Facelift gets theater back in the act

UNC’s Playmakers Theatre has been a library, a lab, a ballroom and the stuff of an urban legend.

But for the past four years, Playmakers has been idle, in need of an $8 million renovation for which funds aren’t available. On November 2, however, the theater reopened with a poetry performance, thanks to a $225,000 touch-up funded by the offices of the Executive Director for the Arts and the Provost.

Improvements included painting interior walls; installing new carpets, curtains, chairs and stage lighting; and refinishing the auditorium floor. Additions included a new stage floor and a platform added for seating patrons with disabilities.

The theater, which seats about 240, is expected to house student productions, department lectures and small concerts, said Wendy Hillis, campus historic preservation officer: “This was just the bare minimum to get people to use it again.”

The building lacks accessible toilets, so staffers will direct all audience members to nearby buildings. Playmakers has no air conditioning and needs electrical and plumbing overhauls.

Constructed as a library in 1851 for just over $10,300, the building was named Smith Hall after Revolutionary War officer and North Carolina Gov. Benjamin Smith. Bowing to high American spirits, architect Alexander Jackson Davis topped the Corinthian columns on the building’s front with wheat and Indian corn instead of the usual leaves.

In 1853, the University’s 3,600 library books – compared with more than 6.7 million volumes today – were moved from South Building to Smith. Smith wasn’t converted into a theater until 1925. It then became the home of the Carolina Playmakers, a theater company composed of students, faculty and others and a forerunner of today’s PlayMakers Repertory Company. Andy Griffith and Thomas Wolfe are among celebrated alumni who have performed in the building.

An oft-quoted legend holds that during the Civil War, the building housed Union Gen. William Sherman’s horses. But after extensive research, Harry McKown, a veteran of the library’s North Carolina Collection, said no confirmation of the tale exists.

“Nobody has been able to document it,” he said. Nor has anyone debunked it. A punch line claims that Sherman bragged of having the best educated horses in the U.S. Army –because they had been to the University of North Carolina.