T he old House Theater in downtown Marion has a new owner who plans to restore the former cinema and music venue and make it into a showplace again.
Last week, the sale of the House Theater at 90 E. Court St. was finalized. Real estate agents Jacque Gouge Mentink and Chelsi Mentink Poteat with ERA Mountain View Properties in Marion handled the sale of this landmark property. In 2018, Mentink and Poteat were also the agents for the sale of the old McDowell Twin Cinemas, which was reborn as Hometown Cinemas Marion.
Jake Laurent is the new owner of the House Theater. Mentink said Laurent’s goal is to “preserve the integrity of the House Theater in order to provide a multi-purpose arts venue that contributes to the life and vitality of the great town of Marion.”
When contacted by The McDowell News, Laurent said he plans to restore the old theater to its former glory but it will take time and a lot of work.
“Right off the bat, I need to preserve the building itself by ridding it of any mold and moisture,” he told The McDowell News. “This will take some time itself because there is a lot of brick to cover. My goals, as for the building itself, are to clean it up and bring back its original architectural character. This is going to require a lot of sweat, sandpaper and paint.”
Laurent said he just recently graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, with a primary focus on renewable energies and mechanical systems.
“I was planning to move out of the Midwest and have been visiting western North Carolina throughout my years growing up,” he said. “I randomly stumbled on the theater’s listing and thought it was very intriguing from the get-go. Looking past its current appearance, I saw great potential, as the building is very solid itself.”
Laurent said he is the sole owner of the building and does not have partners in this venture. He also doesn’t have a specific date in mind for when the House Theater can be fully restored and reopened.
“I do not have any dates set, as for when the theater will be completed,” he said to The McDowell News. “I anticipate requiring two years to have the House Theater up and running. As of now, I would like to make the theater a venue that will appeal to all ages. Something fun for the community. After dealing with some logistics and cleaning up the building a bit, I will be reaching out to the Chamber of Commerce to further narrow my exact plans for the theater.”
In 2016, the property was placed on the real estate market. The last use of the building was when it was the Marion Event Center, which closed in early 2017.
In May of 2014, Mike Cinquanto and his mother and stepfather, Esther and Doug Williams, started working to restore the old theater and operate it as the Marion Event Center. They did extensive renovations to the interior and fixed up the restrooms. Over time, the family removed layers of Formica, plaster, chipped paint and mold from the structure. They restored the interior so it would resemble a nightclub from the 1950s.
In 2016, the Marion Event Center hosted the Vegas Nights, which was a sellout. McDowell County native Samantha Arrowood Chambliss, who portrays Marilyn Monroe, and her husband Michael Chambliss, who is an Elvis tribute artist, headlined the hit show. Despite these successes, Cinquanto said in 2017 the venture just did not work out.
“We tried anyhow,” he said to The McDowell News in 2017. “We had some really good stuff. We just couldn’t seem to get the business rolling. We just had to close her down.”
He said in 2017 despite all their work, many people would not come in and the building still had the reputation as a “moldy old place.”
The building covers approximately 7,000 square feet and has a stucco and brick veneer exterior.
Movie theater operator Ernest House opened the House Theater in April of 1950. Architect C.C. Benton from Wilson designed the structure, which featured for that time state-of-the-art staggered seating and the most modern film projectors. The first movie screened there was “Wabash Avenue” with Betty Grable. During its years in business, the theater not only showed movies, but also had live musical acts perform. Country music legend George Jones was one of those.
The theater closed in the late 1970s and after that it housed numerous different businesses. At one time, ministers used it to show Christian-oriented movies and then it later became a video game arcade. In the early 1980s, it was turned into a haunted house attraction for Halloween. It later became a weekend venue for local country music acts. At another time, the local Republican Party used it as a headquarters.