MANTEO, N.C. (WAVY) — After more than a century in operation, credits appeared to roll for the final time last year at Manteo’s historic Pioneer Theatre, one of the longest running family-owned movie theaters in the country.
Known for its intimate atmosphere, reasonable prices ($7 for a movie ticket) and popcorn “made with love,” the Pioneer weathered many things in its 100-plus years. There were hurricanes, fires (one burned the original 1918 building and the new one was built in 1934 a block over) and a near death blow from COVID, but the shows continued to go on.
The community even recently pitched in to help cover the more than $8,000 cost when the Pioneer’s projector blew up in 2021.
But in December 2022, “with a great deal of sadness” owners Tim, Lizann, and Buddy Creef made the difficult choice to finally close. The family had owned the Pioneer since their great-grandfather opened the original location in 1918.
“This decision has not been made lightly, and has been something that has been coming for a long period of time, as we have watched decreasing attendance, increasing expenses, and changes in the theater industry over the years, all of which have contributed to ever increasing yearly financial losses,” the Creefs said in a statement on Facebook.
That post collected more than 400 comments, from longtime locals to honeymooners who vacationed there years ago, with many asking how they could save the Outer Banks icon. Fortunately, that process was getting underway.
Fast forward to February, and Michael Basnight and his family have purchased the Pioneer for $500,000 in partnership with another well-known local family, the Hatchells.
Basnight, who’s serving as a managing partner, says he was “homesick” when he decided to return to Manteo last summer after three decades away, and had heard rumblings that the Pioneer could soon close. He says he got in touch with Buddy Creef to see what they could do, and the two “hit if off.”
“The Creef family and my family go way back,” Basnight said. “… I called him and just asked if I could speak to him to see what was going and what he was thinking, and what he would like to see.”
Creef said several people reached out, but the Basnight/Hatchell offer was the right fit to carry on the theater’s legacy.
“They just wanted to do something cool with it to give back to the community … we definitely had other people interested who’d pay more for just the dirt,” said Creef, who likened the sale of theater to selling a litter of puppies.
“Every puppy you sell, it’s not about the money, you want it to be the right fit and go to the right person.”
Basnight called the Pioneer “irreplaceable” and talked about how it’s been the site of “immeasurable first experiences, first movies, first dates.” He remembers going on school field trips to see Disney movies, and how scary it was to see “Jaws” for the first time.
“There have obviously been movies, but there have been plays, standup acts — Andy Griffith himself — who was a family friend and lived here locally for most of his adult life, did a standup act.”
Basnight says the Pioneer will still mostly show movies, but many other events from comedy shows to “Outer Banks’ Got Talent” (an idea from his sister) have been floated.
He says he’s “extremely excited” about bringing in live music, after having spent a decade in Austin, Texas, and has spoken with concert promoters about how to efficiently switch between movies and concerts. Some things inside will need to modernized, but “the acoustics are perfect,” Basnight said. Seating is about 260 after a renovation about a decade ago.
The revival of the Pioneer is also part of a broader effort to highlight all that Manteo has to offer. The town was just named a North Carolina Main Street Designated Community last summer, which opens it up to grants and other help in coordination with Main Street America.
One of the first things in partnership with that program will be bringing back the Pioneer’s original facade and marquee, which came down in 1970 in favor of Tudor-style paneling to pay homage to the Roanoke Colony.
Basnight pointed to a famous photo of Griffith on a ladder in front of that original marquee, putting up the letters to promote his own show.
Overall “it’s just a cool vibe … what’s happening with Main Street,” Basnight says. “And just the resurgence of folks who are realizing Manteo is a historic, cool, walkable town.”
You can follow updates on the restoration and more on the Pioneer’s Facebook page.