The Howell Theatre opened to much fanfare on Monday, February 4, 1935 with a special ceremony between showings of The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and Evelyn Laye. Owner and operator Henry Paul (H.P.) Howell (Pictured Below) spent $50,000 to build Downtown Smithfield's second movie theatre at the time, which located across the street from its first, also owned by Howell. The Lyric was Downtown Smithfield's first movie theatre when it opened in 1918, and by 1922, its name had changed to The Victory.
The Howell Theatre provided seating in one auditorium for 900, including 650 on the main floor, and 250 in the balcony. The building's art deco facade was made of brick and stucco with a marquee and exterior ticket sales booth. The interior featured velvet draperies, a gold malin screen curtain, and a large stage. The theatre was a destination for moviegoers, but also for people wanting to see live entertainment, including jugglers, dancers, and live bands. The era of the 1930s was a golden one for movies, but Howell was sensitive to the economic position of Johnston County's people following the Great Depression, developing a bus route to provide transportation for those who didn't have it. During the same time, in a stroke of marketing genius, Howell operated a jackpot which could reach as much as $500. Thousands of names were in the pot, and if the person whose name was called was not at the movie, more money was added. The Howell Theatre also broadcast the popular radio program, "Amos and Andy," prior to the house lights being dimmed to start the movies.
In August 1949, the Howell Theatre hosted the world premiere of The Great Sinner, starring Smithfield native Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. Tickets were by invitation only, with the show opening in New York City the following day. Gardner was unable to attend, but she sent Howell a signed photograph, now on display at the Ava Gardner Museum, of her with the tickets.
At approximately 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 24, 1960, the Howell Theatre was gutted by a fire, with a reported loss of $75,000. The fire, which threatened the entire block of Downtown Smithfield businesses for some time, was contained thanks in part to the building's "good fire proof walls," according to then Assistant Fire Chief Hugh C. Talton. Although only the structure's walls remained standing, H.P. Howell and his son, Rudolph (Rudy), who had become vice president of the Howells' theatre businesses (they owned twelve throughout eastern North Carolina), planned to rebuild immediately, using the original walls that remained.
In May 1974, the Howell underwent renovations to include the installation of new carpet and draperies downstairs and 300 new "lounger rocking chairs," a reduction of approximately 180 seats downstairs to accommodate the larger, more comfortable chairs. Upstairs, the 260 seats were reupholstered and new flooring was installed. Additional improvements were the installation of a new ladies' lounge, a remodeled concession stand, air conditioning for the lobby, and a new automated projector with gas-vapor bulbs replacing old carbon-arc lamps. At some time in the 70s, the theatre split into twin theatres, Howell I and Howell II, doubling the number of movies that could be shown.
In 1980, when H.P. Howell passed away, Rudy and his sister Carolyn Howell Brink, inherited the theatre business. Unhappy with semi-retirement and wanting to ensure the continued presence of a theatre in Downtown Smithfield, Rudy Howell became sole owner of the Howell Theatre (as well as the theatres in Selma, Clinton, and Ahoskie) on December 31, 1986. By that time, they had enlarged the lobby to make more room for concessions, and were installing a Dolby stereo system.
In 1990, the theatre made additional renovations to the lobby and concession area and added two more screens, giving them the ability to show four movies nightly. Howell expected this move would increase business by as much as 75%.
Rudy Howell had grown up with the theatre, and recalled that he walked "up and down the aisles hawking popcorn and peanuts. Popcorn was five cents in a bag then, and peanut in the hull were two bags for a nickel."
The most attended film to ever play at a Howell theatre in Johnston County was Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog in 1959, which brought in 3,000 people on opening day and 10,000 by the end of its first week. In April of 1999, when he turned 80, Rudy Howell sold Johnston County's only theatre at the time to Mickey Buffaloe.
Under Buffaloe's ownership, the Howell Theatre faced competition for the first time in many years when Smithfield Cinemas opened in 2004, and Buffaloe chose to change the theatre to second-run with more affordable ticket prices, making it the best entertainment value in Smithfield. In December 2009, Buffaloe sold the theatre to Chuck and Amy Kirkman. Under the Kirkmans' ownership, the theatre's sound system and seating were updated again, and film reels were abandoned with the installation of new digital projectors.
In April 2017, The Howell Theatre was purchased by its current owners, Bill & Leanne Johnson of Meadow. We are committed to offering quality entertainment, at a price point that any family can afford. During the Covid19 pandemic of 2020, we spent the time doing much needed renovations on the lobby, bathrooms, kitchenette, and balcony theatres.
The Howell Theatre is one of the oldest continually operated theatres in North Carolina and the United States. Come and be part of history and the Howell Theatre family.