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In this unit, students will research the moviegoing experience in the early 20th century using the Going to the Show collection from Documenting the American South. Specifically, students will analyze photographs, news clippings, and advertisements from the Bijou Theatre (pronounced “bye-joe” by locals) in Wilmington, NC. Students will then conduct oral history interviews with contemporary student peers and with family and/or friends representative of older generations. They will compare and contrast the findings from their interviews and describe how the moviegoing experience has changed and how it remains the same.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • conduct background research on the moviegoing experience in the early 20th century.
  • develop and conduct oral history interviews with contemporary peers to capture the current moviegoing experience.
  • develop and conduct oral history interviews with family and/or friends representative of other generations to capture the moviegoing experience during the early and mid-twentieth century.
  • compare, contrast, and summarize what they learned about the moviegoing experience across generations.

Teacher planning

Time required

Approximately three or four weeks




Teacher preparation includes:


Activity one: Activating background knowledge

  1. Explain to students that they will be conducting a series of activities that explore the moviegoing experience, both now and in earlier times. The major focus will be on conducting oral history interviews with peers, as well as with family and/or friends to get insights about the moviegoing experience from other generations.
  2. Read students the following prompts or project them on the board. Give students time to generate ideas and questions. You may wish to capture student responses on the board using a two-column format with the headings “today” and “yesteryear.”
    1. What do you remember about your earliest experiences watching movies?
    2. Where do people go to see movies? (Note: This question references movies in general. Students may think about seeing movies at home through a DVD, television, pay-per-view, etc., as well as going to a theater to see movies.)
    3. How often do you watch movies? at home? at theater?
    4. Why do people go to the movies? (Note: This questions focuses more on why people would go to a movie theater to see a movie.)
    5. How far do you travel to watch a movie at a theater? How long does it take to get there?
    6. What mode of transportation do you use to travel to a movie theater?
    7. How much does it cost to see a movie? (Note: Today there are several possible answer because of the variety of movie-viewing options, including theaters, pay-per-view, renting and purchasing DVDs, HBO, and “free” movies available on network television.)
  3. In order to get students thinking about historic moviegoing, revisit the questions listed above, but have the students hypothesize think about what the answers would be for someone of their grandparents’ generation or from someone in the early 1900s.
  4. Encourage students to start thinking about possible interviewees, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other older relatives; neighbors; family friends; or other community members.

Activity two: Researching moviegoing in the early 1900s

For this activity, it is helpful if every student has access to a computer.

  1. Explain to students that they will now have a chance to learn a bit more about moviegoing in the early 1900s. This should give them some additional perspective in the differences between then and now and give them enough understanding and context to interview someone about it.
  2. Have students read the article Moviegoing in Early 20th-Century North Carolina by Robert Allen. (Have students wait to review the oral history excerpts on the page — they will get to that in later activities.)
  3. Have students review the following images and news clippings related to the Bijou Theatre, the first permanent moving picture house in Wilmington, and possibly even North Carolina. The theatre opened in December 1906.
    1. This photo is of the original Bijou Theatre. It was built of canvas and wood and had a sawdust floor. Ask: How might this have affected the moviegoing experience?
    2. This photo is looking north on North Front Street, taken just to the north of the Bijou Theatre. Imagine walking out the door of the Bijou and turning left — this is what you would have seen (time: 1900-1910).
    3. A permanent building was built for the Bijou Theatre and opened in May 1912. Note: The Bijou Theatre was unusual for its time in that it was custom built and in a dedicated building. Most of the theaters at the time “repurposed” an existing commercial space, usually the first floor, and often shared a building with other businesses.
    4. A list of Bijou Theatre news clippings
  4. Decide if students will generate their own questions individually or in groups, or if you will provide the questions for them (refer to the “Moviegoing Oral History Sample Questions” included in the Oral History Student Packet).

Activity three: What is an oral history?

