KANNAPOLIS – Sitting along W. 1st Street in downtown Kannapolis, the Gem Theatre has been a local treasure for nearly 83 years.
Finally, the theatre is being recognized nationally, deemed worthy of preservation for its historical significance.
The Gem Theatre will be added to the National Register of Historic Places, making it the 29th in Cabarrus County.
“I think the people of Kannapolis, through the surveys that the city has conducted, have already voiced that,” said Cabarrus County Commissioner Steve Morris, who owns the Gem Theater. “It’s just nice to have that official designation that just confirms what we all already thought, and gives us a little bit of bragging rights about how we’ve been here for 83 years.”
The National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.
There are currently 95,000 properties which have been identified as historic and worthy of preservation in the U.S. Being listed on the National Register is the first step in obtaining historic tax credits which may help fund future improvements to the theatre.
The City of Kannapolis also announced it will invest $1.5 million for renovations.
“The Gem theatre is a huge part of our city’s history and heritage,” Kannapolis City Council member Ryan Dayvault said. “It has stood the test of time and has remained the one constant that our community has leaned on in an ever-changing city. It is vitally important that the Gem remain a centerpiece to our most historic block in downtown.”
While the City of Kannapolis worked to garner the historic register designation the city staff surveyed residents and completed assessments on the Gem Theatre structure. Over 4,000 people responded to the survey and asked for improved bathrooms and seating.
The building assessment brought to light the fact that a new roof and new HVAC systems were needed. The City invested in a new roof in the spring of this year. The new HVAC systems and handicap bathrooms will be added this winter.
Additional improvements to the theatre lobby and seating areas will be in future improvement phases when funding is available.
“As a Kannapolis native, when I see the neon Gem Theatre sign on at night, there is a sense of happiness and contentment that I feel knowing that my grandparents and many of our families spent a lot of evenings there, and now current citizens get to enjoy such a national treasure,” Dayvault said. “A lot of people thought it was already on the historic register but it wasn’t. If any building deserves to be on that prestigious list it is the Gem Theatre.”
The Gem Theatre property was part of the City of Kannapolis’ purchase of downtown property in 2015.
“We appreciate the Gem Theatre and the significance it has played in the lives of our residents for decades. It holds a special place in our hearts. We are pleased that the theatre has now been recognized as a national treasure,” Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant said. “It is one of our valuable anchors that will aid us as we work to revitalize our downtown by bringing investors and people to our city.”
The Gem Theatre opened its doors on Dec. 31, 1936.
It overcame a massive fire in 1942 and was rebuilt in 1948, which included a balcony section.
The Gem Theatre is one of the oldest single-screen movie theatres in the Southeast United States.
The theatre still runs family movies and community events.
“Our primary business is first-run movies,” Morris said. “We do best with movies that appeal to families with children, although we show different things throughout the year. We have one of the oldest single-screen movie theatres in the Southeast, with continuous operation as a movie theatre.”
The Gem Theatre was built by Cannon Mills Company to replace the YMCA theatre which burned in 1936.
The first shown film at the theatre was “Can This Be Dixie.”
Cannon Mills sold the Gem Theatre in the early 1970s to a group of long-time employees who charged patrons $3 admissions to watch first-run movies.
“It was one of four theatres that was run and operated by Cannon Mills Company,” Morris said. “It remained in their operation until the early 1970s when Cannon Mills decided they didn’t want to be in the movie theatre business anymore. They sold the business to a group of long-time employees who had been here, many of them, since the 1940s.”
Morris started as a partner, vice president and general manager in July 1995 with Carlyle Rutledge, who was a local attorney and former state senator.
Morris took over his full role as owner after Rutledge died in 2008.
The Gem Theatre was designated to the National Register of Historic Places during an exciting transition in Kannapolis.
The Kannapolis baseball team is moving to downtown, along with restaurants, apartments and streetscape for the Kannapolis Sports and Entertainment Venue, which is expected to be finished by April 2020.
On Oct. 17, the Gem Theatre will host the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The following week, on Oct. 23, the theatre will be hosting a public event where the Kannapolis baseball team will declare its new team name and mascot.
“For quite a few years, I would say the Gem Theatre has been the major magnet for drawing people to downtown,” Morris said. “Now, we are going to have quite a bit of synergy with the dining and shopping options and entertainment options that will exist downtown. It’s going to be more of an attractive trip for people to make.”
Morris also said the City of Kannapolis, which owns the building, has made a commitment to the continued development of the Gem Theatre.
“It is a very exciting time for us with the investments that the City of Kannapolis has made in improving the downtown business district with the baseball team coming in. I think we are going to see a tremendous amount of investment in downtown Kannapolis,” Morris said.