Maybe it’s the popcorn—the glorious, wonderful aroma of fresh popped popcorn that fills the air in the lobby of the Pioneer Theater in Manteo. The Creef family who owns the theater has always popped their own popcorn right there at the concession stand and it is much a memory of the theater as any movie that plays there.
Perhaps it’s the quaint ticket booth where tickets are sold. It’s a real ticket booth—not a glass-enclosed room that is part of a building. The Pioneer Theater ticket booth is a small wooded structure, centered on doors that open into the lobby. And the price of the tickets that are purchased at that ticket booth? Usually $4.00 less movies in a multiplex charges today.
And the lobby…the lobby is small, a little bit cramped, but that’s ok because there is the sound of popcorn popping and the scent of it and the price of concessions is about half and sometimes a bit less than half of what is charged in most movie theaters.
This is the what all movie theaters were like at one time—a place in the heart of the downtown district surrounded by shops a restaurants. It is smaller than the theaters of major cities although it does seat around 300-400, but in every other way it is what going to the movies was all about 40 or 50 years ago.
The word unique is thrown around almost carelessly at times, but when it comes to the Pioneer Theater, unique is the only word that truly describes the Pioneer.
It is the oldest continuously owned family movie theater in the United States—no other theater in all the 50 states can make that claim.
1918…that was the year George W. Creef Jr. opened the doors to the first, and for a long time, only movie theater in Dare County. He had to be a little bit crazy to do it. The population of the county was struggling to reach 5000; Manteo was the county seat, but there were no roads or bridges connecting it to the rest of the county; even Roanoke Island was sparsely populated with perhaps 600 residents living there.
According to family lore George, Jr. took a trip up north, went out to a nickelodeon, became fascinated with motion pictures and purchased a projector. Movies were free at first, but, again according to family tales, the movies were so popular that he felt there could be a business opportunity.
Now located on Budleigh Street, the original location was one block over on Sir Walter Raleigh. That move was made in 1934 and by that time George’s son, Herbert, Sr., was running the show.
It’s been three generations of Herbert Creef’s in charge of the theater since that time. Herbert Jr. took over from his father—he usually went by H.A. and ran the theater almost until the day he died in 2012. Then his son Buddy—Herbert III—took over. Buddy is usually there. He’s the big man, 6’2” or 6’3”, with the full beard who almost always is dressed in sandals and shorts.
The seats are comfortable if utilitarian. When Buddy took over from his father back in 2012 he made a number of improvements, including a substantial upgrade for the sound system and improved technology for the projection room. As a consequence the quality of the movie experience is very good.
The movies are generally just off the first run list, giving viewers a chance to catch in July the movie they missed in June.
The Creef family has always believed that the movie experience is something for the whole family to enjoy. It would be the rare R rated movie indeed showing at the Pioneer.
A movie theater is not often seen as part of the experience of visiting an area, but in this case, that would seem to be the exception. For a family of four, a night at the movies will be about $20-$25 less than at a typical theater, and the experience of stepping back in time, is something that will make the evening a moment worth remembering.
There is a lot to like about Manteo. There is the feel of a classic small town America downtown, fantastic art at the Dare County Arts Council gallery, great restaurants with sidewalk service and the Pioneer Theater.