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    100+ Year Old Outer Banks Theater Reopens in Manteo, NC

    June 22, 2023

    Back in December, when Buddy Creef closed the Pioneer Theater that his family had been running since 1918, the outlook for one of the oldest family-owned community theaters in the nation looked bleak. But investors made up of two local families, the Basnights and Hatchells, stepped in and bought the iconic building in downtown Manteo in February.

    The theater has just reopened, and it is remarkable how much the new owners were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.

    For anyone who is familiar with the old faux Elizabethan facade that was on the theater, that’s gone. That facade was put there as part of a town wide marketing campaign in the 1980s commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Lost Colony.

    Outer Banks Pioneer Theater

    What has replaced that 1980s facing returns the look and feel back to the original theater—or as close as anyone can get to it from old pictures and memories.

    The memories that people had of the old theater really highlight what may be the best part of this whole story—how the town of Manteo, and all of Dare County for that matter, rallied around restoring the Pioneer Theater to its old glory.

    The old marquee has returned. Actually, it’s a new marquee, but it looks a lot like the old marquee, and that was done in one day by a local contractor.

    What will be really exciting though, is an updated but very true to the original Pioneer Theater vertical sign that will be gracing the top of the building. The one change, evidently, that will be incorporated is a “Live Music” sign that will light up when live music is playing on stage at the theater.

    At a recent soft opening for the renovated building, Michael Basnight, who took the lead in telling the story of how everything came together, told about how local boatbuilder Ricky Scarborough, owner of Scarborough Boatworks, loaned the Pioneer two of his worker, Joey Andrasen and Brit Ricketts, to create the sign.

    They completed their work in a little more than a week. To put that in perspective, Basnight told the audience that when he spoke to design studios, they were telling him anything from six months to a year.

    By no means, though, was that the only example of how the community got behind the renovation.

    It seems Basnight asked former Manteo mayor John Wilson what he thought about the project. Wilson, who is a retired architect, said he’d think about it, and then a few hours later, he came back with complete renderings.

    The result seems to have rejuvenated a centerpiece of Manteo and Outer Banks life since the theater opened in 1934.  That was when the Creef family, who had been showing films in Manteo since 1918, moved into the building.

    Pioneer Theater Sign Manteo NC

    There is a lot that will remain the same at the old theater. The popcorn is still popped fresh for every show. Drinks and candy are still a little bit less than first-run theaters charge. Movies will still be shown, but it’s very doubtful if any first-run films will make it to the Pioneer.

    The problem with first-run films is they tie up the theater for a number of weeks, and usually, distributors insist upon three shows a day.

    Since the new owners are planning on using the stage for live music, occasionally some theater and other options, as Basnight told the gathering, they couldn’t have the theater tied down for that many days.

    For movies, what they are planning on showing are old classics, the films that are seen only on TV now—but this will be as they were meant to be seen. They’ve already shown the first movie—and it was a perfect first choice.

    Andy Griffith loved Manteo and made it clear the Pioneer Theater was a special place to him, so what better film to introduce the new old theater to the public than Griffith’s classic A Face in the Crowd. For anyone who has never seen this film, this is not (underline not) the happy go lucky, everyone’s friend Sheriff Andy. The movie is an extraordinary cautionary tale about the power and price of fame, and Griffith’s performance is mesmerizing and chilling.

    Classic films are not the only action that the theater will see. There will be live music, and to help things along with that, the new owners have built a bar in the back of the seating area. They stressed that when a kid’s film is being shown, that bar will not be opened, but it will be an added touch to many of the other events that are planned.

    Although there is still some work to do on scheduling movies and music, the first live music has been booked. VUSIC OBX has announced they will be bringing Chairmen of the Board to the Pioneer on Friday, July 14. Their big hit was Give Me Just a Little More Time, but they’ve stayed active musically, so it should be a real treat.

    An added note about the sound quality of the theater. Evidently, from what Basnight discovered, sound engineers told him the acoustics of the seating area are dead, which in sound engineer language is a very good thing, meaning there’s no echo or lost sound to account for.

    It all points to a great new but old familiar part of Outer Banks life becoming once again what it had been for so many years.