‘Earl’ finds a reuse

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

AHOSKIE – Jennifer Joyner is peeling back history, one layer at the time.

The Ahoskie native, who has spent the past 17 years teaching theatrical arts at La Plata High School in Maryland, purchased the former home of the historic Earl Theater on Main Street in November 2022.

The Earl Theater, which opened in 1948, transformed into the Ahoskie Cinema, which closed in 2012.

Since making the purchase, Joyner travels back to her hometown most weekends to work on renovating the property. Once completed, she plans to reopen the building as the LimeLight Theater, which will offer movie showings on the weekends (Friday-Sunday) as well as operating LimeLight Studios, which will be open Monday-Thursday offering after-school performing arts classes to youth in the area. The theater will also house a children’s theatre company, which will offer four shows per season for youth.

This upstairs space, one part of four residential apartments, will be transformed into a rehearsal room for LimeLight Studios. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“It’s pretty neat to peel back each layer and try to find the original stuff. They certainly don’t build places like they use to,” said Joyner as she took the News-Herald on a tour last month of the renovation efforts to date.

“This is just a way to give back to the community that gave so much to me back when I was in school here in Ahoskie,” added Joyner, a 1992 graduate of Hertford County High School. “I’ve always wanted to open up a performing arts school. When I found out that this property was for sale, I jumped at the opportunity.”

While her plans center on developing the performing arts school, Joyner doesn’t want to shy away from the movie theater component.

“The movie theater is the harder part for me; I don’t know a lot about running that type of business,” she said. “But that’s what most people remember about this building. Just the nostalgia element will cause people to want to come back.”

The equipment leftover inside the building is no longer used in showing movies as today’s theaters screen those via a digital format.

“I’ve got some old reels and a few old projectors if you’re interested,” laughed Joyner. “I hope I can find them a home in a museum. I may keep one to use as part of a historical display once we finish the project.

“I want to return the Earl to its former glory of the one-house theater with a lower level and balcony seating,” Joyner stated.

With ample room upstairs, it’s there that Joyner’s renovation plans are to dedicate space as a rehearsal room.

“It’s a lot of work to do, but it’s been very interesting to learn about the history of this building,” she said. “We’ve uncovered what appears to be another ticket booth by the side door. We believe that’s where Black patrons, prior to the Civil Rights movement, had to enter. Once entering there, there was a stairway to the immediate right that led to the balcony.”

Although now blocked by rows of seats in the back corner of the balcony, what’s left of the doorways leading into the restrooms for Blacks are still visible today.

Joyner said she is thinking of ways of how to memorialize that section of the balcony as well as one of the original theater seats used in 1948.

Where the rehearsal room will be located was once a portion of four residential apartments. Those residents, back in the day, shared kitchen, bathroom, and leisure room space.

Joyner has Ahoskie native Jerome Newsome as part of the renovation team. Newsome is a construction contractor in addition to working as a schoolteacher in Maryland.

“We’re both here on weekends working on this project,” Joyner said.

The major renovation downstairs, other than removing the old projector room and installing new seating, centers on building a stage.

“I’m hopeful to be back home full time in the near future. When that happens I’ll be able to spend more of my time on this project,” Joyner said.

Tickets to a movie are covered in dust and cobwebs at the old Earl Theater/Ahoskie Cinema. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

If she does follow that plan, Joyner is pointing to late 2025 to open LimeLight Studios and Theatre.

Joyner’s stage career started at age 10, acting at Ahoskie’s famed Gallery Theatre. Later, she directed the Gallery’s Summer Youth Program.

“This summer, the Gallery and I will partner for the Summer Youth Program,” Joyner said. “Even when I open LimeLight Studios, I’m hopeful we can still work together during the summer months.”

She’s also hopeful that those she joined on the stage as a child, who are now parents themselves, will remember the impact that theatrical arts had on their lives and will want their children to enjoy the same opportunities.

“I know people will still call it the Earl. Whatever they want to call it, I want them to be a part of this special place,” Joyner noted.

“I want to see downtown Ahoskie come alive again. Once people get onboard, I believe the momentum will build. We have to look at offering something unique, something that no one else has. That’s what attracts people,” she concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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