There’s something sentimental and eloquent about experiencing the history of the theater in which you sit. This past Sunday afternoon, to celebrate the anniversary of its 1938 grand opening, the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country looked back on its history during the screening of Hollywood in the High Country: A History of the Appalachian Theatre. The feature-length documentary film, directed and produced by Philip Arnold, explores the colorful history of the iconic main-street cinema in Boone, North Carolina. Further, the film features and honors the devoted efforts of the townspeoples’ seven-year project to purchase, restore, and reopen the Art Deco landmark as a performing arts center after its closure in 2007.

With a beautiful compilation of interview footage, black-and-white film scenes, and historic archived images, Arnold’s film weaves the storylines of theater’s history and its present together to paint the picture of the Appalachian Theatre. The distinctive history of the theater is recounted through memories of locals who have sat in the theater’s seats since the 1940s. Each Boone native conveyed a sense of nostalgia for this theater housed in what was at the time such a remote part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One local stated that the theater was a hub where the community of the High Country, not just Boone, came together for whatever was on the screen or the stage. Many Boone natives reminisced over when they could attend a movie less than a dime – the theatre attendant handed you back a penny and a ticket stub! Every Saturday, mornings and afternoons, and especially in the 1940s, Watauga County residents made the pilgrimage to the Appalachian Theatre. Some children walked upwards of nine miles each way for a seat. In addition to the Westerns that garnered the most acclaim among the audience, newsreels were screened in the theater. Many locals recount that, as children, the theater was where they received the majority of national news, including coverage of World War II and President Truman’s introduction of the Marshall Plan. 

Mixed in with these fond memories, a record of the theater’s recent renovation unfolded. Leading to its closure in 2007, the theater suffered a disastrous fire due to a popcorn machine in 1950 and endured national changes in the film business throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Due to the unfortunate downturn in business, the theater closed and was boarded up. The Town of Boone eventually gained ownership of the property, and shortly thereafter, local residents formed a non-profit organization, the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country, Inc., in an effort to reopen the theater, recreate its former glory and showcase its history. The documentary positions the audience in the ideation sessions that planned the renovation of the theater as a multipurpose, performing arts space. The locals volunteering their time exude a reluctance to let their theater’s legacy and Art Deco iconography slip away; the replication of the Art Deco facade and marquee is necessary, significant, and emblematic. They discuss the town’s craving for art, music, and cultural experience which can be fulfilled by theater’s programming and events. This drive to fill the theater-shaped hole in town steered the project team through setbacks and inspired their fundraising efforts, eventually leading to the theater’s official reopening in 2019.

The connection between the town and its iconic theater creates the roots of this documentary and sustains its significance in our contemporary world of television, 24 hour news, and streaming services. Conversations with Boone natives suggest this, but the way in which the film is sewn together drives it home. The overlap between the Appalachian Theatre’s history and its current presence in the High Country represent how tightly the theater is woven into the community. Gliding from the words of a nostalgic interview to impassioned grit to restore the building, one understands that the history of the theater is inherent to its current operation. The theater may display a redesigned modern interior, but it pays homage to its history in preserving the original exterior appearance, effectively blending the past and the present. More than a simple story, this documentary film invites the audience to recount the past and consider its significance to the community. I can imagine sitting in a similar seat each Saturday in the 1940s, surrounded by other locals and watching the same film scenes inserted into the documentary. While I did not have to walk nine miles to the movie theater, by just walking under its brilliant marquee and sitting in its seats, the magic of Appalachian Theatre comes alive as its historic past lines its new walls and illuminates its facade.

This film screening closed out App Theatre’s BOONE DOCS “Cinema Sundays,” but keep an eye out for additional film announcements for Winter and Spring.