By Barbara J. Eikmeier
The Last Waltz was showing at the Sunrise Theater at 730 pm on Thanksgiving night. Our hostess attends every year. I was intrigued. What movie can possibly be so great that a person would go to see it every year?
As it turns out, The Last Waltz isn’t an ordinary movie, and the Sunrise Theater experience is far from ordinary.
I was in Southern Pines, NC on Thanksgiving for the second time ever. Our friend toured us through the historic downtown, with the railroad running right down the middle of Broad Street! When we turned the corner near the Sunrise Theater, I noticed, “The Last Waltz, Thurs 730” on the marquee. I remembered seeing the movie in my previous visit, so naturally I asked, “Are we going to the movie tomorrow night?”
The Last Waltz released in 1978. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about the farewell concert performed in 1976 by The Band. After 16 years of touring, The Band had decided to retire from live performances. For their last concert they wanted something special – a celebration. They chose the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco as the venue, because that’s where they got their first big break. Then they invited other Rock and Roll legends to perform with them.
As we filed into the Sunrise Theater with others in the 60-70 yr old set, I was amused to also see thirty-somethings and elementary school kids in the crowd. The old, refurbished theater, closed after the economic downturn of the 70s and 80s, had been saved by the community and now operates as a non-profit bringing live theater and film events to Southern Pines. Next door is an outdoor stage with a large grassy area for summer programs.
We found our seats as the lights dimmed. When The Band took the stage (in the movie) and shouted, “Happy Thanksgiving!” The crowd (in the movie and in the present-day movie theater) cheered wildly! That was my first clue that this was not going to be an ordinary movie going experience.
The audience held nothing back, hooting, hollering, cheering and whistling as their favorite singer appeared in the movie. When the camera panned in on drummer, Levon Helm, from the back of the theater a deep, masculine voice bellowed, “Yeah! Leeeeeevoooon!”
From the clusters of audience cheers we could tell where the Neil Young fans were sitting. And Joni Mitchell’s. When Van Morrison took the stage, the man two rows behind us yelled “Van the Man!” As Morrison spiked the air with his arm and kicked one more time, loud clapping and cheering filled the theater. Enthusiastic appreciation continued for Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters and Dr. John. Fans sang along with Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond. When Bob Dylan sang “Forever Young” I sensed the end nearing. I dabbed at my tears, caught up in the moment, cheering just because those around me were cheering. It was fantastic!
When asked how long it’s been a Southern Pine Thanksgiving tradition my hostess said, “Maybe five years.” But I knew that wasn’t right because when I saw it five years ago it was “at least ten years.”
A bearded man holding his sweetheart’s hand said, “Well, I’m 30 and I’ve been going since I was a kid.”
An attractive older woman, her grey hair pulled into a long braid, said, “Pretty much forever.”
Each year the showing is free to the public thanks to sponsorship by local business, Howell Masonry. During 2020, in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, the show went on, playing on a screen at the outdoor stage.
There’s something heart-warming about being in a crowd of jubilant people. These are people who love Rock and Roll or holiday traditions or just being a part of a community. They were little kids, who had become adults and now attend with their parents and their own children.
Small town rituals are rich with material for writers. While I don’t have plans to write the Sunrise Theater into a novel, I can harvest the memory of this event for character traits (“Yeah! Leeeeevooon!”), dialog peppered with dialect, a hometown setting and a unique holiday tradition. After all, in Southern Pines they say The Last Waltz is the best Thanksgiving movie ever!
Barbara J. Eikmeier is a quilter, writer, student of quilt history, and lover of small-town America. Raised on a dairy farm in California, she enjoys placing her characters in rural communities.