  1. Introduce the concept of oral histories and discuss their value as we study important events. Mention that oral histories provide a chance for the “regular person” to record his or her experiences, not just the well-known or famous people often recorded in written history.
  2. Ask students to come up with more reasons we should value oral histories, such as making connections between generations, capturing experiences that are no longer available, allowing minority groups to record and publicize their experiences, and passing on the art of storytelling. (For more about oral histories, see the guide “Oral History in the Classroom”.)
  3. Explain that students will hear oral history excerpts from North Carolinians that include references to their moviegoing experiences. These will be accessed from Documenting the American South’s Oral Histories of the American South collection. Note: The references to moviegoing are rather sparse in the following oral histories. You might want to look at the transcripts first. However, a key value of this activity is hearing the stories in the interviewee’s voice. You also might want to have students listen to all of the oral history excerpts first, and then have a brief discussion.
  4. Hand out the transcripts of the oral history excerpts you selected.
  5. Play the following oral histories for students:
      Oral history one: The speakers are George and Tessie Dyer who worked in Charlotte textile mills for much of their lives. In this interview they share some of their recreational activities, including going to the movies (search the transcript for the word “movie”).
    1. Oral history two: The speaker is Murphy Yomen Sigmon who entered the workforce at the age of fourteen and held a variety of jobs in North Carolina industries before a mill shutdown ended his long working life. In an excerpt from the interview, he shares his experience about going to the movies in Hickory, North Carolina (search the transcript for “moving picture”). Excerpt: Moviegoing in Hickory, North Carolina
    2. Oral history three: The speaker is Margaret Skinner, who was born in Ireland. In this interview she discusses her experiences working at the company store of a cotton mill in Cooleemee, North Carolina. She remembers some of the daily routines and what they did for fun, including watching movies (search the transcript for “movie”).
    3. Oral history four: The speaker is Ethelene McCabe Allen, who was born to tenant farmers and spent most of her childhood moving around Wayne County and Johnston County, North Carolina. In this interview she recalls her childhood during the 1930s and 1940s, including their leisure activities.
    4. Oral history five: The speaker is Viola Turner, born February 17, 1900, the only child of her African American teenage parents. The latter portion of this interview focuses on her descriptions of entertainment and race relations. Specifically, Turner describes her interaction with various black performers and her experiences attending both black and white theaters in Durham. In addition, she explains her friendship with Eula Perry – who could easily “pass” for white – and the reactions their friendship elicited from various observers (search the transcript for “theater”). Excerpt: Challenging Jim Crow segregation and perceptions of race
  6. Facilitate a class discussion:
    1. How often did people go to the movies?
    2. How did people get to the movies?
    3. Where was the movie theater located? (downtown? in a building shared with other businesses?)
    4. What kind of movies did they see?
    5. How do the oral histories relate to the photos and news clippings referenced above?
    6. How much did it cost to see a movie?

Activity four: Practicing oral history

  1. Give students time to listen to and explore oral histories online, especially student oral history projects (see the Supplemental Information section for examples). Have students take notes on things they observe in the oral histories that do or do not work well, especially good or effective questions, questions that seem to get short answers, techniques for encouraging the speaker to continue talking, the tone of voice used by the interviewer and interviewee throughout the interviews, and so on. For additional examples, students may want to listen to the complete oral histories referenced in the Materials/Resources section.
  2. Divide the students into groups of three. Give each group a copy of the Oral History Student Packet.
  3. Students should review the “Question Guidelines” and “Interviewing Guidelines” found in the Oral History Student Packet. Optionally, provide students with the “Moviegoing Oral History Sample Questions,” also found in the Oral History Student Packet.
  4. Have students prepare five to 10 questions that they want to ask their fellow students regarding their movie viewing/moviegoing experience. Have them focus the following general areas:
    1. Their first memory of seeing a movie: Where did they see it (home or theater)? What did they see? How long was the movie? How much did it cost? What did they eat? With whom did they see the movie?
    2. Their first memory of going to a theater to see a movie: Where the movie theater was located (urban mall, downtown)? How far did they have to travel? What did they see? How much did it cost? What did they eat? With whom did they go? How many movie screens were in the theater?
    3. Their most recent movie viewing experience: Where did they watch the movie (e.g., home or theater)? How much did it cost? What did they see?
    4. Their most recent moviegoing experience at a theater: Why did they decide to go to a theater? How much did it cost? How far did they go? What did they see? What time was the movie?
  5. Create a brief questionnaire form with the selected questions. Leave space to record notes related to the interviewee’s responses to each question.
  6. Have the students conduct contemporary peer interviews with classmates in groups of three.
    • Once the students are prepared, have them conduct their contemporary peer interviews using the other two members of their group as interviewees. Each student will conduct two interviews, interviewing each of their fellow two students to capture their moviegoing experiences. During the interview, the third person in the group will transcribe notes. It will help the transcriber if the interviewer can provide the questions that they want to ask. Be sure to leave some blanks for spontaneous questions that may arise during the course of the interview. For a group of three students, allot approximately 10 minutes per interview. Using this schedule, all six interviews can be conducted in approximately an hour.
    • If students are going to use recording devices, allow them to use these interviews to practice using the tape recorders. Teachers may want to conduct this activity twice: interview two students once without recording devices to give students practice conducting an interview, and then interview two other students, recording these interviews. Students would then have four oral histories.
  7. At the conclusion of a student’s interviews, have the group debrief and discuss what worked well (e.g., what kinds of questions were best) and what could have been improved (e.g., what questions didn’t get very rich answers).
  8. After all students have completed their interviews, facilitate a class discussion during which students can share with the rest of the class what worked well and what was not as effective.
  9. Have students revisit their interview questions and modify as necessary to prepare to conduct their “historical” moviegoing experience interviews.

Activity five: Becoming oral historians

This activity may take one to two weeks to complete.

