The following article was previously published in the Ashe Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter. To receive our newsletter, become a member. It only costs $10.
On Monday, May 17th 1948, the new Parkway theater opened with a newsreel and a showing of the Technicolor film Down to Earth, starring Rita Hayworth. The new theater, which is still the home of the Parkway today, was yet another leap forward for the film goers of Ashe County. Although it had no balcony, as the earlier Parkway had, this new building accommodated 735 people. The screen for the new building was twice as large as the old one, and the new theater included a stage for live performances and a lobby with a variety of concessions.
For the next 10 years, the new Parkway operated much as the old Parkway. Several films were shown per week. Newsreels, cartoons, and serials were also included, providing a variety of entertainment for the audience. However, by 1958 television, which provided endless free entertainment, was becoming just as popular in Ashe County as it was in the rest of the nation. Movie theaters everywhere were under threat. To maintain relevance, the Parkway expanded yet again, reaching its highest point of visual and auditory splendor.
The screen which, up until this time, had been a large square, was converted into a 32 foot rectangle. This new screen was also designed for Cinemascope, meaning that the screen curved away from the audience, providing a more immersive feel. Stereophonic sound was installed, and the theater began showing occasional 3-D films.
In addition to the new screen, a new stage was also installed, expanding the smaller original one. On this stage, Ashe County residents got a personal introduction to many of the top celebrities of the time. Cowboy movie stars like Lash Larue, Tim Holt, and Tex Ritter appeared in person to promote their films. Bluegrass and country music artists like Grandpa Jones, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, The Stanley Brothers, and Cowboy Copas all performed on the stage of the Parkway. These acts allowed residents from all over Ashe County to personally interact with national celebrities, something that modern venues rarely offer. At one performance by Bill Monroe, 900 people crowded into the 735 seat Parkway to see the star of the Grand Ole Opry. This ability to interact with stars and perform in front of local audiences gave several local musicians a foothold in the entertainment business themselves. Del Reeves, a resident of Sparta, who would himself become a famous country singer, got an early start performing at the Parkway. Local instrumental musicians were also able to meet the musicians who inspired them. Local banjo player JIm Brooks never forgot being allowed to carry Earl Scruggs’ banjo case and was later allowed to play banjo with Bill Monro on the stage of the Parkway.
During all of this, the Parkway fed Ashe County a steady diet of Hollywood glamor. Log books from the decades of the Parkway’s operation illustrate just how much popular culture the screen of the Parkway was presenting to Ashe County. Unlike today, where 2 movies will show for one or two weeks at a time, during the middle of the 20th century, the Parkway showed a new feature film nightly. If someone were inclined to spend every night of the week at the movies, they would never see the same thing twice. During one week in 1949, the Parkway screened six feature films, eleven different shorts, three different cartoons, two newsreels, and one live performance on the stage.
These logbooks also demonstrate the local popularity of certain films. By the 1970s, when feature films were running from four to seven days at a time, the average gross income for a film was around $700. However, in 1977, Star Wars, which took the film going public of the world by storm, raked in $2,723 at the Parkway. Interestingly though, Smokey and the Bandit, which debuted one month later, earned $4,792. Apparently, for Ashe County filmgoers, Pontiac Trans Ams and car chases were more interesting than lightsabers and kidnapped space princesses.
Throughout these three decades of growth and expansion, the Parkway was managed by Dale Baldwin, who kept the Parkway in the forefront of Ashe County’s consciousness through endlessly creative promotions. Weekly flyers advertising upcoming shows were printed and armies of local children stuck these flyers in the windshields of every car parked on downtown West Jefferson. Specialized advertisements were created to attract a variety of audiences. The Parkway marketed itself as a babysitter, caring for the children of exhausted parents as well as the home for special adult ‘late night’ shows where no youth would be allowed admission. Baldwin created promotions in which cars were given away to random theater goers, and tables of smelling salts were set up for potential fainting victims during horror movie screenings. All of these promotions earned Baldwin honors from the Statesville Theater Corporation for creative marketing and kept the Parkway a vital part of Ashe County life.
In 1978, the Parkway changed ownership and underwent its last major transformation. The huge, 32 foot Cinemascope screen was removed, and the theater was partitioned in two smaller screens and the stage, which had provided years of live entertainment for Ashe County residents, was removed. In order to allow for new emergency exit doors, the screen was also raised above its original height, although the dipped floor, which is familiar to generations of Ashe County film goers, remained unaltered. This is the layout the Parkway still uses to this day.
For almost 30 years, the Parkway had been part of a network of theaters regionally managed by the Statesville Theater Corporation. However, as television became more popular, larger, corporate theaters became more prevalent, and other forms of popular entertainment emerged, the majority of these small theaters became less and less profitable and were closed down. Sparta lost its local theater, Elkin’s small theater was soon supplanted by a larger, multi-screen theater, and the Appalachian theater in Boone has only recently been renovated after years of disuse. Uniquely, the Parkway has been able to thrive, a clear indication of the popularity of movies in Ashe County. From the earliest days of talking pictures, residents of Ashe have supported theaters, even demanding their expansion and improvement as times changed and movies became bigger and more popular. These theaters in turn provided West Jefferson businessmen, Horse Creek farmers, and kids riding the bean truck into town on weekends the latest popular culture from around the world. Thanks to the Parkway and the theaters that came before it, Ashe County citizens have been far from isolated residents of a lost province, they have have a front row seat to watch a changing America.