Good Times at the Bijou
By Kimberly B. Sherman
With only three days left until the 1906 Christmas holiday, Wilmington’s Front Street was a bustle of shoppers. Men and women navigated the brick-paved streets and avoided streetcar lines as they juggled paper-wrapped parcels. Shouts of “Never out and never over!” drifted over the crowds of customers as they entered nearby shops. A new attraction had risen on the east side of the thoroughfare: a massive tent evocative of circuses and carnivals. “The Bijou” embellished the wooden façade in large letters. Wilmington’s first movie theater was open for business and would keep the city entertained from 1906-1953.
In 1906, two retired circus performers, Percy Wells, an aerialist and tight-rope walker known as “The Great Percino,” and James “Foxy” Howard, a circus and carnival barker, hatched a plan to open the city’s first cinema venue. Howard had recently leased a former menswear store at 122 Market St. for the location, but was unable to acquire the appropriate permits to convert the old shop. As the holiday season approached and fears of losing patrons loomed, Howard and Wells approached Joel W. Murchison, proprietor of a downtown hardware store, acquiring the lease of some 40 feet of prime street-facing property on Front Street between Grace and Chestnut streets. Business owners had quickly snapped up properties throughout this busy district, and the two entrepreneurs were lucky to get their hands on this undeveloped lot.
With no time to erect a more permanent structure, and inspired by their former careers, Howard and Wells erected a large canvas tent in which to show the latest films. To make the site look less temporary and to blend in with neighboring businesses, they built a wooden façade on which they painted the name of their theater — The Bijou, or “little jewel” — and advertised the cheap ticket price of only 5 cents. One of the first films to be screened was Edmund S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). During one early screening of the film conducted at Thalian Hall, the audience ducked in fear as the train seemed to emerge from the screen.
On a typical day, Howard would stand on the sidewalk outside the Bijou advertising amusements with a megaphone and wind-up phonograph designed to attract Wilmington patrons, while Wells operated the projector inside the tent. Theatergoers could see the latest films, which the proprietors changed over quickly in order to attract a steady stream of return customers. In the first few months of business, the Bijou showed one single-reel film back-to-back for two days until it could be exchanged for a new film freshly arrived in town. Single-reel silent films like these were shown at a rate of 16 to 18 frames per second and lasted a mere 12 minutes. By April 1907, the team had acquired the ability to show two films per day — up to six per week. Film showings were interspersed with live local entertainment as well, particularly from Percy’s wife, Alice Fisher Wells, whose “full, rich and flexible” baritone voice melded with her husband’s piano accompaniments, and photographic slideshows to create “illustrated songs,” which audiences often sang along to.
The Howard-Wells Amusement Company designed their nickelodeon “to give people a little more than they paid for.” Even during the First World War, they balked at adding the penny tax for the war effort. Booklets of 12 tickets could be purchased for 50 cents — a favorite Christmas or birthday present for many Wilmington residents. It wasn’t until film producers threatened not to send new reels if prices weren’t raised that the proprietors relented, and prices rose to 20 cents in the 1920s. The Bijou even ran a promotion to encourage every theater-goer to save up his or her tickets to be exchanged for a complete set of Worcester china.
The Bijou’s owners specifically marketed their shows to women and children, who sought an inexpensive diversion on their days in the city. This “children’s haven” allowed mothers to bring their little ones to “remain all day and still only pay five cents — very cheap, even then, for a babysitter.” Just as many clerks, paper boys and businessmen frequented the establishment in between shifts or on their lunch hours.
By the summer of 1907, a small structure had been added to the tent as a confectionery, from which popcorn and peanuts were hawked by boys up and down the aisles. Patrons looked back on the early days of the Bijou with nostalgia, noting the “commodious” theater space where “one’s foot (sank) into at least six inches of sawdust” upon entering and choosing a seat among the wooden benches or, later, camp chairs that were tied together in rows. In the center of the tent, a massive incandescent bulb swung from the central tent pole, providing light between reels and “snuffed when the picture went on, leaving the audience in complete darkness.” Howard’s massive Great Dane, Caesar, often wandered up and down the aisles in those early years, and on chilly days a pot-bellied stove provided warmth for patrons.
In the autumn of 1910, Howard and Wells purchased the Front Street lot for a princely sum in the ballpark of $20,000 and began advertising their intention to construct a purpose-built theater structure the following year. With the help of architectural designer Burrett H. Stephens, the Bijou’s construction began.
Stephens’ career had seen better days. A varied portfolio of projects had taken him around the United States, from railroad offices and county jails, to meatpacking facilities. The Bijou was his last attempt to resuscitate a failing career. Films continued to be shown in the tent as construction went on, but an unexpected snowstorm on Feb. 11, 1912, accelerated the need to complete the permanent structure.
Stephens’ success put his career back on track; he went on to design the Victoria Theater and Royal Movie Theater for Howard and Wells in 1915.
