Murphy Theatre a community treasure


Pat Haley


Mary Lou Sprowle, a former Wilmington resident, loves the Murphy Theatre. During her Wilmington years, she lived just down the street near the old Greyhound Bus station at the corner of Mulberry and Sugartree streets, a stone’s throw from the Murphy.

One afternoon Mary Lou was walking down the alley behind the Murphy when she saw a handsome man walking toward her at a steady pace.

As the man approached she saw he was wearing a large, white cowboy hat, and leather cowboy suit with white and red fringes. Mary Lou said he was a large man with a set jaw, and eyes as blue as the Pacific Ocean. His facial features would make George Clooney envious.

It was Sunset Carson. Sunset was a major Republic Pictures cowboy star in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. He had set Hollywood aflame.

Mary Lou said she was so excited at seeing her cowboy hero she didn’t know what to say to him. As they passed, Sunset said, “Hello, young lady.” Mary Lou could only nod.

She ran home to tell her mother. At first, Mary Lou’s mother wouldn’t believe her. She thought maybe the young lady’s imagination had gotten the best of her.

The next day, the Wilmington News Journal announced that Sunset Carson was giving three performances at the Murphy Theatre later that evening. They also mentioned that Sunset had been arrested earlier in the day by the Wilmington Police Department.

It had been whispered about that Sunset was a drinker who offended the owner of Republic Pictures one night at a Hollywood party. Shortly after that evening, Sunset’s name was missing from the marquees at Republic. Their stable of stars had one less cowboy.

Don Reid of Staunton, Va. loves western heroes and their stories. “I heard Sunset Carson was run out of Hollywood. Can you imagine doing something so bad to be run out of Hollywood of all places? It must have been pretty depraved,” Don said with a laugh.

A story about Sunset Carson is only one delightful story you will find in Jennifer Hollon’s newly released book, “The Historic Murphy Theatre: The People, the Entertainment, the Monument.”

Jennifer meticulously researched this local treasure. The entire book is sprinkled with engaging stories and rare photos. Her storytelling is priceless.

She tells us that Charles Murphy was a local boy who did well. Jennifer delves into his rich history and paints a delightful image of his local background and family. Charles had a strong supporting cast of performers and managers who have made the Murphy thrive over the years. Charlie Fischer played the piano, sometimes with his nose, and his friend Vic Tooker was without peer.

When I was in high school, Bill Reisinger was the manager of the Murphy. Mr. Reisinger had a striking, distinctive voice. He would walk down the aisle with a flashlight to make sure all was well. Some of my friends have told me he did the same thing at the local drive-in theatre, knocking on the steamed car windows, and asking, “What is going on in there?” But I digress.

Current Wilmington councilman Joe Spicer worked at the Murphy and was an outstanding manager for many years.

Our community has been blessed to have a forward-looking board of directors of the Murphy who had the foresight to rescue this wonderful treasure when the Chakeres family decided to open the cinema in the east end shopping center. Clinton County owes them all a debt of gratitude.

Jennifer’s book shows us pictures of ushers like the late Charles Hunt and Virgil Botts, in full uniform, standing ready to seat the hundreds of movie goers who had lined east and west Main Street, ready to try their luck on Bank Night; or to assist the patrons there to see the “hygiene films” of Kroger Babb, late of Lees Creek and Hollywood.

Standing tall and proud in the heart of Wilmington, the Murphy, wearing its history proudly, will soon celebrate its 100th birthday. Jennifer points out the refurbished interior, which sparkles like gold, is now welcoming second- and third-generations of movie fans through its doors to shows, concerts and community events.

“I remember when downtown Wilmington was full every Friday and Saturday night — just like tonight. You couldn’t find a place to park within blocks of the Murphy,” a man said, as he left the soldout “Dancing With The Stars” performance last Saturday night.

Indeed, there wasn’t a parking spot open for blocks.

Times have changed, of course, but at a time when you can pull an iPhone out of your pocket and watch a full-length movie, our community is blessed to have a monument like the Murphy Theatre still standing, active and thriving.

There is something comforting to walking through the wide doors of the Murphy where generations have taken dates, watched classic movies, and made memories that last a lifetime.

Jennifer Hollon’s book has it all. I highly recommend it.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.

Pat Haley
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