The Earle Theatre was built in 1938 by the partnership of Earl Q. Benbow and Percy A. Boone. The EARLE theatre was chosen as a site for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” simultaneously with the showing in Atlanta, Georgia. The $1 ticket ruffled more local feathers than Clark Gable’s parting words. Tickets returned to a more reasonable range, 9-11 cents for children’s matinees, and 13-17 cents for others.
In 1958, after the arrival of television had closed down other theatres, the EARLE was in the possession of Stewart and Everett Theatres of Charlotte, North Carolina. Modernization was the order of the day. Air conditioning was installed to take the place of the giant squirrel-cage fan – that is still in the basement of the Earle. It is too big to fit through the doors. Oil heat replaced the coal-fired boiler. The mezzanine was partitioned off to provide extra storage space, a ladies lounge, and a disguise for the air ducts. A wide screen was a major plus – the one installed actually covered part of each exit. With the ticket booth relocated from the front center of the building, and the black and red tile at street level replaced by huge green panels, the renamed “Cinema” operated until 1985, outliving the Center, the Grand, and the Pick Theatres in Downtown Mount Airy. Later, the property of Carmike Cinemas of Atlanta, the Cinema was offered for sale purely as real estate. The mindset was that movies in Downtowns were history. After five years, three different realtors, and no serious offers on the property, the Surry Arts Council approached Carmike about donating the building. In 1990, Carmike donated the building to the Surry Arts Council.
The lobby of the unheated theatre with a leaking roof served as Mount Airy’s first Visitors Center that was under the direction of the Surry Arts Council. An architectural evaluation and feasibility study, funded in part by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, was commissioned by the arts council to determine options for its use – or adaptive reuse as the architect, Michael Newman, stated. The Surry Arts Council made a decision to put a new roof on the “Cinema”. Following the evaluation, the Surry Arts Council added HVAC, a new screen, and an upfitted projector. Live traditional music events helped to raise funds to pay for the improvements.
The first movie in nine years was shown in October, 1994. Movie admission was $1. Movies, live performances, jams, school shows, and a weekly live broadcast continue to this day. The Downtown Cinema’s name was changed back to the original “EARLE” in September of 2011 and the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall moved into the location at that time. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area funding for the Old-Time Music Heritage Hall has made possible the effort to preserve Surry County’s old-time music tradition and give the Earle a new role.
On Sunday, August 23, 2009, the Downtown Cinema Theatre hosted the North Carolina premiere of Andy Griffith’s new movie “Play the Game”. Andy’s other movies have been shown at the EARLE over the years. As a boy, Andy attended movies at the EARLE. His movie career is documented in the Andy Griffith Museum, a block from the EARLE. The EARLE has been a part of many lives in Mount Airy and remains a venue where folks can return to a simpler time.