A Classic Gets A Reboot: Gem Theatre In Kannapolis Preps For Reopening With Upgrades
Charlotte — and the communities that surround it — have been changing at breakneck speed over the last few decades. The number of high-rise apartments, trendy businesses and the volume of traffic just keeps increasing. And with that growth comes loss in some cases. A region that a century ago was a national hot spot for mills has morphed into something entirely different.
So, it’s no surprise that many people who grew up in the region cherish the emblems that haven't changed all that much. In Kannapolis, one of the metro area’s former mill towns, there’s perhaps nothing more recognizable for generations of residents than the Gem Theatre. The single-screen, two-story theater on West First Street opened its doors in 1936. It was owned by Cannon Mills, once the lifeblood of the town.
Over the decades, residents have seen their first movies there. People have gone on first dates at the Gem. People have even gotten married there. It’s even on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It just is a thread in the fabric of the community that has touched so many people’s lives,” said Annette Privette-Keller, a spokesperson for the city of Kannapolis.
In 2003, the former Cannon Mills closed for good. The operators owned many of the buildings downtown — including the block that houses the Gem Theatre. The mill site was eventually demolished, and Kannapolis bought the Gem building and most of the downtown in 2015 for $8.75 million.
Renovations have been ongoing ever since as part of a city-run revitalization effort, including the construction of a new ballpark where the minor league baseball team the Cannon Ballers play. And businesses have been moving in.
But the Gem’s stuck around through it all.
“It is truly one of the only consistent parts of Kannapolis that has remained constant over the years,” said Steve Morris, who has been operating the theater since 1995.
Now, it’s the Gem’s turn for an upgrade.
As part of the next phase of Kannapolis’ downtown redevelopment, the city is funding $1.1 million of the initial improvements. The theater is getting a new HVAC system, handicap-accessible restrooms and, most noticeably, a refurbished marquee. Later phases could include seat replacements and possibly a reworked event space for live performances.
“We really did want to make sure that, especially the marquee, remained historic and authentic,” Keller said. “We wanted those vibrant colors matched. We wanted to get it as perfect to its original colors as possible.”
Two contractors with experience in restoring theaters took down the sign, restored panels and lights in a way that kept its historic authenticity and reinstalled it late last month.
Morris owns the business aspect of the Gem. It should be noted that Morris is an elected government official, though not with the city; he chairs the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners.
He, too, says he’s heard firsthand what the theater means for Kannapolis’ identity.
“Having been in business for 85-plus years, this was a first job for a lot of teenagers when they turned 16,” Morris said. “... There have literally been thousands of people that have had their first job at the Gem Theatre.”
For Morris, it’s the events that draw crowds that really stick out, like the Gem’s 2012 premiere of “The Hunger Games,” parts of which were filmed in Cabarrus County, and a showing of “May It Last,” the 2017 HBO documentary about world-famous Concord folk-rockers the Avett Brothers. The theater has even hosted North Carolina Music Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
But big events like that have been in short supply during the coronavirus pandemic. And like every theater in North Carolina, the Gem was barred from any showings from mid-March 2020 until mid-October. Even then, capacity was capped at 100 — far short of the Gem’s roughly 900 seats. And that only lasted until February, when the theater shut down for the current renovations.
When the Gem opens back up ahead of Memorial Day weekend, it will have been after North Carolina's crowd capacity limits were eased and its mask mandates relaxed for vaccinated residents in most indoor situations.
“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand out there,” Morris said. “Folks are starting to feel a bit safer, and they’re anxious to get out of the house and to be back in an environment where they have the type of entertainment they enjoy.”
The first show after renovation will be Disney’s “Cruella” on May 27.
Morris, for one, is certainly looking forward to it.
“It’s lonely in this big, cavernous building without customers here,” he said.