  1. Students will now go outside the classroom to conduct their “historical” interviews. Have students identify three candidate interviewees for submission to the teacher. Have the students specify their relationship with the interviewee. To assist in the recording and transcribing tasks, teachers may want to pair students up. However, this would require more coordination for the scheduling of the actual interviews. Students should plan to spend approximately 30 minutes with each interviewee.
  2. Review the list of interviewees and determine if release forms will be needed. You may need to assist students who are having difficulty finding interview candidates.
  3. Have the students prepare their questions. You may or may not want to review each student’s interview plan. Note: While the students’ peer interviews focused on contemporary movie experiences, the next round of oral history interviews will focus on their interviewee’s first memories of going to the movies.
  4. Have students conduct their interviews. Students may record their interviews either in writing or with audio recording devices. If your students will be using recording devices, you will need to think about how these will be made available to them outside of the classroom. Alternatively, you could have students invite interviewees to the classroom and interview them there.
  5. Shortly following the completion of the interview, while the interview is still fresh in their memory, students should revisit their interview notes and add any additional comments or observations notes. If students recorded their interviews, they should transcribe them so that they are available in a readable, textual format.

Activity six: Reflecting on the oral history

In this activity, students will reflect individually on the interviews they conducted, as well as share their interviews within groups of three.

  1. The students should listen to each of their oral histories or read through their interview notes and consider the following questions as they listen to or read their notes:
    1. How did the interviewee in your oral history seem to feel about going to the movies? Did he/she remember it enthusiastically? Fondly? Sentimentally?
    2. How did going to the movies impact the interviewee’s life? Was it merely entertainment? Was it an escape? Was it a form of courtship? Was it a means of keeping up on current events and news?
    3. Was moviegoing a regular part of the interviewee’s life, or was it a special event? What were the influencing factors that swayed it in one direction or the other?
    4. What did you learn by recording this oral history? What was most interesting? What was must surprising, humorous, and/or touching?
  2. Have the students prepare a summary of all of their interviews, including both the contemporary and historic oral histories. In this summary they will compare and contrast the contemporary moviegoing experience with the historic moviegoing experience. They should identify key similarities and key differences.
  3. Optionally, you may want to have students meet in their groups of three to discuss what they found. It may be interesting for students to be able to discuss in small groups their discoveries and what they found that was similar/different, what they found most interesting, and what they found most surprising.
  4. The students will present to the class their key findings, highlighting the similarities and differences between contemporary and historic moviegoing experiences, what they found most interesting, and what they found most surprising.


  • Assess students’ participation in class discussions (background knowledge of moviegoing, the value of oral history, and the reactions to the moviegoing oral history excerpts), including volunteering observations and opinions and asking relevant questions.
  • Assess students’ completion of the interview questionnaire.
  • Assess students’ participation in and completion of peer oral histories, including preparation of questions, conducting and recording of interviews, and providing feedback to the peers in their group to enhance their interviewing skills.
  • Assess students’ participation in and completion of historic oral histories, including preparation of questions and conducting and recording of interviews.
  • Assess students’ summary report for clarity, quality, and completion.

Supplemental information

Oral History in the Classroom
This series of articles from LEARN NC will show you how to bring oral history into your classroom, whatever grade you teach.
Going to the Show
This digital collection from Documenting the American South illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)
Oral Histories of the American South
This collection from Documenting the American South contains oral histories on topics such as civil rights, environmental transformations, Piedmont industrialization, Southern politics, and Southern women.
The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968
This is a student oral history project from South Kingston High School in Rhode Island.
What Did You Do In the War, Grandma?
This is an oral history of Rhode Island women during World War II written by students in the Honors English Program at South Kingstown High School in Rhode Island.
Teacher resources from the D.C. Everest Area Schools Oral History Program
This site contains steps, ideas, and tips for using oral histories in the classroom.
Resources For Teachers: Oral History Overview
This page from UNC Libraries provides more background information on oral histories and how to use them in the classroom.
Audio-Visual conservation at the Library of Congress
The Library is home to more than 1.1 million film, television, and video items. With a collection ranging from motion pictures made in the 1890s to today’s TV programs, the Library’s holdings are an unparalleled record of American and international creativity in moving images.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 8

        • 8.H.1 Apply historical thinking to understand the creation and development of North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.1.1 Construct charts, graphs, and historical narratives to explain particular events or issues. 8.H.1.2 Summarize the literal meaning of...
        • 8.H.3 Understand the factors that contribute to change and continuity in North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.3.1 Explain how migration and immigration contributed to the development of North Carolina and the United States from colonization to contemporary...
      • United States History II

        • USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 11–12 — United States History

  • Goal 7: The Progressive Movement in the United States (1890-1914) -The learner will analyze the economic, political, and social reforms of the Progressive Period.
    • Objective 7.04: Examine the impact of technological changes on economic, social, and cultural life in the United States.

Grade 8

  • Goal 5: The learner will evaluate the impact of political, economic, social, and technological changes on life in North Carolina from 1870 to 1930.
    • Objective 5.04: Identify technological advances, and evaluate their influence on the quality of life in North Carolina.