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Wrightsville Beach
Sunday, February 5, 2023

On the Crest of a new era

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Photo contributed by Elaine Henson. A photograph from the Bill Creasy collection shows Wrightsville Beach in 1958, when the Crest Theater, the World Famous Spot and Wits End stood on the east side of N. Lumina Avenue.
Photo contributed by Elaine Henson. A photograph from the Bill Creasy collection shows Wrightsville Beach in 1958, when the Crest Theater, the World Famous Spot and Wits End stood on the east side of N. Lumina Avenue.

Seventy years ago, a three-story stucco and brick cinema was constructed on Lumina Avenue in downtown Wrightsville Beach and dubbed the Crest Theater. The structure has remained relatively unchanged over the years, even as the theater became a concert stage graced by rock bands like the Allman Brothers, a bar, a gym, an art showroom and a martial arts studio. Soon, it will enter its latest chapter as a wellness center.

While many frequent the bottom-floor establishment, Jerry Allen’s Sports Bar & Grill, only a handful recall the building’s original purpose as a theater, enticing the island’s summer visitors off Lumina Avenue and into its darkened interior with the smell of buttered popcorn and the promise of air conditioning.

It took most of 1946 to build the 40-foot building and realize owner Jack C. Thompson’s vision for a 488-seat theater with a balcony, orchestra pit and “modern camera equipment and sound facilities,” a 1946 Wilmington Star article states.

The Wrightsville Beach Lion’s Club hosted opening night Nov. 24. Guests paid $1.50 to watch the film “Deception” starring Bette Davis.

Elaine Henson recalled walking to the Crest with her friends in the 1960s after spending the day at the beach. It did not show new releases, she said, but it was convenient and it was cold.

“A lot of places at the beach didn’t have any air conditioning,” Henson said, “but it was air conditioned in there.”

The entertainment started even before the opening credits rolled, said Linda Robinson, who went to the Crest as a teenager in the 1950s.

“They had this silk curtain and there was a spotlight on it that changed colors,” she said. “They played ‘The Song From Moulin Rouge’ in the background and then they would open the curtain slowly as the movie started. It was very dramatic.”

Robinson lived at the south end of the island, so her recollections involved car rides home with her mom, belting out tunes after watching the 1951 musical “Show Boat.” Robert Parker and his friends lived just down the road from the theater, and for the teenage boys the short walk down Lumina Avenue was nearly as entertaining as the movie itself.

“We would have sand spur fights where we would kick and throw sand spurs at each other,” he said. “And in different vacant lots you could find really great wild blackberries growing, so we would eat those all the way to the movies.”

The Crest Theater also provided summer employment for Parker. Many evenings he manned the stainless steel popcorn machine, wheeling it onto the street, pouring in the oil, dumping in the kernels and then handing out bags of freshly made popcorn to moviegoers.

“Then, once the feature started, we pushed the popper back inside,” he said. “My favorite thing was being able to go inside and watch the movies for free — and being able to eat as much popcorn as I could.”

The Crest Theater’s golden era faded as movie selections become increasingly more controversial. By the 1970s the town was forced to adopt an ordinance regulating obscenity after X-rated films were shown. Shortly after, the theater was remodeled into a bar and live music venue, drawing rock bands from around the country.

In 1981, the town bought the Crest to regulate its use. Officials briefly considered turning it into a community center and town hall. In 1982, the planning board recommended the town tear it down and build a parking lot in its place.

The Crest was saved by Estelle and Johnnie Baker, owners of the Bridge Tender Restaurant. They bought the building from the town for $160,000 and opened a health food restaurant on the first floor and a gym on the second floor.

The concept didn’t quite work, Estelle Baker said. The general public wasn’t enticed by the restaurant’s wholesome fare and the second floor’s calorie-burning clientele didn’t frequent the first floor.

“People who went to a restaurant just wanted a juicy burger,” she said. “But we met a lot of wonderful people, so it wasn’t a disaster. I think people appreciated that we turned it into something that was perhaps more palatable for the town than what had preceded it.”

In 2003 the Bakers sold the building to Jerry Allen Lachman and Allan Middleton. As Jerry Allen’s Sports Bar & Grill flourished on the first floor, the Crest Fitness gym, Adamantine Art studio and Evolution Mixed Martial Arts took turns occupying the second floor.

With Evolution moving to the Lumina Commons shopping center in early 2015, the second floor is once again in transition. Brian Parke, former owner of Lumina Station’s Cameo 1900, plans to open Sona Wellness Center this fall. The studio will feature fitness fusion classes in heated and non-heated rooms.

The bright, airy wellness center with its lounge and juice bar is a stark contrast to the building’s past as a darkened theater permeated by the smell of Parker’s buttered popcorn. But Lachman said despite its many phases, the structure itself and even its name still harken back to those days.

“It’s still called the Crest building,” he pointed out.

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