The reborn Pioneer Theater opens in Manteo

By on May 26, 2023

The new look for the Pioneer Theater revives the old look and feel. (Photo by Kip Tabb/OBV)

Andy Griffith’s A Face in the Crowd being shown on May 26

The Pioneer Theater in downtown Manteo lives on. Saying “this is your night,” Michael Basnight, the representative of the Basnight and Hatchell families who bought the theater in February, introduced a gathering of community leaders and press to a renovated, but still very familiar Pioneer Theater on Thursday, May 25.

“Instead of modifying it to a theater with little push-button recliners and this and that, you lose the atmosphere of the Pioneer,” Basnight said. “So we decided to keep it as it was, maybe with some enhancements. Much like Manteo. You don’t want to change it. You just want to show off what’s already good about it.”

The theater will be open for business on Friday, May 26 with a showing of Andy Griffith’s memorable dramatic performance in the classic 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd.

In December of last year, when Buddy Creef announced that the theater that had been owned and managed by the Creef family since 1918 would be closing, the future of a signature piece of downtown Manteo was in doubt. But in February, a partnership of the Basnight and Hatchell families came to gather to purchase the building and begin the process of bringing the theater back to life.

In his opening remarks, Basnight emphasized that the project represented a community effort. He thanked the Town of Manteo, specifically pointing to the work of Michele Bunce, Manteo’s Program Manager for Community and Economic Development.

The list went beyond the town. Sitting on the stage and almost ready to be placed back on top of the building, was a re-creation of the original vertical sign that sat atop the building.

“We’re rebuilding the picture…that famous marquee and Pioneer vertical sign,” Basnight said.

The sign was a visual reminder of what the Pioneer Theater would have looked like when it first opened at its current location in 1934. But to get it so far along so quickly, Basnight explained, took a real community commitment.

The ownership group went to design studios and asked if they could recreate the old vertical sign, but they were told it would take many months. Basnight then asked a former college roommate, Ricky Scarborough, owner of Scarborough Boatworks, if he could help and he sent Joey Andrasen and Brit Ricketts to work on it.

“We thought we could do it,” Andrasen said. “We looked at a bunch of old black and white pictures. It took a couple of weeks. We still have a week or so to go on paint work.”

Basnight also recounted how he asked former Manteo Mayor and retired architect John Wilson what he thought of the project.

“We’re asking him, ‘…can you do anything?’ Three hours later, he’s got a rendering. Two days later, the entire new facade of the Pioneer, and it matches perfectly,” he said.

Some of the changes in the building are immediately apparent. Gone is the Elizabethan exterior that had been part of a town-wide marketing campaign commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Lost Colony. It has been replaced by an exterior that is much closer to the original.

A very close facsimile of the original marquee now runs around the exterior—and there too, was a story.

“A man named Jose Rubio created that marquee in one day,” Basnight said.

Told by a passerby that the material he was using would crack when it was bent around the outside, Rubio waited for the man to leave and then mentioned he had once worked for legendary boatbuilder Buddy Davis, according to Basnight.

“‘I know how to work with this stuff,’” he told Basnight. “So within minutes, he’s got it wrapped around perfectly.”

Inside there are some changes. There is a lounge with drinks available in the back of the theater. But Basnight noted that there would be limits on when it was open. Before a film, but certainly not during children’s films and probably not during a film since it could be distracting if people are getting up and moving around.

Something that has been retained is the sound quality of the theater.

Michael Basnight speaking in front of the almost completed Pioneer Theater vertical sign. “Live Music” will be lit when there is live music on stage. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb/OBV)

Although the Pioneer will be available for a number of different uses—plays, live music, school if they need it—movies are at the heart of what the theater brings to the community.

Basnight explained that first run movies will not be a part of the lineup. He used the just released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 as an example of what happens.

“We would have to play that three times a day for six straight weeks…But at the same time, there’s no comedy night, there’s no music, there’s nothing except the movie],” he said.

Basnight then addressed the first classic movie to be screened in the re-opened theater.

“The perfect movie to start off with [is] Face in the Crowd…He [Griffith] loved this theater,” Basnight declared. He also announced that the Humphrey Bogart classic Casablanca will be shown Friday, June 2.

“We want to introduce your children, the next generation, to these movies that were Oscar winners from the 50s or 60s or 40s,” he said.

As those classic films are shown, the theater will be as close to the original setting as possible—a place where the scent of freshly popped popcorn still fills the air in the lobby and the theater is a dark hallway filled with the magic of the silver screen.

“We’re trying to create a vision. It feels good,” Basnight said. “And it felt good seeing all of you walking in here tonight.”

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  • Bill

    Fantastic!! For anyone who has never see “A Face In The Crowd”, be ye warned – Griffith’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is a mean, snarling scenery-chewing SOB, and in my humble opinion, the best acting he ever did. A powerhouse of a a film and a searing indictment of the Cult of Personality. Hang on because it’s a wild ride!

    Friday, May 26 @ 5:41 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Totally agree, Andy kills it in a totally out-of-character role. Given that the film was made in 1957, it’s pretty darn prescient.

    Friday, May 26 @ 7:11 pm
  • David "Mac" McLay

    Bravo, Messrs. Basnight & Hatchell, & Families, for preserving and re-dedicating this historic Manteo landmark!
    (“No Time For Sergeants” is another Andy Griffiths film that will be enjoyed by patrons at the Pioneer Theatre.)
    Best regards from Florida.

    Friday, May 26 @ 6:30 pm
  • sherry smith

    Is that a saxophone on the stage???
    Did someone play????????

    Friday, May 26 @ 7:08 pm
  • Glenn

    Bravo! Can’t wait to go with my family! Thanks for bringing the old theater back to life!

    Saturday, May 27 @ 9:07 am
  • Kip Tabb

    Sherry Smith–The sax belonged to Sam on Sax. She was outstanding on the tenor sax as well as a vocalist. It was a tough call on my part to not include her, but I did not want to lose focus on the story of the Pioneer Theater, the community involvement that recreated it, and where it’s going now.

    Saturday, May 27 @ 11:53 am
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