New owners plan for spring reopening of The Pioneer Theater

Published 2:42 pm Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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It was over a cup of coffee with his sister Jamie that Michael Basnight first thought about purchasing The Pioneer Theater.

Like so many others, Basnight was surprised to hear last December that the beloved Manteo theater, owned by the Creef family since 1918, was closing its doors for good.

“Jamie, what are we going to do?” he recalled. “We can’t let that thing get torn down.”

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Together with his sister Jamie, her husband David Hatchell, and Derek and Sharon Hatchell, the five invested in a piece of Roanoke Island history.

Like all historical treasures that seek to be relevant to an everchanging culture, The Pioneer Theater will be expanding its reach to include not only new movies, but also classic movies, matinees and live entertainment.

Currently, the theater is undergoing some interior renovations, including new flooring in the lobby and restrooms, a new concession bar and a section of elevated seating in the rear of the auditorium.

The Tudor façade added in the 1970s as a nod to the queen was removed at the end of February, restoring The Pioneer to its classic 1930s style. Basnight is working with the Town of Manteo and the Main Street initiative to create renderings for the exterior of the building.

The new owners are dreaming big about possibilities for the outdoor space. The lot next to the theater is going to be totally transformed into a community gathering area with tables and café string lights in the summertime, free movies on a projector perhaps, and a stage for outdoor concerts or town get-togethers. Visitors can stroll through and enjoy live music under the lights while sipping a beverage.

As a kid, Basnight remembers when a hurricane would blow through the Outer Banks “and you’d corral up at someone’s house. The electricity would go out, always. You had no TV. We didn’t have phones back then. And that’s when the old timers would start telling stories – and I loved it. I would love to do something on that stage with storytellers. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Jamie has pitched the idea to offer “Outer Banks’ Got Talent” for the locals especially, Basnight said, in the wintertime “when it’s just us.”

This type of community venue has been in the DNA of The Pioneer Theater since the beginning – a hub for creativity, variety, entertainment, laughter and, most importantly, a place that brings people together.

“We’re not doing anything different than what has been done by the Creef family … Over the last 105 years as you look back at The Pioneer, there have been movies obviously, but there have also been one-person stand-up shows, comedy acts, plays. There used to be a theater company that would come by boat to perform,” he said.

He envisions ideas such as a short film on a loop about the Lost Colony or the Town of Manteo that visitors can pop in to view, and a museum along the side hallway and back room showcasing old movie memorabilia.

“I’ve got all these cool posters that we’re going to be displaying, like the Andy Griffith signed posters. Sort of an homage to the old theater and the Creef family,” Basnight said.

The new owners are shooting for a spring opening. They are working with a local promoter to book some entertainment like concerts and comedy acts, in a wide range of styles. Basnight said he’s been told the acoustics in the theater are perfect. “If you’ve got that kind of venue let’s maximize it and do that for locals and tourists.”

He’s been working with Cory Hemilright, who puts on the annual Bluegrass Festival, and the owners of Vusic OBX to brainstorm ideas for bringing in artists.

“All I can say is, there might be some American Idol alum, some Grand Ole Opry participants. We’re shooting for the stars,” he said.

But in the next breath he added, “But we want the small stuff, too. It’s always been – what’s in it for the local folks, and what do we like? Well, we like a lot of things. We’re an eclectic group, to say the least,” he laughed.

The Pioneer Theater owners plan to keep the great things like the drinks and popcorn, and revive some older practices like elementary school field trips to the movie theater. They also are working on a few things to add convenience for customers like accepting credit cards, offering gift cards and being able to purchase tickets online in advance.

“As I’ve been trying to figure out how to come home and what I can do, you don’t want to change the town in this community, but you want to highlight what’s already good, what’s already there.”

Because it’s personal. All of it, actually.

Budleigh Street is full of passersby, and Basnight knows all of them. As he stands outside the theater, Buddy Creef drives by slowly and waves, checking out the progress. A few older ladies greet Basnight and chat for a minute before continuing toward the waterfront. A moment later his father pulls up outside the theater, clearly happy to see his son, finally home.

“When you’re born here, they put a magnet in you somewhere, and you really don’t know when they’re going to turn that magnet on or not, but it pulls you back. At some point you’re going to be pulled back,” Basnight said.

Well, that time finally came, calling the Roanoke Island native back to his hometown. “I planned to be here for the summer and just never went back,” he said. He moved from Austin, while working with a firm based in Raleigh, but spent the past 18 years in San Diego and 10 in Austin in the medical device industry. He has his hands full, now working as a consultant, as well as exploring a new water-based polymer.

At the end of August he bought what he calls “The Manteo House,” the expansive 1871 historic home on Sir Walter Raleigh Street. He’s remodeling it and plans to offer it as a wedding or corporate event venue. He’s thinking through the possibilities of using both the house and the theater to draw businesses for corporate events.

“In my professional career, I used to rent venues like those all the time … I want to bring those types of folks from Raleigh and Norfolk. They’re already coming here for vacation, why aren’t they coming here for business?”

“The ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the Outer Banks is incredible. Think of what’s been created or invented here,” said Basnight, citing accomplishments from the first English colonies to boatbuilders to the Wright brothers.

“From the business entrepreneurship side, there’s always a better way to get something done … that spirit is really what I want to capture, as I think about other folks who are looking for that spark. Because that is what you want for a corporate retreat. Yeah, you want someplace pretty, but what around here is there that you can showcase – ‘there’s a better way to get it done and look how they’re doing it.’”

For Michael Basnight, his Manteo story is finally coming together.

“It’s almost like writing a book, when you wake up every day and there’s that part of the story in your head, and you’re thinking about it, and you drive down the road, and it’s a little bit more, a little bit more, and sometimes you’ve just got to put pen to paper. I feel like that’s what’s happening here. The timing of me wanting to be home and the house and now this theater.”

“When you’re homesick – and I have been since I left – it pulls you back. I just wanted to get back home.”