Annual Christmas movies in Greensboro refresh spirits, rekindle warm memories, and remind us of what makes a wonderful life.t
Carolina Theatre, I must admit: You do it up right every Christmas in downtown Greensboro.
People come from all over to catch White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, or one of your other holiday films. They start calling you in August to get a schedule, and by December, you’re packed with people longing to see an old film on your huge screen.
They bring their families, their kids, and their friends, or they come alone. No matter. They all have one thing in common: They want to reconnect with their past and, in the December frenzy, discover the spirit of Christmas.
Or maybe, I should say, the spirit of George Bailey.
It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946, right after Jimmy Stewart got out of the Army. But today, almost anyone who sees the movie in your theater has some heartfelt connection to Bailey’s fictional town of Bedford Falls.
Emily Scotten is 31, a middle school band teacher from Randolph County. Every year, she covers her dining room table with her Bedford Falls Christmas village — complete with Bailey getting ready to take a suicide dive off the bridge.
She catches It’s a Wonderful Life in your space of 1,100 seats. She loves your marble columns, gilded railings, huge chandelier, and your classic statues that North Carolina first saw when you opened on Halloween night in 1927.
And she loves your Christmas suit. You’ve got a big Christmas tree in the lobby and wreaths filling every few feet of the two staircases that wind their way to your balcony.
Before every holiday film, your lobby becomes a town square of familiar faces. You see everyone from a former mayor to a favorite teacher, and they all come for that arm-around-the-shoulder feeling they get from seeing White Christmas, Holiday Inn, or It’s a Wonderful Life.
They want to see these films in your space.
Jonathan Maxwell and Caroline, his wife of nearly 40 years, have been watching It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas for three decades. But in your theater, it’s different.
Jonathan and Caroline always sit in your balcony in the upper left for this movie. And when they do, they see scenes they never saw on TV — like the opening with the two angels in the stars who talk about George Bailey’s troubles on Earth.
But something bigger brings the Maxwells to their balcony seat in the back. It has something to do with Abe Lincoln and his first inaugural address. At least to Jonathan it does.
“Everyone has their own concerns about their vocation or the economy or their lives, but what’s heartening about that film is it shows you you can put those things aside and pull together and do the right thing when the chips are down,” says the 62-year-old attorney and consultant.
“And I think that’s the message of every major religion, this idea of coming together and doing the right thing. It speaks to all humanity. It speaks to the ‘better angels of all our nature,’ as Lincoln once said.”
And to the better nature of who we are — both quirky and poignant, wacky and fun.
Wendy Lavine grew up watching White Christmas. One year, she remembers sticking her tape recorder beside the TV so she could get Rosemary Clooney and costar Vera-Ellen singing “Sisters.”
Wendy is 44 now, and she teaches English and writing at Greensboro Day School, her alma mater. Every Christmas, she goes to see White Christmas in your space.
She knows the sets are implausible, the lines are hokey, and she’s bound to run into one of her students who looks at her sheepishly and says, “Hi, Ms. Lavine.”
Yet, every Christmas, she stops grading papers to take a friend to see the costumes, hear the songs, and remember Hollywood’s golden era of Technicolor fun.
Last year, she took her friend Mary Coyne Wessling and Mary’s husband, Terry. Mary hadn’t gone before, and she loved it. When Clooney and Bing Crosby looked all moon-eyed to one another, Mary leaned toward Wendy and whispered, “Terry does that to me all the time.”
But when Clooney sang, Mary heard that tiny hint of sadness in her voice and thought about her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and the old, white, leather chair in the basement.
Then, she got teary-eyed because she began to remember the clan of six Coyne kids watching White Christmas. Her dad, Bill, was in that white leather chair.
Mary misses him. He died in June 2009. He was 87.
“I got to tell you,” says Mary, 56, “I’m not a huge fan of Christmas, and I haven’t been for years, but going to that movie and seeing it on the big screen — I felt like I was a child again, and I got a little bit of that Christmas spirit.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”
Joy in full voice
I must admit, Carolina Theatre, I was skeptical. So last year, my wife, Katherine, and I took our two children to a showing of White Christmas in your space to see whether this 1954 classic would get us in the holiday mood.
Fat chance. At least at first.
Elizabeth, our 8-year-old daughter, fell asleep. And Will, our 12-year-old son, just sighed. For him, White Christmas was too long, too old-fashioned, and too far removed from the explosions, superheroes, and hard-fought athletic contests he usually expects in his favorite films.
“Dad,” he told me, “I’m surprised so many people would come out for something so boring.”
I worried I’d made a bad decision, that this whole idea of snagging something so ephemeral as the Christmas spirit would be like trying to hug air. Then, like hearing a familiar voice from across a room, I heard a whispering female chorus a few rows back.
It was Jeanie Schepisi and her friends from Jamestown. They came to continue Jeanie’s Christmas tradition — of eating dinner and seeing White Christmas underneath your huge chandelier.
I cocked my head and listened. Then I turned around. There they were — five women in their 40s and 50s, mothers, arms locked, swaying back and forth, singing every song they knew. And they knew them all.
At first, they sang in a stage whisper. But by the end of White Christmas, during the movie’s big finale in a barn, they were singing in full voice.
So was everyone else. I realized my December slowed to a crawl, and like Mary, I began to remember.
I thought of my father, long gone, putting Bing Crosby on our record player as he decorated the Christmas tree. He’d sing in his church baritone — particularly “White Christmas,” his favorite.
At the end of the movie, Katherine and I walked out with Will and Elizabeth. People in Santa Claus hats surrounded us, and we talked about Christmas and family and the man Will and Elizabeth called Bubba. That was my father, their grandfather, a bow-legged guy built like a fire hydrant who could dance like Danny Kaye and longed to sing like Bing.
And right then, I felt it, that elusive Christmas spirit. Like Jeanie Schepisi and Emily Scotten, or Jonathan and Caroline Maxwell, my one-night excursion into feel-good cinema and feel-good Christmas songs from my own past seemed right.
So, Carolina Theatre, thanks. That’s quite the gift.
Carolina Theatre Christmas Schedule
Christmas from Dublin: A Traditional Irish Christmas
Christmas at the Carolina
Carolina Classic Movie: White Christmas
Carolina Classic Movie: It’s a Wonderful Life
A Christmas Story — Mixed-tape series
Carolina Classic Movie: It’s a Wonderful Life (matinee and evening show)
Carolina Classic Movie:
Miracle on 34th Street (matinee and evening show)
Carolina Classic Movie: White Christmas (matinee and evening show)
310 South Greene Street
Greensboro, N.C. 27401
Greensboro resident Jeri Rowe is a columnist with the News & Record. Jeri’s most recent story for Our State was “A Community Moved by Steam” (November 2011).