Early Nights at the Movies

With our outdoor movie series coming up on its 25th anniversary, and with the welcome introduction of our digital projection system this summer, we thought readers might like to know about the NCMA’s role in pioneering outdoor cinema in the Triangle. Joseph Covington, former director of the Museum’s Education Department and visionary implementer of the series, takes a look back.

The Museum Park Theater’s new digital projection equipment was hardly imaginable when we screened the first outdoor movies in the summer of 1988. They started as an experiment related to the planning for a hoped-for-someday outdoor theater complex that would include a screen and projection booth. The team of artist, landscape designer, and architects planning the theater wanted to know what the response might be, so we moved our movie series outdoors for one month.

A staff member knew of a large white canvas stored away somewhere, so we only had to work out how to frame it and haul it up against a wall of the Museum. It was weighted at the bottom with a heavy metal pipe to keep it straight. Projection was in the form of an old portable 16 mm projector installed in a van, projecting through the open doors. The sound had to run by cable from the van to speakers below the screen. It was a primitive arrangement, but we thought it would work.

For the program, that month in 1988, we observed an anniversary of the Warner Bros. Studio–I think it was the 65th. (We didn’t program outdoors again for a couple of years, if memory serves.) Among the four films was the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood. Just as the pirate ship stormed onto the scene, a genuine wind caught the screen and lifted it into the air. That metal pipe banged against glass doors behind it, giving those of us responsible for the jury-rigging a tense evening.

When outdoor films returned, it was with what seemed like the luxurious provision of a real perforated silver screen on a tightly engineered steel frame securely attached to the exterior of the Museum. It had been saved from one of the neighborhood theaters that closed, and redesigned by theater entrepreneur Bill Peebles.

Before the stage for live performances existed, movies were all we had for several years to animate the grounds. Eventually we expanded to every Friday and Saturday night from June through September. Audience size varied, but for repeat favorites such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the old red and blue 3-D glasses, we could count on a huge turnout.

The audience and the venue were proven, and the long run of outdoor movies since the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater opened has grown into a tradition.

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