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Interview with James Pridemore, February 25, 2009 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with James Pridemore, February 25, 2009
February 25, 2009
Born and raised in rural Hamlin, West Virginia, pop. 3,000, Jim grew up with legendary Chuck Yeager, a friend and fellow visionary. Jim's career begins at 17 yrs. in Baltimore, in aircraft industry enlisting in Army Air, training as B-17 engineer 12 months at Clemson. End of war was accepted at RCA Institute, a pioneer in television, went to NBC TV and with U.S. team to televise United Nations, one of only 9 countries in world with technology. Jim moved to Wilmington in 1965, immediately became involved in radio/TV, owned WGNI and WAAV radio for short time, elected to Board of Directors Thalian Association 1967, President in 1970, and continues to be a force. The interview combines the early days of national communications via radio/TV as well as preserving diverse theater on many levels. This is a man who has "done it all." Mr. Pridemore is still involved in technical aspects of television and communications systems.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Pridemore, James Interviewer:  Jones, Carroll / Boyle, Erin Date of Interview:  2/25/2009 Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes


Jones: Today is Wednesday, February 25th, 2009. I'm Carroll Jones with Erin Boyle for the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project and we're in the Helen Hagan Room of Special Collections at UNCW. Our guest this afternoon is Jim Pridemore. Jim is a long-time Wilmington resident, active in the arts, notably as long-time member, 33 years I've just learned today. For 33 or 43?

Pridemore: 43.

Jones: 43 years as member of the board of directors for Thalian Associates- Association.

Pridemore: Right.

Jones: Okay. He is a part owner of WDRL TV station, Roanoke, Virginia, and either owns or is involved in--I can't quite get it out of him, but he's going to tell us today, a communications company here in Wilmington.

Pridemore: Correct.

Jones: Thanks for coming, Jim, and to share your history with us. I don't know where to begin so I'm going to ask you to just start with your beginnings, where you're from and the evolution of Jim Pridemore, Rona, Virginia, Wilmington, North Carolina or anything in between that's interesting.

Pridemore: Well, it started in the hills of West Virginia. I was born February 28th, 1924, in Hamlin, West Virginia, H-A-M-L-I-N. Hamlin is a totally undistinguished small town of about 2,500 people and would only be known at all if it wasn't for the fact that Chuck Yeager is from Hamlin.

Jones: Really?

Pridemore: And Chuck and I went to school for 11 years together and we're very good friends. And this was a lovely little town but very small. In fact, when I was a junior in high school, I had a project where I drew a map of the town. This is not the ordinary map. I put every house in town on the map and put the name of everybody who lived in the house on the map.

Jones: What was the population?

Pridemore: About 2,000.

Jones: How many people lived--to each house, you have 10, 12, 14 people in a house?

Pridemore: No, no. It wasn't that small. There were mostly two or three people to a house.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: The population now is maybe 2,500/3,000. It hasn't grown much. We had a wonderful childhood in this small town and it was very interesting little town. It was a totally WASP town, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Growing up, I did not know a Catholic, a Jew, or a black person. So I had no prejudice because there wasn't anybody to be prejudiced against. And, at 14, I started working in my cousin's photography studio, the only studio in town. When I was 16, I was graduating from high school at 16, because I got promoted from second grade to third grade in the middle of the year so I only went to school 11 years. When I was 16, my cousin decided to go in the navy. I was going to be out of a job so I bought the studio. So I owned my photography studio at 16. At 17, I closed it up, moved to Baltimore to be a photographer at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Plant. My two brothers who lived in Hamlin still were so interested in that they came up to see me and went to work at Glenn L. Martin Aircraft. My other brother, I had three . . .

Jones: Now, which aircraft?

Pridemore: Glenn L. Martin Aircraft which is now Martin Marietta.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: And my other brother was a graduate engineer and he went to work at Goodyear Aircraft so all four brothers worked in the aircraft industry in the early part of World War II. After I had been at Martin Aircraft for some time, like two years, I decided I wanted to go into the U.S. Army Air Corps. So I insisted on volunteering and they told me I couldn't because my job was frozen and so forth. We argued awhile. I ended up going--

Jones: And you're only about 19 at this point, right?

Pridemore: I was 18, yes. So I enlisted in the army air corps at 18 and was scheduled for pilot training. The trouble was, believe it or not, they already had too many pilots. It was amazing how many pilots they trained in such a short time. We had mess officers as pilots, who had been to Europe, served their term and come back and didn't have anything to do so they put them to work doing anything they could find for them to do. So they closed the flight school that I was sent to, sent me to another school, and then to another school and I started training as a navigator. I didn't like navigation and, when the B-29 engineer program came along, I decided I wanted to do that. So I went into the B-29 engineer program and, just as I was getting ready to graduate and become a second lieutenant, the war ended. Two weeks later, I was out.

