Program Report: The Carolina Theatre -Rebecca Newton

The last Rotary speaker to close out February was a rather fitting one.

After being introduced by Rotarian Rory Gillis, The Carolina Theater CEO and President since 2017, Rebecca Newton, shared with members what the historic entertainment venue has been up to recently.

A connoisseur of entertainment, Newton got her start with the Hayti Heritage Center in 1980 and after a stint there, worked in the “internet world” before transitioning over to the Carolina Theater. The theater turned 94-years-old in February.

Since 2018, the theater has screened nearly 500 films and sold 50,000 tickets which reflects the solid foundation it is on.

But in addition to screenings, Newton encouraged club members to experience some of the historical exhibits the theater is hosting as part of its arts outreach. These include an exhibit in the main lobby entitled A Century Downtown that focuses on artists and films that have been at the Carolina through the years as well as how the venue and downtown Durham have changed over time. Another exhibit Newton highlighted is the Confronting Change exhibit being hosted on the second balcony level and spotlights the 1960s desegregation of the Carolina and the community.

“Community engagement, like the exhibits,” Newton said, “is what makes the Carolina such a treasure.”  Other ways the Carolina interacts with the community include the RETRO series, one of the largest repertory film programs in the nation, in which classic silver screen films and rare cult classics are screened and take attendees back in time with researched information about the movies and how they resonate in popular culture.

“It’s one of the biggest things we do at the Carolina,” Newton said about the RETRO Film Series which has introduced an entirely new generation of moviegoers to classics.

Other ways the theater is reaching out to the community includes hosting a church on Sundays, acting as a community gathering space, hosting a family Saturday series and hosting school visits.

Ellen Stone, senior director of development at the Carolina, joined Newton and spoke on how the theater has hosted school programs for 23 years through arts education, arts integration and arts exposure.

The school programs tie school curriculum and performance to make learning more interesting.  The theater recently had an event for displaced residents at McDougald that saw so many attendees that it had to be moved to a bigger theater to seat everyone.

“We want youth to appreciate and experience the arts,” Stone said. “It’s impactful and fun to watch.”  While Arts Discovery is free to attendees, it costs the theater $108,000 and is often underwritten by community partners to help pay.

The events help the theater reach more than 12,000 students each year over the past few years with 15,000 youth being welcomed into the theater’s education and community engagement programming since 2018.

Newton has spent the last 6 months working on the Carolina’s strategic plan leading up to its centennial in February 2026.

With more tickets being sold in the first half of this fiscal year than all of last year, the Carolina Theater is well situated heading into its second century.

Submitted by Carlton Koonce

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