Time Capsule: The Cardinal Theatre

Cardinal Theatre Exterior, Raleigh, NC. Photo courtesy of Kane Realty


A Hollywood film director
his movie-loving Raleigh roots


by Peyton Reed


As a young boy, I would stare at the bronze plaque cemented in the sidewalk at North Hills. At the top, in all caps, it read: TIME CAPSULE.

Time capsule! What did this mean?  

“PLACED HERE JUNE 8, 1967 A.D.,” it continued. What was placed here? What exactly was inside this capsule?

And finally, the most mysterious line of all: “TO BE OPENED JUNE 8, 2017 A.D.”

2017. The distant future. What would that world look like? Would we have flying cars? Mars colonies? And what about me? Who would I be then and what would I be doing with my life? One thing was for sure: I would be old. (52, to be exact.)

I made a pact with myself that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I would be there on that day in 2017 to see the time capsule opened.  I’m certain I am not the only person to have made such a pact. For many of us who grew up here in the ’70s and ’80s, this was the great unsolved mystery in Raleigh. A buried treasure, the contents of which were unknown to all but a privileged few.

Now, the future has arrived. On June 8, 2017 A.D., at 10 a.m, the mystery will be solved.

courtesy Kane Realty

And I will be there.

Why is this important to me? The revelation of the capsule’s contents is almost certainly fated to be anticlimactic. It most likely contains pop culture artifacts from the era, items of local and national significance, personal missives about life in 1967 – not much you couldn’t find on eBay.  It’s only been there for 50 years, after all. By comparison, the Westinghouse Time Capsules buried in Flushing Meadows for the New York World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964 won’t be opened until the year 6939 – 5,000 years after the first one was sealed!

Honoring my dojo

Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited to see what’s in the North Hills time capsule. For me, however, it’s about honoring the real reason the time capsule exists: to commemorate the opening of the Cardinal Theatre.

The Cardinal is no longer there, of course. The space where it stood is now a Bonefish Grill. But for a majority of my young life, the Cardinal Theatre was my dojo.

From 1967 to the late ’80s, the Cardinal was the absolute best place to see a movie in Raleigh. The auditorium sat 750 people and was equipped to project film in both 35mm and 70mm formats. The screen was enormous. In 1977, a second auditorium was constructed. That auditorium sat 625. It was a gathering place for kids from schools and neighborhoods all over Raleigh. I have vivid memories of almost every movie I saw there, and there were many. I can remember who I saw them with, and what kids from school were in the audience.

The Cardinal helped shape my creative sensibilities and fostered my reverence for the ritual of moviegoing. It was where the seeds were planted for the idea that movies could be transcendent, even holy, experiences. I was a good, churchgoing kid. We went to St. Michael’s every Sunday. But no sermon ever reached me or transported me the way movies did. I can proudly say that I was religious, even fanatical, in my moviegoing habits.

The Cardinal wasn’t just a theater to me. It was where I started to develop my critical faculties – to discover what made me laugh, what filled me with awe, what disappointed me. It’s where I learned the language of visual storytelling. It introduced to me the idea of standards not only of filmmaking, but also of film exhibition.

Today, as a feature film director, I still think of the Cardinal when I’m working. A big part of my creative process is being able to tap into that childlike part of myself that spent many afternoons and evenings there. I remember the way I felt. I remember the communal experience. To this day, it is a great source of inspiration.

It was always there

I first set foot in the Cardinal in early 1970. It had only been open for two-and-a-half years, but in my 5-year-old mind, it had always been there. I saw The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes starring Kurt Russell. It was the first of his “Dexter Reilly” comedies for Disney. I loved it.

(I should mention that early in my directing career, I remade The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes as a TV movie for Disney and ABC. It was a big break for me. I should also mention that my eldest son’s name is Dexter.)

Family films were a big part of my early moviegoing at the Cardinal, especially the morning matinee series in the summer. I devoured movies: Born Free, My Side of the Mountain, The Boatniks, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I saw my first superhero movie there: the 1966 Batman with Adam West. (It’s still my favorite Batman movie.)

It went on. I saw so many seminal films of the ’70s and ’80s there: Grease, The Spy Who Loved Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Alien, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Scarface, E.T., Tootsie – the list goes on and on. The Cardinal was formative for me. It was magical.

I’m sure the theater was meant to outlast the time capsule, but it didn’t work out that way. The Cardinal went out of business in 1990 at the tender age of 23. It fell victim to high overhead and the rise of VHS and cable viewing habits.

I was devastated when it happened. And I was furious when, adding insult to injury, it was replaced by a Blockbuster Video that same year. I’ll admit to a feeling of glee when Blockbuster went bankrupt years later.

Now, the time capsule is the last remaining evidence of the Cardinal Theatre’s existence, and I have found myself wondering what will happen once it’s opened. Will the plaque remain? Will a new plaque replace it? If not, will there be no trace of the Cardinal whatsoever? That would be unfortunate.

Whatever happens now, the Cardinal Theatre has left its mark on me. I start shooting my new movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp, in a few weeks. And I will be thinking about the Cardinal. And I will be inspired.   

(Editor’s note: This issue of Walter will be placed in a new time capsule that will replace the one to be unearthed on June 8. Peyton Reed says he is thrilled to become a part of a mystery that has so long enchanted him. Please see his bio on p. 18)

The public is invited to the unearthing of the 1967 time capsule at 10 a.m. outside Bonefish Grill on June 8. Its contents will be on display that evening at North HIlls’ Midtown Beach Music Series concert at 6 p.m. After that, the City of Raleigh Museum will display the time capsule’s contents.