State of the Art

In Mount Airy, ‘Gone With the Wind’ goes digital

Frankly, Scarlett, even Rhett Butler might give a damn.

Exactly 75 years after “Gone With the Wind” first played the Earle Theatre in Mount Airy, it’s coming back this weekend. One of the most popular films of the 20th century will herald the Earle’s move into the 21st.

Like virtually every theater in America, no matter how small or how rural, the Earle has had to convert to digital projection. Hollywood no longer wants to ship 35mm prints that cost more than $1000 to make, get scratched if not handled carefully and can be lost or damaged in transit. Luckily, a grant from the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority helped the Earle make the $90,000 conversion.

The theater had been using the same projection equipment installed in 1938, when Earl Benbow and Percy Boone opened it with the national premiere of Shirley Temple’s “Just Around the Corner.”

Two years later, the Earle brought “Gone With the Wind.” Ads warned “You will regret it for years to come if you miss seeing it” – of course, TVs weren’t around yet – and “To see it, you will lead a happier and fuller life.” Tickets weren’t cheap: $1.10 for reserved seats at evening performances, 75 cents for unreserved matinee seats.

After many changes of ownership, the 424-seat theater (which still has its balcony) closed in 1985. Carmike Cinemas donated it to the Surry Arts Council in 1990; the council renovated it and started showing movies again in 1994.

The Earle has since become a crucial part of the Surry County music scene. It hosts an Old-Time Music Heritage Hall and frequently offers concerts, jam sessions, lessons, broadcasts and fiddlers’ conventions. If you’ve been to the town’s Mayberry Days celebration, you have probably stepped inside.

Movies there are still a bargain at $6. And if you’ve never seen “GWTW” on the big screen, you owe yourself that experience. To quote Rhett Butler one more time: “It's an historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night.”