Thursday, February 9, 2012

Alert readers clarify origins of the Belvedere Theater

Some confusion has arisen regarding the origins of the Belvedere Theater in west Charlotte since the Observer wrote about the building in December.

The theater, at 2734 Rozzelles Ferry Road, is part of a revitalization project underway by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Development Corp. The art deco building, once crumbling and near ruin, was restored and converted into a dental practice this fall. The building is part of the Greenway Business Center.

Officials with the project had said the theater was built to serve African Americans only. This was something previous Observer articles had mentioned. A website dedicated to movie theaters,, also talks about such a history.

Tom Hanchett, staff historian with the Levine Museum of the New South, told the Observer the theater represented the strength of the neighborhood's black middle class at the time.

After the story ran, however, three alert readers contacted the newspaper to share their stories and memories about the cinema. They also said that the neighborhood, and cinema-goers, during the early 1950s were white.

The newspaper dug deeper, and thanks to help from a friendly researcher at the public library, it has confirmed that the theater served white patrons in the early 1950s. The answer lay in the 1952 Charlotte City Directory, where businesses were labeled with the letter "c" if they served African Americans. The Belvedere Theater did not have such a label.

"I should have remembered that memories are always colored by whatever we've known more recently," Hanchett said. "Since the area has been African American as long as most people can remember, it's easy to assume that it was always African American. But in this case, the truth is different from the assumptions."

Hanchett said the neighborhood surrounding the Belvedere was developed as a white community. He said he's unsure when black families started moving in. The three readers who contacted the Observer say it happened in the 1960s.

Alert Observer reader Steven Cansler saw movies at the complex in the early 1950s. He recalled how parents would drop off their children around mid-morning on Saturdays to watch a double feature, some cartoons and "coming attractions thrown in for good measure."

"When the children left the theater in the late afternoon, it took a few minutes for their eyes to adjust to the sunlight again," he wrote. He also remembered how theater management maintained order and kids who misbehaved were asked to leave.

Paula Melvin Leonard of Charlotte wrote the Observer to say she was glad to see something good happen to the theater.

She said she met her husband, Robert Leonard, while working as a cashier in the ticket window. Leonard was a friend of the theater manager's son, with whom he had served in the Air National Guard. Leonard came to the theater to fix an electrical problem and, as Paula says, "he started coming every night after that."

The couple dated for five years and were married for 43 years before Robert died.