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The Gray Lady

by Mark Peres

January 5,2006

With the cool night air misting in from somewhere out on Tryon Street, we stood on stage looking out on the orchestra. Between congratulatory quips and shouts to charge our plastic cups, Charlie stood with champagne bottle in hand and popped the cork. The bubbly poured, just enough for each cup as the clock neared 11:00 PM, and Charlie raised the first toast of the evening to the Lady of the house. Called forth from years of slumber, she would find herself before the footlights again.

Earlier in the night, the City Council had voted in favor of conveying .416 acres of land upon which the Carolina Theatre stands to an Atlanta-based LLC that would build a condominium tower on the site and use property taxes from the tower to restore the Theatre. The deal had come together after nearly 18 months of phone calls, negotiation and dramatic curtain calls. It would not have been complete without last minute tension before the vote, of which there was much, but the concern was much ado about nothing as the words that were shared were quite stirring: the Theatre would be a link to our past and a beacon to our future.

With the vote on record, we spilled out from the council chamber to the lobby where hugs of relief and excitement were exchanged and photos were taken. There was Clay, the developer of steady hand and even keel; Ruffin, the attorney of skill and much passion; Wayne, advocate on the art of the deal; Sally, of clear counsel and dedication; Amorette, heartfelt and visionary; Barbara, insightful and well-spoken; Carol, thoughtful and supportive; Autumn, champion of historic preservation; Noah, youthful impresario of entertainment; and of course, John and Charlie, who had fought the wars over so many years having never let the standard falter.

The group, plus a few here and minus a few there, soon went to Connolley’s on Fifth for a celebratory round. Additional drinks, tavern conversation and a spirited idea followed: to the Theatre we would go. We would unlock the gates and find our way in, and there, amongst the fallen plaster and storied hints and intimations, we would give our salute.

We walked hurriedly around the block, and with key in hand, we entered the Theatre. There we milled in light and shadow, taking it all in – the faded murals, the broken cement, the rough patches of ceiling and balcony. We delighted in the imperfect beauty of it all and the stunning acoustic landscape that promised so much. We followed each other under and around and up to the stage, where we marked the Theater’s past days where ‘Gone with the Wind’ played during its original run, Bob Hope quipped and a young Elvis Presley broke free introducing an entirely new dangerous sound.

Soon after champagne we turned and saw Charlie alone high in the balcony. There he stood, his head back and his arms stretched out. A silhouette in the near high distance. He had persevered. This was his moment. And this theater that had found new life became our moment.

Cities are built so many ways – with muscular strength in ditches and roadways, with the stroke of a check that endows a university, with immigrants that dream and dare remarkable risk. Cities are weddings and birthdays, chance encounters and ideas drawn on paper edges. It is where expectation and uncertainty and possibility give rise to butterflies. Cities renew through imagination and grit, and are a place where one person standing alone can turn a tide.

The work to restore the Carolina Theatre is just beginning. Entities with competing interests need to negotiate and draft agreements. The developer needs to sell a magic number of condominium units. The Carolina Theatre Preservation Society needs to attract new board members, organize for a new mission, and raise millions of dollars to further restoration. It will all require new energy and citizens willing to surprise. Nothing but an opportunity is guaranteed.

Now therefore, be it resolved: the citizens of Charlotte hereby embrace the Carolina Theatre and the spirit of enchantment that lies within it and within us. This day of this year.

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