In hotel, theater, Boone and Blowing Rock connect past to present ::

By Abbey Slattery, WRAL Digital Solutions

This article was written for our sponsor, Watauga County Economic Development Commission.

Named for American pioneer Daniel Boone, Boone, NC, is the seat of Watauga County — and in name alone is the perfect encapsulation of all the history that the county holds.

Since its founding in 1849, Watauga County has always been known as a vacation destination. In fact, back in the 1800s, Blowing Rock was one of the first “tourist” locations in the South.

Founded in 1891, the Green Park Inn was built to accommodate the increase in tourist traffic around the region.

“The Green Park was built as a hotel and has been an operating hotel ever since,” said General Manager Lorry Mulhern. “At the time that the Green Park Inn was built, Blowing Rock and the ‘High Country’ were growing rapidly as a summer destination and had been for some time. It was the most luxurious and amenity-rich accommodation in the area at that time.”

Still located just off US Highway 321, the Green Park Inn has seen a number of notable guests over the years, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mitchell, the author of “Gone With the Wind.”

After 131 years, there’s no end in sight for the Green Park Inn — and according to Mulhern, they’re hoping to stay open for another 131 years in the future.

“I think the Green Park is a source of pride for the local community. The fact that she is the last of the grand manor hotels in all of western North Carolina as well as being the second oldest operating resort hotel in the state speaks to a sense of continuity and history that everyone in the local community can share in,” Mulhuren said. “Also, her location at the south entry to town literally announces to visitors that they have ‘arrived’ in Blowing Rock, and the High Country, and the legendary ‘grand dame’ is there to welcome them.”

Quality programming, purposeful community ‘collisions’ come together at Appalachian Theatre

The Green Park Inn isn’t the only historic structure in Watauga that still serves its original purpose. In Boone, the Appalachian Theater is still in business, bringing in new events while preserving its storied past and lifting up the community in the process.

The theater is building back to a slate of 200 events per year after slowing that pace during COVID shutdowns.

“Cultural tourism is a huge economic driver up here in the High Country. I have one restaurant owner who says they can always tell when there’s an event at the Appalachian Theater, because they fill up reservations weeks ahead of time,” said Keith Martin, Appalachian Theater’s board chair and the John M. Blackburn Distinguished Professor of Theater at Appalachian State University. “I like to think of the Appalachian Theater as the High Country’s living room. It’s the place where you can meet friends and family and have all those purposeful collisions or you can have a shared arts experience. We’re perpetuating a history and tradition of quality programming that dates all the way back to 1938.”

Back in 1938, the two-story, Art-Deco theater could seat 997 people — technically 1,000, but capacity was reduced to avoid a special tax on theaters with 1,000 seats. The enterprising owner, WR Winkler, had a number of other tenants in the theater as well, including the Appalachian Sandwich Shop, the Home Electric Company and the Lillian Mae Beauty Shop. The theater saw major premieres like “Gone with the Wind,” “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca,” showing as many as seven feature films within its six-day-week schedule.

Over the years, the theater was affected by a fire caused by a defective popcorn machine, the rise of television driving down attendance and low-cost multiplex competition.

After changing hands several times throughout the year, the theater was purchased in 2013 by the Appalachian Theater of the High Country, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving its history and breathing new life into the building. Not only does the theater boost the local economy, but it also supplies new jobs and a robust programming schedule thanks to local partnerships — and continues to pay homage to its historic roots.

“This summer we have a classic film series, where we’ll show films like “Casablanca,” in all its black-and-white glory, on the same screen where it premiered 50 to 75 years ago,” Martin said.

“To kick off the High Country Jazz Festival, we’re showing the film “High Society,” with Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, and we’re showing it in the same venue where it first premiered back in the 1950s. People remember seeing ‘Casablanca’ the first time we showed it at the theater before I was born,” said Martin. “People are going to walk in and see the same carpet that appeared in 1938 that we’ve reproduced. We have the same endcaps on the Art Deco; we have the same tin ceiling that was reproduced; the colors inside the venue are the same as identified on the opening night program in 1938. We’ve had people go, ‘Wow, this is better than I remember.’ And that’s the highest compliment we can have.”

This article was written for our sponsor, Watauga County Economic Development Commission.


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