Jones: So you were never overseas.

Pridemore: I was never overseas, never saw any--I was in training the entire time I was in service. Part of that time they sent me to Clemson for a year and, in 12 months' time, we covered two years of college work. So that's one of the reasons I--

Jones: Now, was that one of those special programs? There was a name for them.

Pridemore: Yeah, I can't remember what they called it, either, but somewhere along the line they decided every cadet had to have a college education. If you didn't already have one, they sent you to get one.

Jones: Yeah, okay.

Pridemore: You know, I enjoyed Clemson but it was all--

Jones: V12 or something like that.

Pridemore: It was all boys at that time.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: Which was not too good. I think there were a total of six girls in the town of Clemson and there were about 500 of us so it didn't work out too well.

Jones: No, indeed.

Pridemore: So I got out of service and went back into photography.

Jones: In Baltimore?

Pridemore: No, this was in Ravenna, Ohio, where my brother, who had worked at Jigger Aircraft, lived. Opened a photography studio there and ran it for five years. Now, going back a few years, back about 1938, I was reading Popular Mechanics magazine and a man by the name of Dr. Lee de Forest, who is the man who invented the vacuum tube, was offering a course in television. I said, "Television? That sounds interesting. What is television?" I read all this stuff and so I signed up for Dr. Lee de Forest's course in television in 1938, correspondence course. My father saw me doing this and he said, "You've done some dumb things in your life but studying television, there will never be able to send pictures through the air. Where'd you get that idea?" I said, "They're doing it already." While I was at Martin Aircraft, I went to New York and saw a live demonstration of television at the NBC studios in 1941.

Jones: They were the first ones to have it.

Pridemore: Yeah. They had a working studio in the RCA building and I marveled at television. Anyway, I wanted to go into television so I went to New York, studied television at RCA Institute and then studied television at a second school called SRT TV. I went to work in 1954, January, 1954, at the television department at the United Nations. So I guess you would call me a pioneer in television because, when I went to work in the department at the United Nations, there were only nine countries in the world had television. During that time, a lady by the name of Louise Steiner moved in. By the way, while I was in school in New York looking for an apartment and having a tough time finding one, I took a job managing an apartment house which gave me a free apartment. After I went to work, I just kept on managing the apartment house on the side.

Jones: You were a go-getter, weren't you?

Pridemore: And so a lady by the name of Louise Steiner sublet an apartment and she was an opera singer whose husband was Max Steiner, who was the head of music at Warner Brothers Studios. She was a very colorful character and very friendly and we were talking one day and somehow or another the subject of a Fulbright Scholarship came up and she said, "Senator Fulbright's a personal friend of mine so I'll get you a Fulbright Scholarship. I can do it." I said, "Okay, Louise, go to it." She said, "Where do you want to study?" I said, "Italy." So, about two weeks later, she came back and said, "Well, we have a small problem. Italy doesn't have television," which they didn't just like I say, only nine countries had television at that time. Italy was not one of them. So I continued to work in television for the next few years, started having children, moved a number of times. I ended up in Albany, Georgia, where I had been stationed in the air force, in the air corps at one time. I ended up back in Albany at a station there and stayed there seven years because I suddenly realized my oldest child, Rick, was living in his seventh city and maybe I should slow down a little bit. So I stayed there until I came to Wilmington in 1965.

Jones: Oh, really?

Pridemore: To help put Channel 3 television on the air. As I've often said, I was hooked by the chamber of commerce flight pattern. When I flew into Wilmington, in those days, they flew out to the southern tip of Carolina Beach, flew up the coast to the middle of Wrightsville Beach and turned inland. By that time, I said, "This is the place." And I moved here and I've been here ever since.

Jones: Let me back up. You came here to Wilmington in 1965.

Pridemore: Right.

Jones: Specifically to work in television.

Pridemore: Right.

Jones: And there was only one channel here, one station, and that was . . .

Pridemore: Channel 6.

Jones: . . .owned by the Camerons, wasn't it?

Pridemore: Right. Yes.

Jones: That's what I thought.

Pridemore: And so we opened a second station and, of course, Wilmington was a little on the depressed side at that time.

