providing entertainment for Johnston County since 1935
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 spent $50,000 to build Downtown Smithfield’s second movie theatre, which was located across the street from its first, also owned by Howell.
The Howell Theatre provided seating in one auditorium for 900, including 650 on the main floor, and 250 in the balcony. In its article about the theatre’s opening, The Smithfield Herald noted, “A section of the balcony will be reserved for the colored population.” 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 maline 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
a world premiere
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.
Nearly Destroyed by fire
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, was contained thanks in part to the building’s “good fire proof walls,” according to then Assistant Fire Chief Hugh C. Talton. The cause of the fire was not determined. Seventeen of Smithfield’s volunteer firemen fought the flames for six hours assisted by six or seven firemen from Selma. In extinguishing the blaze, the theater was doused with approximately 150,000 gallons of water. Although only the structure’s walls remained standing, H.P. Howell and his son, Rudolph (Rudy), who had become vice president of the Howells’ theater business planned to rebuild immediately.
New Look, changing times
In May 1974, the Howell underwent approximately $50,000 of 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. Outside, they installed a porcelainized canopy according to the Smithfield Plan.
At some time during in the 1970’s, the theater was divided into twin theaters, Howell I and Howell II, doubling the number of movies that could be shown.
1980 - 1986
Passing the torch
In 1980, when H.P. Howell passed away, Rudy and his sister Carolyn Howell Brink, inherited the theatre business.
On Thursday, January 6, 1981, when Carolyn wished to leave the business, the siblings sold the business with twenty theatres (five in Johnston County and fifteen others in Clinton, Ahoskie, Zebulon, Charlotte, Durham, and Lynchburg, Virginia) to Multi-Cinema Theaters Limited, a Charlotte company of which Rudy served as Chairman of the Board and owned a majority stake.
Unhappy with semi-retirement and wanting to ensure the continued presence of a theatre in Downtown Smithfield, Rudy Howell repurchased the Howell Theatre (as well as the theatres in Selma, Clinton, and Ahoskie) on December 31, 1986. “The theatre here has my name on it. It’s got my daddy’s name on it. I have a lot of pride in Downtown Smithfield“, he said. By that time, they had enlarged the lobby to make more room for concessions, and were installing a Dolby stereo system.
1990 - 1999
End of a Legacy
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, in the month he turned 80, Rudy Howell old Johnston County’s only theatre at the time to Mickey Buffaloe. The Downtown Smithfield theatre was valued at $500,000 at the time, with all four of Howell’s theatres valued at a combined $1.9 million.
2000 - 2017
New Owners, Challenges
Under Buffaloe’s ownership, the Howell Theatre faced competition for the first time in many years when Smithfeld 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 2010, 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.
2017 - Present
Our Next chapter
The Howell Theatre was purchased in May 2017 by Bill Johnson.