The 1940 Fire at Shorty’s Theater

Shorty’s Famous Hot Dogs is legendary, but did you know Shorty Joyner also owned the Collegiate Theatre? It was on South White Street–right where the restaurant is today–and it catered to the college crowd.

Collegiate Theater
This rare image of a snowy South White Street shows the Collegiate Theatre on the left.

The Collegiate was a small place. Wake Forest football players spilled over its narrow seats. Wake Forest natives Durward Matheny and Barbara Lyon still recall how trains rumbling behind the theater would obscure the sound and shake the screen. Matheny remembers one roaring past during the train wreck scene of The Greatest Show on Earth.

1937 Railroad Tracks
The tracks behind South White Street, circa 1937.

But sometime during the night of March 12, 1940, an explosion sparked a blaze inside the theater.

It was just after 1 o’clock in the morning when D.J. Brown, a local policeman on night patrol, noticed the building on fire. Brown immediately summoned Fire Chief John Taylor. While townspeople watched in the drizzle of rain, the entire volunteer fire department and hordes of students turned out to fight the blaze.

A report in the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, describes events:

Volunteer work of many college students with the three hoses and other apparatus was instrumental in halting the fire before it spread into the Chevrolet Garage or the Jones Hardware Store, which are immediately adjacent to the theater.

The first hose was [aimed] on the front of the theater building. A second hose was carried over the roof of the garage about 2 am and played into the heavy flames rising from the theater roof. [Students] climbed the ladder and braved the clouds of smoke and heat to hold the hose to the flame. Crowds of students had gathered by the time the third hose was in place about 2:15 am, and used it both in the front and in [sending] water through the small ventilation windows beside the projection room.

Ruins of the Collegiate Theater

Shorty vowed to rebuild–and did–putting in a 400 seat facility with all new equipment. The Collegiate Theatre reopened and remained a part of Wake Forest’s downtown until soon after the college moved to Winston-Salem in 1956.

With the theater gone, Shorty moved his restaurant–which had been located a couple of storefronts away–into the empty space.

It’s been there ever since.

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