The Howell Theater Celebrates 75 Years

(Smithfield, NC) – The Howell Theatre was built in 1935 by Mr. Rudolph Howell as a one-screen cinema, seating approximately 600 movie-goers. It was built in the heart of downtown Smithfield, NC, becoming an integral part of the downtown business community.

Although it has gone through several renovations and changes, the Howell Theater has remained a mainstay of downtown Smithfield when so many theaters in other towns have closed their doors. The Howell Theater has entertained generations of local families and played a large role in the childhood of one of Smithfield’s most famous residents, Ava Gardner.

In the book Grabtown Girl, biographer Doris Cannon recounts how the Howell Theater offered entertainment and escape for families during the Great Depression: “C.E. Howell, the theater owner, purchased a bus on credit and sent it into the countryside to pick up customers.”
When Ava was nine, she and her mother Mollie went to the Howell Theater to see Mollie’s “favorite actor, Clark Gable, and the “blonde bombshell,” Jean Harlow in Red Dust. A story of love and adventure set in Africa, it was the kind of film that could make a nine-year-old girl long to become a movie star like Harlow, whose earthy character, Honey-Bear Kelly, won the heart of Gable’s character, Victor Marsden, safari guide and hunter.”

Little did Mollie or Ava realize that Ava would later star with Gable in the successful remake of this picture, Mogambo. Ava was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Honey-Bear Kelly.

The Howell Theatre, located at 141 South Third Street in downtown Smithfield, offers “second-run” movies for $2.50 admission. More information can be found on the theater website or by calling 919-934-8202.

The Ava Gardner Museum is located in downtown Smithfield, at 325 E. Market Street and more information may be found on the museum website, or by calling 919-934-5830. The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm and Sunday 2pm-5pm with admission of $6.00 adults, $5.00 seniors and groups, and $4.00 children.

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