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Then & Now: The Mar Theatre – Wilmington

Published: Sunday, March 19, 2017 10:49 p.m. CDT
(Photo courtesy of David Belden and the Local History Project’s digital collections)
The Then photograph, circa 1945, shows the front of the theater looking east from Main Street. Notice the marquee advertising RKO’s late summer release of Radio Stars on Parade.
(Christine O’Brien for Shaw Media)
The Now photograph shows a similar view of the Mar Theatre today.

Movies were a new form of entertainment for Americans in the early 20th century.

As the average hours worked each week decreased for many, their wages rose, and many people sought new ways to spend their time and money.

In cities and small towns, there was a wide range of recreational activities available to a public looking for entertainment opportunities: dance halls, billiard parlors, amusement parks, vaudeville performances and professional sports. As fun as these activities were, nothing was more popular or widespread as the movies.

From the first freestanding nickelodeons, which began the process of showing projected motion pictures to small groups, to the larger cathedral movie houses, millions of Americans embraced the art of movie making in the early years.

For movie fans during the Studio Era, the more than 17,000 movie theaters in operation across America during the 1940s represented their own diversity of screen experiences. These venues ranged from small-town theaters, with the capacity of only a few hundred patrons, to the nearly 6,000 seats at the Roxy Theatre in New York City.

The single-screen movie theaters that punctuated small-town America’s main streets and city neighborhoods since the 1930s are all but gone. In many American towns for most of the 20th century, movie theaters were located near the heart of the commercial, civic and social life.

For most Americans, movie going was linked to the experience of going to town for a night out. This might have meant a short trip to town once a week, or for some, it might have meant a long trek a couple of times a year.

One example of a small-town theater that began operation during the early years of Hollywood’s Studio Era was the Mar Theatre in Wilmington. Located on South Main Street, the Mar Theatre opened for business on June 15, 1937, during the Great Depression. The Butcher brothers conceived the idea in 1935 and completed construction of the Art Deco-style building two years later.

Today, the first-run theater looks much as it did when it first opened and continues to show movies.

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