The Pioneer Theater: It’s Not Just About the Popcorn

Seen any good movies lately?

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The original building in an undated photo. Courtesy Pioneer Theater.

Perhaps you were lucky enough to take in a recent blockbuster at the venerable Pioneer Theater. An icon in downtown Manteo, the Pioneer is beloved by the community and has the distinct honor of being the oldest,family-run movie theater in the country.

Way back in 1918, Mr. George Washington Creef, Jr., a local boat builder in Manteo, had the idea to open a theater. 

Let’s do some math. That’s nearly 100 years ago. Woodrow Wilson was president; the United States was fighting in World War I; and the Boston Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. (Little did they know they would not win again until 2004.)

The story goes that while traveling for business, George had the pleasure of seeing a silent movie and was fascinated. Later, back home in Manteo, perhaps while toiling away in his boat shop and enveloped in a cloud of juniper wood dust, George dreamed of bringing a bit of that same Hollywood-style entertainment to the small town of Manteo. 

George’s idea became a reality when he opened the theater on Sir Walter
Raleigh Street where the Roanoke Island Coffee shop now stands. Bear in mind that this was during the silent film era. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that technology could produce “talkies.” Popular silent film stars such as Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Rudolph Valentino graced the silver screen. Usually, live music – a guitar or piano player – accompanied the film. It is thought that a woman from Wanchese played the piano for the Manteo theater. 

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From left to right: Herbert A. Creef, Sr., Andy Griffith, George Creef, and Ben Creef gather in front of the Pioneer in 1957 for the premier showing of Andy Griffith’s first Hollywood movie, A Face in the Crowd. Griffith requested that the screening take place here so he could enjoy his first, big success with Manteo friends. Courtesy Pioneer Theater.

In 1934, the theater moved to its present location on Budleigh Street. The first movie shown at the new location was Hell Divers starring Wallace Beery and Clark Gable as a pair of rival chief petty officers in a plot involving early naval aviation. 

The theater, with its English Tudor façade, has continued to be operated by various family members. H. A. Creef, Sr. ran the business until he passed away in 2012 and is fondly remembered for having gently kept the younger movie-goers in line. Currently, H. A., Sr.’s son, H. A. Creef, III (call him “Buddy” please) is keeping the family legacy alive. 

At the ticket window, Buddy’s Aunt Audrey tears off tickets for customers who will pay a budget-friendly $7.00 for admission – a bargain compared to multi-screen theaters. 

With your ticket in hand, step into the oak paneled vestibule and concession area and join the line of customers waiting to purchase a red and white striped box overflowing with freshly-popped popcorn. More than likely, you’ve already inhaled the aroma as you strolled the sidewalks of Budleigh Street in the waning light of the evening. At a mere $2.00, it is impossible to resist. Best advice: get your own box and hold it securely in the crook of your arm – it’s too good to share. 

pioneer popcorn sm“On a busy night,” says Buddy, “the popcorn popper will run continuously.” 

Fountain drinks are $2.00 and are served over crushed ice. 

Fancy a refill of popcorn or soda? That will be $1.50. An assortment of candy is available for $2.00. 

Generally, one movie runs for a week, Friday to Thursday, and begins at 8:00 each evening. However, certain movies require a two-week run. The theater has 260 seats and attendance varies. 

“Obviously, good movies draw big crowds,” says Buddy. “But even if only one person shows up, I’ll still run the movie. I wouldn’t want them to be disappointed.” 

When asked about the process of choosing movies, Buddy responds,
“I know my audience, and I know what they like.” 

Fifty percent of the patrons are under the age of 17. Therefore, the movies are generally PG-13 or tamer. There have been occasional showings of R-rated movies; however, most selections are family-friendly fare. 
“I see every movie that plays at the Pioneer,” says one local. “It doesn’t matter what’s showing.” 

“I’ve been coming here since I was a child,” says another movie fan. 

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Buddy (left) and his father H.A. Creef with the traditional reel projector prior to digital transformation in 2012. Photo courtesy obxentertainment.com

Indeed, many movie-goers have fond memories of going to the Pioneer for an evening of family entertainment. 

Watch the younger crowd scramble to the front row unfazed by the prospect of tilted heads and neck strain. 

There’s something special about watching a movie in an old theater such as the Pioneer. The audience consists mostly of locals with a smattering of out-of-towners who are drawn in by the nostalgia and quaintness of a theater from a bygone era. Combine it all with the shared history of the place, and you have a companionable atmosphere as everyone hunkers down with snacks and becomes absorbed in the story and images unfolding on the screen. 

At the end of the evening, when the credits have rolled and the crowd spills out onto the moonlit street, friendly conversations rise and fall with varying opinions of the film. But one thing’s for sure: there is never any debate about the venue or the popcorn; they always receive two thumbs up. ♦  

Kimberly and her husband will attend the next action flick with his ‘n’ hers boxes of popcorn.

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