experiencing this stuff but no one’s really noticing it or talking about it. That had a big influence on me.” This influence led Wright to develop his style of witty non sequiturs and carefully worded phrases that often take a minute to absorb. In his typically random order, he might ask, “What’s another word for thesaurus?” and then state, “One of my grandfathers died when he was a little boy.”
Wright is always asking questions about the world, and the answers that he finds are funny. “You could say I was saying, even though I’m not saying it on purpose, [that] the world is insane. You’re on a jet, you’re five miles in the air, you’re going 500 miles an hour, and you ask someone to bring you another Coke. That is as weird to me as any joke. You can just move something and look at it from a slightly different angle, and it’s funny.”
The jokes don’t always work, and if an audience hasn’t laughed at a joke after three tries, he generally throws it out. “I still can’t predict what will amuse other people.” But he figures it out more often than not. A staple in comedy, credited with influencing numerous comedians with his unique style, Wright wants to continue being a comedian for as long as he can. “I feel lucky that I make a living from my imagination. It’s such a lucky thing to have the chance to do.” It’s lucky for us, too. Megan Stein
Steven Wright will perform at the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall on Wednesday, June 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets prices range from $29-$32 for the show alone to $90 for the pre-show fund-raising reception.