From a grateful community, an ode to the Pioneer

By on December 15, 2022

H. A. Creef outside Pioneer Theatre. (Drew Wilson Collection OBHC)
Andy Griffith, Face in the Crowd at the Pioneer, 7 16 1957. (Aycock Brown Papers,-OBHC)
Pioneer Theatre floods, Hurricane Donna, 1960 (Charles Evans Collection,-OBHC)
Pioneer Theatre (David Stick Papers,-OBHC)
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From the famous popcorn to the first nervous kisses

For those of us who grew up on the Outer Banks, the Pioneer Theater in Manteo was more than just a place to see movies. It was a place of firsts — our first taste of independence, our first handholding, our first dates, our first kiss.

Every Friday, we’d get home from school, throw off our backpack, call 473-2216, and listen to H.A. Creef recite his famous weekly recording, revealing what the new movie would be, complete with a full description so there were no surprises.

“I have hundreds of memories from there, but this is a true confession,” declares Allie Clupper, who grew up in a house right behind the theater. “When I first left to go to college and I was so homesick for Manteo, I would call the Pioneer to listen to the recording. ‘You’ve reached the Pioneer Theater, on Budleigh Street, in downtown Manteo. We have one movie tonight, starting at 8 pm…’” It was, she recalled, “so comforting.”

No matter what generation you belong to, if you grew up in Manteo you remember walking to the Pioneer Theater on a Friday night, wondering who was going to be there and who you were going to end up sitting next to.

Hannah McOwen Forslund remembers the “Darwin’s Crew” in the 90s. The Darwin’s Crew was a group of parents who would take their kids for an early dinner at Darwin’s Cafe in downtown Manteo and then promptly send them off at 7:45 to walk around the corner to the movies, so the kids and the parents could each enjoy a couple hours of their own version of freedom.

“At about 7:45, all us kids would be given five dollars each to head to the movies,” recalls Forslund. “It didn’t matter what movie was playing…we all went. The older kids were in charge of the younger kids until we made that half a block walk to the theater…from there everyone knew the rules! Our five dollars covered the three-dollar entry, and the other two dollars got us all the snacks our little selves could handle.”

The concession line was filled with children carefully calculating how they could get the most out of their allotted two dollars. Should they get more bang for their buck with the 25 and 10 cent candies or blow it all on one of the good kinds — some of the favorites being their famous candy cigarettes, Airheads and Warheads.

And no one went to the Pioneer Theater without ordering the signature drink, an Around the World, which consisted of a squirt of each kind of fountain soda, typically slurped through a Sour Pour Straw. But the real star was the popcorn. It was so popular, in fact, that due to demand, Buddy Creef, H.A.’s son, who continued to run the theater after H.A. passed in 2012, opened up just to sell popcorn during the pandemic.

“That brought me so much joy and comfort during COVID,” recalls India Murray, who grew up attending the theater. “When I could roll up on my bike with friends and get an Around the World and buttered popcorn [brought] out to me on the street by Mr. Buddy, who was a great slice of normal.”

As for the parents like the Darwin’s Crew, who used the theater as their weekend babysitter, they knew their children were in good hands. Lucy Minetree Wallace remembers dropping off her daughter there each Friday evening and H.A. Creef always taking the time to come out and talk to her. “He would come up to my car and say, ‘She’ll be fine mama, don’t worry about her.’ And I didn’t because I knew Mr. Creef would look out for her safety.”

“We had absolutely no worries that all the little kids were perfectly safe since Mr. H.A. ran a tight ship and considered all of them kind of his,” adds Beth Story, Forslund’s mom.

And run a tight ship he did. Getting shushed by H.A. Creef was a rite of passage in Manteo — a mistake that you did not want to make twice. And the adults didn’t want to get caught either.

H.A. Creef had a whole system for how he managed the kids (and adults) in the theater. The kids would sit in the front row so he could keep the closest eye on them, and the older you got, the farther back you got to sit. And then the first dates started.

It was the site of “every single Manteo Middle Schooler’s first date,” laughs Emiline Whidbee who grew up right around the corner. Chris Hannant, local videographer, recalls being pressured by friends to hold hands on his first date, a frequent occurrence for the middle school section, with lots of giggling in between H.A. ‘s patrols down the aisle.

“Finally I did, but then [I] was nervous she could feel my sweaty palms. Such sweet memories,” says Hannant, with a laugh.

