There’s more to Williamsburg’s history than fifes and three-cornered hats. This past February, the William & Mary community celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Kimball Theatre (formerly the Williamsburg Theatre), an old-fashioned single-screen beauty right in the heart of Duke of Gloucester (DoG) Street. Forget the Governor’s Palace; this is where the real Williamsburg history lives. It’s a history of great cinema and a thriving movie-going culture in one of America’s classic small towns.
Williamsburgians toasted the Kimball’s 75th birthday with a unique, four-day film event called “When the Movies Come to Town! Williamsburg and Film History.” Audiences enjoyed free screenings of cinematic classics like King Kong, Gone With the Wind and The Godfather prefaced by scholarly presentations with a Williamsburg focus.
“It combined the best features of a film festival—getting to see great films and have fun watching cool stuff—with the best features of a public intellectual event,” explains Arthur Knight, director of W&M’s Film Studies program and associate professor in both the American Studies and English departments.
The event launched with a special Valentine’s Day show featuring Roman Holiday. Before the show, two William & Mary students shared stories they’d gathered from community interviews about the Williamsburg dating and dancing scene of the 1930s and 40s.
“And then some students from the College’s Ballroom Dance Club and Swing Dance Club gave dance demonstrations interpolated with clips from classic American musicals,” says professor Knight.
The film event proved that we can learn a lot about the values, prejudices, and shifting attitudes of a town and its citizenry by examining how they received the most influential and controversial movies of their time. Something the organizers wanted to examine fully was the history of race relations in Williamsburg and how those played out at the movies.
“That’s one of the things that’s a fraught element of our theater,” explains professor Knight. “The Williamsburg Theatre was segregated until the early 1960s. When Gone With the Wind played there, African Americans couldn’t see the movie.”
The festival’s screening of the groundbreaking 1967 film In the Heat of the Night included a roundtable discussion of race relations “in and at the movies” with scholars from W&M, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia.
The idea for the four-day film event was the brainchild of the Global Film s-GIG (sustained Global Inquiry Group). Professor Knight and his colleagues hope to make the film festival an annual Williamsburg institution, where students and locals can gather to enjoy the best of American and global cinema, and get a little scholarly insight with their Raisinets.