Showtime for Downtown Cary

Dating to 1946, the revitalized theater “The Cary” will celebrate
its 5th anniversary in February.

Story by Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Photos by Scott Misner

Photo by Scott Misner

Photo by Scott Misner

Remember when the cost of a movie ticket was just 10 cents and a quarter would buy both a drink and popcorn at the concession stand? Not many of us do, but this peek into the past offers a look back to the beginning of The Cary Theater.

The art house theater, commonly called The Cary, is one of many attractions downtown—but at one time, it was the spot for family entertainment. After 70 years and several incarnations, it is once again a thriving destination bringing people together to enjoy a full cinematic experience.

Cary residents once gathered downtown on Friday nights to watch movies projected onto the side of buildings, while some rode the train to Raleigh’s Ambassador Theater. That changed in 1946 when Paul Chandler opened Cary’s first indoor theater on East Chatham Street.

The venue hosted live performances as well as Westerns. Folks would pack the theater to watch Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and William Boyd ride across the screen. Serial films were also popular, enticing moviegoers to come back every Saturday for the next installment. Western film star Lash LaRue and music legend Patsy Cline performed live, and rumor has it country music pioneer Ernest Tubb also played there.

Stories abound from the theater’s early years including tales of romance blossoming in the back row, Saturday night talent shows, and the patron who regularly shelled peas and butterbeans in the front row. With the advent of television, attendance dwindled and the theater closed in 1960. Over the years a clothing store, recording studio, and auto parts store occupied the building.

Photo courtesy of the Town of Cary

Photo courtesy of the Town of Cary

The Marquee Comes Full Circle

In 2011, the Town of Cary purchased the property as part of the downtown revitalization plan. A facade added to hide the fact that it was a theater was removed, revealing the bones of the original theater. An annex was added to modernize the building and also allow space for tenants, further encouraging downtown business renewal. The renovated theater opened in February 2014, and immediately became a lively place bringing people together downtown. Last year, the theater welcomed more than 36,000 visitors.

Joy Ennis, operations and program supervisor with the Town of Cary Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources explains the importance of preserving the building’s history. “It’s really important to remember where your roots are and remember the history of where you came from,” Ennis says. Much like family history, citizens should know the history of places, too.

In 2018, the theater debuted an event called BEYOND: The Film Festival. Throughout the year, various themed series are screened including Environmentally Speaking: Green Movie genres; Cary Youth Video Project; and Zombiepalooza, which features local filmmakers’ zombie-laden films.

However, The Cary is providing more than entertainment. It is creating community by bringing people together for shared experiences and stimulating discussions after select films. The conversations after the films, conducted in a Q&A format, are, Ennis says, “a key part of the art of film,” as well as a distinguishing aspect of this theater experience.

The theater also gives back to the community with programs like The Cary Gives Back. Each quarter, The Cary partners with a local nonprofit and donates a portion of a film’s proceeds to the charity. The theater also supports local filmmakers with special screenings and Rough Cuts Review, a time for filmakers to get feedback on their works-in-progress. And in 2018, the theater hosted The New York Dog and Cat Film Festivals, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting local animal rescues.

“We want visitors to feel like this is a place where they can come, take off their shoes, sit back, and have a good time,” Ennis says. With a variety of independent, classic, and documentary films, in addition to live comedy and live music, there’s something for everyone.

The Cary aspires to be a place where folks can learn, interact with friends and strangers, be entertained, relax, and take part in building community. That’s a big goal for a small venue, but Ennis assures, “We’re tiny, but we’re mighty.”

February 22nd will mark the fifth anniversary of The Cary Theater. Visit the website at for celebration events.