Renovations for Carolina Theater

by Matthew Christian

The historic Carolina Theater could soon become the next building to be renovated in downtown Florence.

Florence City Manager Drew Griffin and Assistant City Manager Kevin V. Yokim presented information to the Florence City Council about a planned bond issue soon to be before the council for approval.

The potential $31.5 million bond issue includes approximately $2 million for renovations for the Carolina Theater on South Dargan Street. Originally, the city administration planned to issue the bonds in November 2020, but the recent drop in interest rates has caused the city to look at bumping those plans up to take advantage of the lower rates.

Griffin said on Wednesday the goal of the city’s renovations would be to construct a 200- to 250-seat music venue that could also host weddings and conferences and show older movies similar to the Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Columbia.

The building would also be equipped with a restaurant kitchen to cater the events.

Griffin added that the city’s downtown has venues like the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center that can support a larger audience and several bars and restaurants downtown that host musical acts on a regular basis for smaller audiences. The city, however, does not have a venue in the middle of those two extremes, Griffin said.

The idea is to have events there, combined with the events at the bars and restaurants, and the other events downtown, to create a steady flow of people entering and returning to the city’s downtown, which further grows the market for that area, making it more attractive for developers in the future.

Local architect Scott Collins will be the lead architect on the project.

The city had previously sought to work with a developer to renovate the property but has been unable to find one willing to work on the project.

Griffin said the lack of interest from the developer resulted in the building sitting empty for several years, which caused some deterioration, thus making developing the building a necessity.

Griffin said the city acquired the theater around a decade ago.

The current Carolina Theater building was constructed in 1940 — it opened on April 1, 1940 — after the previous building burned down in a 1939 fire.

The fire happened during a mid-week showing of the movie “San Francisco,” which chronicles that West Coast city’s 1906 earthquake.

Former Morning News editor Thom Anderson said he had talked his mother into going to a showing of the movie but found smoke pouring from the building upon their arrival in the 100 block of South Dargan Street.

Prior to the fire, the theater showed cowboy movies on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Anderson said in a column in the Morning News. At the same showing, he added, the theater usually also displayed a cartoon (this is how the Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse got started), local advertisements, and a serial.

Serials were sort of a predecessor of TV shows in that they were shown in pieces and each piece moved the script forward. They remained popular until TV sets became popular after World War II.

The fire and two other fires that happened after the Carolina fire are considered as being the impetus for the city to begin work on a water system for the downtown.

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