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Turnage Theater in Washington is a mine of gems

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The Arts of the Pamlico arts council is housed in the Turnage Theater in Washington. It offers many opportunities for young and old people seeking an artistic outlet. A full schedule of events can be found on their website.


Deborah Griffin
Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

WASHINGTON, N.C. — The Turnage Theater is like a North Carolina gem quarry waiting to be mined.

A cornucopia of treasures lies within its doors, appealing to the artist in everyone — from the youngest creator to the more seasoned professional.

Built in 1913, it is located one block from the iconic Pamlico River waterfront in Washington, N.C.

The multimillion-dollar restored structure is headquarters for the region’s state-designated arts council, the Arts of the Pamlico, which serves a vibrant connector for eastern N.C. with cultural events and activities.

The arts council’s calendar is jam-packed each month with everything from acting camps to professional acts, music workshops to concerts and festivals, a plethora of art classes to a variety of exhibitions.

Anarray of programs are available throughout the year including art walks, comedy performances, dance classes, Broadway theater, community and youth theater performances, as well as modern and classic movies.

“We have something every week, almost every day,” said Debra Torrence, executive director for the Arts of the Pamlico. “Its pretty busy. At least a dozen art groups are able to use the building free of charge.”

The arts council sponsors several music festivals, one of which is Sundays in the Park at nearby Festival Park on Washington's waterfront during the summer.

The council also host music acts and stage performances, both big names and smaller acts, on the renovated stage in the palace-style theater, which has 432-seats and has been restored to its former glory.

A sampling upcoming events includes calls for entries for an annual photography competition, and two art exhibits which open on Oct. 10. In November and December the council will host its 55th fine arts show.

East Carolina University takes advantage of the close-by theater for some of its performing art and productions.

“We are just a short drive from Greenville and we are now home to the ECU Opera Theater,” Torrence said. “They perform here twice a year.”

Also, The ECU School of Theatre and Dance's Theatre for Youth stages its Storybook Theatre at the Turnage.

“And ECU’s Film and Media Production School of Art have their senior thesis showcases here,” Torrence said.

The ECU School of Theatre and Dance will perform the “Turn of the Screw” at 7:30 p.m., on Oct. 17, 18 and 19.

On Nov. 22-24, The ECU School of Music’s Opera Theater will present “Hansel and Gretel at 7:30 p.m.

“We have an arts and education career fair every year and we have ECU faculty to come," Torrence said. "We had 130 kids from Beaufort County last year that are interested in the arts as a career. The kids get to meet painters, documentary producers, faculty and see that there is actually an education and career in the arts you can go into.

“One of our next steps is to move on becoming a performing arts academy. We will be working to offer credit-bearing classes,” Torrence said.

The Turnage is home to three art galleries which feature revolving displays showcasing local, regional and national artisans and crafters.

The theater itself pays homage to times gone by.

The front of the building was first used as a bakery and a shoe store in the early 1900’s and the original theater, a vaudeville playhouse, was located on the second floor.

Research indicated Roy Rogers and Red Skelton were some of the famous actors to perform here.

During the 1920s, as silent movies became popular, the theater began showing them on a regular basis.

In 1927, with the advent of films with sound, the theater began offering these “modern” movies. But since the theater was located on Main Street, the din from the outside traffic made hearing the movies almost impossible.

As a result, in the mid-1930s, a man named C.A. Turnage built a second theater in the rear of the building, away from the street noise.

“The Turnage is a rarity in the United States in that we have two theaters — one is our working palace theater and the other is a vaudeville and silent movie theater, which is above your head when you walk in the main door,” Torrence said.

Because of forward-thinking, concerned residents, the Turnage has been saved from destruction more than once and now is a national historic site.

Things were touch-and-go for a while though.

After being open for more than 60 years, the modernization of movie theaters caused the Turnage to shutter its doors in 1978. The building quickly fell into disrepair.

A group of preservationists created the Turnage Theaters Foundation and successfully renovated the structure during the mid-1990s and early 2000s but had to close the theater again in 2011, due to the recession.

The $4 million cost of renovations left the foundation bankrupt and the theater's roof never was fully restored.

This omission has now become a critical situation.

When the arts council bought the building out of bankruptcy in 2013, it discover multiple leaks had caused damage through the years. The upstairs vaudeville theater was in danger of being lost forever.

When a construction evaluation revealed the theater’s roof needed be replaced this year, Arts of the Pamlico kicked off a Raise the Roof campaign to find the funds for restoration.

The Fox Theatre Institute in Georgia, a program that offers financial support for restoration of historical theaters, kicked off the campaign with a $50,000 grant — the first time the nonprofit has granted an out-of-state donation.

The Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation in Greenville donated $75,000. If the theatre is able to match the grant, they will donate an additional $75,000.

The theater also received $50,000 from the City of Washington and it has received money from fundraisers and private donations, as well as National Historic Preservation Funds.

According to Torrence, Arts of the Pamlico still needs to raise about $200,000.

Those interested in donating can visit www.artsofthepamlico.org/raise-the-roof/.

“We live on grants and private donations,” Torrence said.

The historic theater is located at 150 Main Street in Washington. The website, www.artsofthepamlico.org lists their calendar of events. The Arts of the Pamilco can be found on Facebook under the same name.