Leon Levine wanted to honor his wife, so he had a 1,000-seat theater named for her

Leon and Sandra Levine stand at a podium at the 24th Annual Royal Society Dinner at Queens University.
Leon and Sandra Levine stand at a podium at the 24th Annual Royal Society Dinner at Queens University. Tricia Coyne

Sandra Levine is one of the Charlotte region’s most active philanthropists, yet she’s also among its least celebrated.

Most of her work on behalf of nonprofit and charitable causes is done behind the scenes, and is often overshadowed by her well-known husband, Family Dollar stores founder Leon Levine.

Queens University of Charlotte is seeking to change that, however, by naming a theater in her honor on its campus. The Sandra Levine Theatre will have 1,000 seats and will be the first high-profile public venue named for her in a region filled with sites named after her husband.

Surprisingly, Sandra Levine herself didn’t know about the plan until it was a done deal, despite being on the board of directors at Queens University. Her husband planned it as a surprise and managed to keep a lot of people quiet for weeks.

“I don’t know how he pulled it off,” Sandra Levine said in interview in early November. “He did a good job of keeping it a secret in this house. The first time I heard about it was at a Queens board meeting. I heard my name come up and thought I’d better start paying attention. My first reaction was: Did I hear that correctly?”

The Sandra Levine Theatre is part of a $22 million project to renovate and expand the university’s existing arts building into a new Gambrell Center for the Arts & Civic Engagement.

Leon Levine’s surprise for his wife included a $4 million gift to help with the renovation. To date, more than $16 million has been raised toward the $22 million goal. Philanthropist Sarah Belk Gambrell and her Gambrell Foundation provided the lead gift of $10 million.

The existing 63,000-square-foot building, located on the corner of the campus at Selwyn Avenue and Wellesley Avenue, has long been considered the “front porch” of the campus. It hosts hundreds of student and community events annually, which has prompted calls for expansion and renovation.

Queens University President Pamela Davies said the theater bearing Levine’s name will be more than just an arts facility. It will also serve as badly needed community space for civic discussion and debate “as the country continues to go through trying times.”

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“Sandra Levine knows this is an important building, as a center for civic engagement,” said Davies. “Her passion for this project preceded any discussion of it being named for her. That’s why Leon thought it would be a cool way to honor her. She believed in this project from the start and was one of its strongest advocates.”

Sandra Levine’s love for Queens University is partly because she took night classes at the school after moving to Charlotte in the ‘50s from Baltimore. She also has a love for theater that was instilled by her mother, Dorothy Ravitz, who was part of a semi-professional theater group in Baltimore. “If I wasn’t acting in a play, then I was going to a play to watch my mom,” Levine said.

Sandra Levine jumped into acting quickly after the family moved to Charlotte, including doing school plays at Myers Park High. There, during her senior year (1959), she won the school’s version of an Academy Award for being in a play about a high school girl who wanted to be on the football team. It was called “Time Out For Ginger.”

“I played the role of the mother,” she said with a laughing. “It was a very timely subject, even for today. It’s strange that 50 years later, we are still talking about the topic.”

Community leaders said the decision to name a grand scale facility after Sandra Levine is overdue. She has long played a key role in the work of the The Leon Levine Foundation, which is known nationwide for its work on behalf of educational and health initiatives, social needs, arts projects and Jewish causes.

Sandra Levine is a board member of the Leon Levine Foundation and her role includes helping to decide where the money goes. Her passion, she said, is helping low income children. “It breaks my heart to think that not all children have the same opportunities,” she said.

She has received some recognition for her work, including being inducted in the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010. A clinic inside the Levine Children’s Hospital is named in her honor, and a Jewish community center in Charlotte bears both her name and her husband’s.

Sandra Levine won’t say she has avoided the limelight, but believes it’s right that her husband gets most of the credit. After all, she said the fortune he amassed as head of the Family Dollar has funded the foundation’s more than $250 million in gifts awarded since 1980.

“He should be the one out there and if I’ve given the impression of avoiding the limelight, I’m happy it was noticed,” she says. “After all, this (foundation) is based on what he worked for and I would always feel that he’s the one who had this idea and made it so successful.”

Leon Levine said in a statement that he was compelled to make the $4 million donation to Queens after realizing how much the school meant to his wife, who often came home “sharing wonderful and touching stories about Queens students and the impact they make in Charlotte every day.”

Among those celebrating the theater being named in her honor is Michael Marsicano, CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that is occasionally involved in projects championed by the Leon Levine Foundation.

“The Levine name is synonymous with philanthropy across the Charlotte Region and beyond in large part due to the work and generosity of Sandra Levine,” said Marsicano. “She is a tireless advocate promoting worthy causes with a quiet resolve to make our community better. Her legacy of commitments to education, healthcare, religion, and the arts have made lasting impact for generations to come.”