On May 30, 1912, the new and improved Bijou — complete with mirrored doors, tiled floors and an electric player piano in the lobby — opened to the public. The new Bijou boasted a two-story façade with recessed ticket office, retail space, and a confectionery shop. Seating for 600 patrons occupied the ground floor inside, but this was reserved for white customers only. The Jim Crow era influenced many Wilmington businesses, creating segregated spaces designated for white or black customers. The Bijou was no different. In the tent years, a rear section on the left of the audience was roped off and reserved for black theatergoers. The company later added balcony seating reserved for 200 black patrons with reduced admission and offered “Midnight Shows” with special admission for black Wilmingtonians after hours. In the 1940s, the town’s black residents mostly frequented the Ritz theater on North Fourth Street.
The name of Howard-Wells Amusement Company dominated theater-going in Wilmington for the first few decades of the 20th century. The team operated and owned the Carolina, Grand, Victoria, and Royal theaters in the coming years. Charlie Chaplin films regularly graced the screen, while “comedy screams” and “big two reel westerns” were also enjoyed.
In the spring of 1929, Howard and Wells installed new sound equipment and a silver screen for the introduction of new talking pictures. On April 17, 1929, the Wilmington Star reported that “Percy Wells, local movie pioneer, grinned around noon today” when film reels arrived for the theater’s first talkie screening. The film reels had gone missing on their way from Dallas, leaving the theater “dark and silent” for the first time in years. The Younger Generation, a Frank Capra film featuring Ricardo Cortez and Lina Basquette, told the story of a young Jewish immigrant seeking to rise through the ranks of New York society. It was the first partial dialogue film produced by Columbia Pictures and Frank Capra’s first talkie.
At the Bijou, theatergoers experienced everything from “a 12-piece orchestra strumming a popular waltz,” to baskets of roses tied up in satin ribbon adorning the hall while “the soft drone of an electric fan spill(ed) its cool air over an audience of diversified appearances.” Not everything was spotless, however. Since the earliest days, patrons consumed their popcorn and peanuts much to the delight of the local rodent population. “Moviegoers munched peanuts throughout each reel, leaving the Bijou littered with hulls,” Dr. Robert Fales recollected. “No show was complete without a few hungry rats moseying along the floor, scavenging for peanuts.” In hopes of fixing the problem, Howard and Wells employed “feline exterminators” to rid them of hungry wharf rats that had come scurrying up from the river. “Moviegoers grew accustomed to the eerie sensation of something fuzzy brushing by on the dark floor. One never knew if he’d been touched by rat or cat.” In 1932 the theater discontinued the sale of peanuts, but the rats were a regular presence even in the coming decades.
The Bijou underwent a number of renovations over the years, including the introduction of a monumental Seeburg pipe organ in 1916 with a price tag of more than $4,000. The new technology was able to create “every imaginable drum trap, train whistle, exhaust, baby cry, and a multitude of other effects.” When the influenza epidemic reigned in 1918, the theater closed for heating system repairs, while the balcony was raised and enlarged in 1922. During the holidays, “The Bijou . . . dressed up for Christmas . . . wearing her interior decorations with the charm and grace of a metropolitan picture palace.” The building was virtually gutted again in the 1930s and outfitted with new interiors.
The Bijou hosted numerous special events for local charitable societies and fraternal organizations. YMCA lectures, Mickey Mouse Club meetings, and traveling minstrel shows occupied the space at times, and Liberty Bond films were a regular feature during both world wars. When local residents felt the pinch of the Great Depression, the Bijou held a “Collard Movie Show” sponsored by the Wilmington City Garden Program and its director, Carl B. Rehder. Patrons gained admission through the donation of a head of collards, which were later sold to benefit the Wilmington Red Cross fund.
Howard-Wells Amusement Co. was synonymous with cinema-going in Wilmington for nearly three decades, but over-expansion in their enterprises and the oncoming storm of the Great Depression led to their demise. Failure to meet mortgage payments to Wilmington Savings and Trust resulted in the loss of all their theaters. Percy Wells chose to the leave the business, but James Howard stayed to manage the Bijou for one more year. Business rival J. M. Solky bought the Howard-Wells Amusement enterprise at auction in 1933. When James Howard died in 1938, the Bijou closed for the day out of respect for its co-founder’s funeral.
Future proprietors continued to keep the Bijou up and running as a premier entertainment venue for the city. When the Howard Hughes film Scarface premiered at the Bijou in 1935, Al Capone’s personal $20,000 sedan was parked out in front of the venue to attract patrons. “The present Bijou is a far cry from the original tent, but the barricade of boys’ bicycles shows that the latest episodes of thrilling serials are just as enthralling now as they were years ago,” wrote Anita Anderson in 1953. “Talking pictures, technicolor, and 3-D have replaced the old, silent films, but the motion picture house is still at the same old stand — ‘Never out and never over.’” Three years later, however, the Bijou closed its doors one last time, in 1956. The city’s longest-running movie theater stood dark until the building was demolished in 1963 and later replaced by Bijou Park.
Today, all that remains of the Bijou is part of its tiled entryway. In 2019, city leaders revealed plans to give Bijou Park a face-lift and a newfound purpose as the gateway to the new River Place community’s shopping, dining and residential spaces, as well as the Riverwalk. Perhaps this “little jewel” will shine again.
Kimberly B. Sherman is a historian, writer, and educator. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of St. Andrews and is currently a lecturer in history at Cape Fear Community College. Her forthcoming book project is titled Intimate Worlds: Scottish Families in Early North Carolina and the Atlantic World.