Forslund’s younger brother, Holden McOwen, remembers that his first date there didn’t quite go as planned either. “Five minutes in I [accidently] spilled an entire drink on her. She cried and left,” recalls McOwen.

Barbara Epperly recalls going on a date there in the 70s and bringing in a whole pizza to eat for dinner. “A large pepperoni. The 70s was a great time to be a young adult. Just walked in with it. Also, four friends went, four movie tickets, four popcorn, four drinks, and change from a twenty-dollar bill,” she recounts.

There are even a few who remember going to movie at the Pioneer as early as the 50s.

“My grandfather and I never missed a cowboy movie,” says Diana Ward Ramsey. In those days it was run by Buddy’s great-grandfather, George Washington Creef, Jr., who started the theater in 1918 playing silent films, and is a local legend in his own right.

No matter if it was embarrassing memory of your first date, a loving memory with your family, or one of the many field trips from Manteo Elementary walking over with your entire grade to see a showing, for many former residents, the Pioneer is the first place they go when they come home to visit and the last place they go before they leave.

“[My daughter] and I went to The Pioneer the night before we moved. I remember walking home, the streetlight dappled through the trees. I thought ‘I will never live anywhere this wonderful again, and I haven’t,’” says Sarah Askew Massey, who moved away when her daughter was still young.

These sentiments may help explain why Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz decided to bring the 2019 premiere of their movie Peanut Butter Falcon, an ode to the Outer Banks, to the Pioneer as opposed to somewhere in Hollywood.

An Outer Banks native and Manteo High alum, Nilson said at that time that the film was “an Outer Banks story” and that he planned to have “a raucous OBX premier where no one wears shoes.”

The memories also help explain why the community got together to raise money to replace the theater’s projector when it broke in January of 2021. Still feeling the effects of the pandemic, the cost was too much for the theater to handle. Within a few days of the announcement of the issue, the community raised over $16,000 to replace it.

Buddy Creef, seen as a friend, brother, and uncle to many, and who kids now lovingly refer to as “Mr. Buddy from the movie theater,” put out this statement when after the community chipped in for the projector.

“I am so awestruck and humbled by the massive outpouring of support and love for the Pioneer Theater. When I woke up this morning and saw the amount of love you have sent us, I cried like a baby,” he wrote to the community at the time, signed with his signature, “Peace, love and popcorn.”

As for what happens next, Creef isn’t answering those questions right now. But the Voice did squeeze some answers out of him.

Asked if his first date was at the Pioneer, he responded: “Would you have gone on your first date where your parents operate a business?”

And he has a one-word answer when questioned about the secret ingredient that made the popcorn so good.


SEE ALSO: After more than a century, the curtain comes down at the Pioneer Theater.





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Time: Feb 8, 2023 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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  • Bill

    It was great when they played “A Face In The Crowd” with Andy Griffith a couple of years ago. There’s a photo of him on a ladder in front of the Theatre in 1957 when it was first released.

    Thursday, Dec 15 @ 12:58 pm

    it was a tragic day: Dec. 7, 1941. My friend Van Morgan and I was on the way home after the movie at the theatre. I stopped at Van’s house on the way to my house, just out of town and Mr. Morgan said “Alvah you had better go on home, something terrible has happened.
    I did and found my dad (Alvah Sr. with his good ear to the radio, just in time to learn ” the Japs have bombed Pear Harbor”
    This set in motion a entirely new worlld for Manteo and the entire coastal area. Our little area was about to change BIG TIME

    Thursday, Dec 15 @ 8:01 pm
  • Roy Wescott, Jr

    On January 29th, I will turn 80 years old. The pioneer theater was the core of mine and others throughout their early and especially their teen years. My first visit, to the best of my memoriy, was in 1948 at the age of 5. The price of a movie was 20 cents under 12 and 40 cents over 12. Popcorn was 10 cent, a drink 5 cent, and most candies were 5 cent with a few 10 cent. When I was 6 years old my mother worked at then Fearing’s restaurant in the evenings. She would drop me off to Ben Creef, pay the 20 cent and Ben would seat me. Ben was such a wonderful person. I would sit through 1 1/2 movies and then my mother would pick me up. A big memory for me was when I was dropped off to a movie. I couldn’t read yet, so the word Frankenstein meant nothing to me. However, when the movie started, it started with this loud and scary music and in a few seconds I was running up the aisle screaming for Ben. In MYF, during a discussion of the importance of education, a kid spoke up saying George Creef graduated from college and he pops popcorn.

    Friday, Dec 16 @ 2:12 pm