By John Harper / Photos by Lori Douglas
January 1, 2021
To paraphrase the incomparable Paul McCartney, entering the Pioneer Theater in downtown Manteo takes you back to yesteryear when all our
troubles seemed so far away.
The 102-year-old theater has survived floods, fires and recessions. It has debuted movies from local stars and faced modern challenges, like the
move from film to digital and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. But movies are still showing in this vintage, family-owned theater.
“It’s my favorite place on the Outer Banks,” says Beth Pallett, 46, a wedding planner who lives in Manteo. “I feel like I’m stepping back in time. … It’s
What makes it that way? For starters, there’s the street-front wooden ticket booth (cash only) and candy that sells for $2. Not to mention the $7 admission price. And then there’s the popcorn, served buttered or plain in a red-and-white box for a couple bucks. Owner-manager Herbert A. “Buddy” Creef III guarantees it’s “the best in the world.”
“I’ve never had anybody argue that,” says Creef, 53, of Manteo, who took over the family-owned theater in 2012 after his father, H.A. Creef, died. He can be seen most nights standing barefoot at the front door greeting guests, another old-school touch.
For the uninitiated, Ye Olde Pioneer Theater has been a cultural and social hub since it opened in 1918 on Sir Walter Raleigh Street in a building that also housed the post office. Silent films were the order of the day then, with two Manteo women, Lucy Midgett and Naomi Wescott, often providing piano accompaniment.
It opened in its present home on Budleigh Street in 1934. The beige brick building boasted a marquee, but it came down in 1970 when Tudor-style paneling was attached to the theater’s facade to reflect the strong English heritage on Roanoke Island. It escaped major fires in downtown Manteo in 1932 and 1937 and has survived significant flooding events, most recently from Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Michael in 2018. Not to mention one or two recessions since 1918.
Creef’s great-grandfather, George Washington Creef, was the theater’s first owner. His grandfather, Herbert. A. Creef Sr. and father Herbert A. “H.A.” Creef Jr. were also Manteo movie men. Creef’s aunt, Audrey Hawkins, has worked the box office for three decades.
“I grew up in the theater,” Creef says. “So, it’s ingrained in me.”
Though there are no official records, the Pioneer Theater may be one of the oldest family-owned movie houses in the country. And until 1973, it was the only movie theater in Dare County, so for many years Outer Banks residents headed to downtown Manteo for a big night out. Westerns, war pictures, comedies, dramas and love stories have graced the theater’s single screen. Some were B movies; others were blockbusters.
Bobby Owens, 88, Manteo’s mayor, remembers seeing the classic 1940 film “Gone With the Wind” at the iconic theater. “I think it was a Sunday matinee,” he says. “It was a big deal.”
In 1957, Andy Griffith, who lived on Roanoke Island, was in the theater for the opening of his debut film, “A Face in the Crowd.” The title was displayed boldly on the theater’s marquee for passersby to see. Griffith, a hometown hero, became well known for his eponymous TV program, “The Andy Griffith Show,” which aired from 1960 to 1968.
Thousands of movie fans have flocked to the theater for first dates, to hang out with friends or enjoy a night out without the kids. It’s been the ultimate escape room for four generations.
“You just went to the Pioneer on Friday night,” says former mayor and restaurant owner Jamie Daniels, 50, who grew up in Manns Harbor. “I just can’t imagine life without it.”
Though the Pioneer’s exterior and interior have changed little over the last few decades, the surround sound was upgraded in 2012. It was also the year the 35-millimeter film projector, which often stopped during a showing, was replaced with a digital system. And though competition has increased over the years with a multiplex opening in Kill Devil Hills, the old-school movie house just off the Manteo waterfront still has a steady stream of loyal fans.
Geno Seay, 51, of Manteo says his love affair with the Pioneer Theater began in 2015. “I was just in awe,” he says of that introduction. Seay estimates he’s seen more than 200 movies at the theater since then. “I like it because you don’t have to take a second mortgage on your house to go to the movies,” he says.
Last year, Creef hosted an opening night party for the premiere of “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a road-trip style movie co-staring Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf and set on the Outer Banks. Tyler Nilson, who grew up in Colington, and Michael Schwartz, the film’s writers and directors, were on hand for a question-and-answer session.
“The Creef family just cares about serving the community,” says Paul South, 63, a former staff reporter in the North Carolina bureau of The Virginian-Pilot who lived in Manteo from 1994 to 2002. “The place is an institution.”
Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic forced the theater to close in March and for seven months, Creef and his associate Jason Whitley, sold street-side concessions. The familiar and comforting aroma of freshly popped popcorn filled the air on lower Budleigh Street for a couple hours every night.
Since reopening in October, Creef has been following the governor’s guidelines, limiting seating in the 260-chair theater, requiring masks and changing the start time from the customary 8 p.m. to 7. Since Hollywood has released few new movies to theaters, Creef has featured classics from the last five decades, including “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “Frozen” and “Ghostbusters.” That will continue indefinitely as long as restrictions allow, with the exception of “Wonder Woman 1984,” which debuted over Christmas and runs through Jan. 14.
“It’s peace, love and popcorn,” Creef says.
MOVIES AND MEMORIES
“Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion (in 1971’s ‘The Last Picture Show’) standing
up against bullies. He was the bomb.” – John Railey, 59, High Point
“I had my first date there ever in 1986. I was a freshman and he was a junior at Manteo High School and my parents said I needed a chaperone. My two girlfriends sat behind me giggling. When I got up to get a drink, I saw my dad sitting in the back seat of the theater.” – Colleen Russo, Kitty Hawk
“Calling the theater every week to hear the recording of the owner (H.A. Creef, Jr.) reading what was playing, He always gave more information
than (any) other theater tape would.” – Jenn Risko, Seattle, Washington
“In middle school, we all walked there to see ‘Ghandi’ (1982). It was a
great experience.” – Kimberly Tomlin Wentz, Colington
“’Out of Africa’ (1985) was the most memorable. I was working for (longtime Manteo residents) Malcolm and Susan Fearing. The look on Malcolm’s face when H.A. announced, ‘Intermission.’” – Bonnie Lang Hudgins, Manteo
WHAT: Pioneer Theater
WHERE: 113 Budleigh St., Manteo
INFO: 252-473-2216, Facebook page