Charles C. Lincoln, Sr. was the wealthiest man in Marion, Virginia and owned a successful furniture factory, which employed many residents of the town. After completion of The Lincoln Hotel (currently the General Francis Marion Hotel), Lincoln set his sights on bringing motion pictures to Marion. After returning from a business trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, his mission was to replicate a grand movie palace that had captured his attention during his journey. Lincoln purchased a plot of land directly behind the Royal Oak Apartment building from another of Marion’s most prominent businessmen, Charles Wassum. Per their agreement, Wassum deeded Lincoln an indefinite right of way through the apartment building from Main Street to the theatre’s entrance.
Lincoln sought the services of New York’s Novelty Art Studios to design the interior of the theatre, which was meant to evoke the feeling of walking into an ancient Mayan temple. Elaborate bas relief glyphs were designed to adorn the walls and proscenium. At the time, Mayan Revival had emerged as a popular architectural style of the Art Deco period and was a unique contrast to the many Oriental and Egyptian style movie palaces being built across the country. Lincoln invested $150,000 in the theatre, equivalent to approximately $2 million in today’s currency.
Sadly, “C.C.” Lincoln died of pneumonia on December 23, 1928, at the age of 63, and would never see the completion of his marvelous theatre. However, under the direction of his sons, Charles C. Lincoln, Jr. and John D. Lincoln, work on the theatre continued. A local artist named Lola Poston was commissioned by the brothers to paint six large murals to depict scenes in American and local history. Miss Poston was paid $50 each for the murals, which were painted offsite and mounted to wooden frames before being installed in the venue. The theatre was also equipped with a then state-of-the-art Movietone system which kept audio perfectly synchronized to the film.
After much anticipation, The Lincoln Theatre officially opened on July 1, 1929, with Close Harmony starring Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll. The first evening was such a success that droves of patrons were turned away at the door as the theatre quickly reached capacity. Admission in those days was $0.50 for adults and $0.25 for children. As residents of the area entered, many of them had never even seen motion pictures of any kind, let alone a feature film. Before each presentation, current newsreels gave patrons their very first look at the world outside their rural home in the mountains of Virginia. Just two months after the theatre’s opening night, the Black Tuesday stock market crash occurred, marking the beginning of a severe economic downturn for the country. But The Lincoln continued to survive and thrive amidst The Great Depression and through World War II.
Over the next 40+ years, The Lincoln would remain the region’s premier movie house. From Gone with the Wind to Jaws, every classic movie imaginable graced The Lincoln screen throughout the years. Being on the northeastern trek from Nashville, The Lincoln was also a popular stop for touring musicians as well, hosting icons including Minnie Pearl, Earnest Tubb, June Carter, The Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs to name a few. But as television sets made their way into every household in America, interest in "an evening at the movies" began to dwindle, and so did the theatre’s attendance. In December of 1974, the theatre was closed. In the years following, several unsuccessful attempts at reopening the movie theatre were made, but like many other movie palaces of that era, the doors were shuttered for good in August of 1977.
In the years following its closure, businesses began to relocate away from downtown, and the glory days of Marion’s Main Street were seemingly over. The Lincoln sat empty and abandoned as the building began to crumble. Eventually, the roof caved in, baring a 50 ft. hole and exposing the interior and Lola Poston’s elaborate murals to the elements. Soon after, pigeons and rodents called the theatre home, and what was once the town’s premiere destination became a depressing relic from the past.
In the late 1980s, a group of local citizens, intent on restoring the theatre, created The Lincoln Theatre, Inc., the nonprofit organization that would fundraise for the project and ultimately operate the theatre. It would take another 10 years of community events, corporate pledges, and bake sales before a temporary roof was installed and the real renovation work could begin.
Work began with the removal of the seats and debris. Then, 40-ft-high scaffolding was installed inside the theatre. After years of exposure, the theatre’s murals had become almost unrecognizable and would need serious repairs. The murals were removed from the theatre and shipped to Conrad Schmitt Studios just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who facilitated restoration of the 15 x 20 ft. canvases. The murals were thoroughly cleaned and analyzed before being meticulously brought back to life at a cost of $20,000 each. The theatre’s custom glyphs were used to create molds and templates to form new replicas of the Mayan art.
In order to transform the space into a performing arts venue, the stage of the theatre was extended forward past the proscenium to provide increased performance space, and new, larger upholstered seats were installed, reducing the theatre’s seating capacity from 750 to 500. A green room and two dressing rooms were added, and the theatre was equipped with up-to-date sound and lighting systems.
After three decades of neglect and abandonment, The Lincoln Theatre reopened to the public on May 15, 2004, with a performance by the Grammy-award winning Riders in the Sky. Soon thereafter, the first Song of the Mountains concerts were produced by the Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, a series that would become nationally known and received the designation of the state television program of Virginia.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. The Lincoln Theatre, Inc. continues to operate the theatre year-round and presents a wide variety of performing arts events, welcoming patrons from across the globe to what is now one of the last remaining Mayan Revival style theatres in the world!