Jones: The coastline was--

Pridemore: Yeah, right.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: It was on the upswing. We could see that it was on the upswing and Channel 3 did quite well. In 1966, I was elected to the Thalian Association board of directors.

Jones: How did that happen? Tell me how--Thalian Association was what in those days?

Pridemore: It was--

Jones: And you were a newcomer in town.

Pridemore: I know but I was with the television station.

Jones: Yeah, that's right.

Pridemore: And I was quite well known in those days because of my connection with television.

Jones: Well, there was only what, 32,000 people in town anyway.

Pridemore: Right. And I was very active in a lot of things and I got active in the Thalian Association right away because I had been active in theatre all my life. I belonged to a theatre group when I lived in New York City. I belonged to a theatre group in Ohio. I was active in theatre in high school so I've always been interested.

Jones: What part of theatre were you the most active? Any part or--

Pridemore: Back stage work.

Jones: Back stage. That's what I thought.

Pridemore: Back stage work. I was a very excellent set builder. But I also directed, did various jobs in the theatre. I love directing. If I could have earned a living directing stage plays, that's what I would do for a living. That's the most fun thing I think I've ever done.

Jones: How big was the Thalian Association at that time?

Pridemore: It was small. It was doing four shows a year, comedies, dramas. When I joined it in 1966, the organization was primarily--the board of directors was primarily made up of the people who did the work. The costume chairman was on the board, the casting chairman was on the board, the set builders were on the board. This is the way it was run. It was run by the people working back stage.

Jones: And where did you have your productions?

Pridemore: At that time, the Thalian Association managed Thalian Hall.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: You know that the Thalian Association calls Thalian Hall to be built back in 1853 to 1955 and they ran it for a long time. They ran it for many, many years. So, when I joined the Thalian Association, they were running Thalian Hall. The president of the Thalian Association was the manager. When you changed presidents, you changed managers. We did not have a paid manager to manage the hall. So, in 1966, Lionel Newkirk got me elected to the board and so I joined the board and got very active with them. I became president the first time in 1970, I believe it was, and I served a total of president three times, somewhere 12 to 14 years as president.

Jones: Wow, that's a long time.

Pridemore: Yeah.

Jones: Put up with all those people.

Pridemore: (laughter) It's a lot of fun, a lot of fun. Thalian Association is an enjoyable thing for me. I love theatre. I like dealing with people. I like temperamental actors. It probably comes from my years of being a director in television because, in television, I was in the production side of the business. I was operations manager, production manager, program manager, producer, director, very much the same type of thing as what I did in television. So, in 1972, when I was president, I said, "This organization has got to start doing musicals," which they had never done. They never could afford it, never had the personnel who knew how to do musicals. I said, "We have got to start doing musicals," because that's where the audience is, that's where the money is and so we put on Gypsy in 1972 and it took in so much money compared to the normal play that we did that everybody was amazed and astounded. And so we continued, from that day on, without stopping.

Jones: What kind of enthusiasm for all of this did you have here? Was it building or did you have to create it? In other words, how did Wilmington--I mean, I have an idea of what Wilmington was like in that time. I had visited here, my mother-in-law and father-in-law lived here, etcetera, and, of course, I wouldn't say that they were criteria for stage productions of any kind but it seemed like it was a much more formal town, a little more staid in their outlook.

Pridemore: Oh, yeah.

Jones: Closed up early and, on Sunday, everything came to a complete standstill.

Pridemore: The Thalian Association was pretty quiet but it was the only game in town. We were the only theatre group in Wilmington.

Jones: Did Thalian Hall open its doors to traveling theatre groups at all?

Pridemore: No.

Jones: That's before it was all redone and such?

Pridemore: Right. And it had no air conditioning.

Jones: Oh, God help us.

Pridemore: And so it was a limited season. Nobody wanted to use it in the off season. The Thalian Association tried to rent it, they tried to raise money to renovate it, they tried various and sundry things but it took a fire in 1974 and some insurance money and renovation money to get it done. The first renovation just renovated the existing theatre. The big renovation came years later at the cost of about five million.

Jones: Oh, yeah.

Pridemore: But, meanwhile, we ran the theatre, we produced our plays, and the Thalian Association thrived. It started growing actually when we started doing musicals. We started getting so much larger audiences . . .

Jones: What time of year did you do your musicals if you had no air conditioning?

Pridemore: We did them in the winter time. We only had a winter season. That's all.

Jones: Winter season.

Pridemore: And usually the first play and the last play were a little on the warm side but the other three were pretty nice. (laughter)

Jones: Tell me this, tell us all, not just me, how did the board, since you were a really active, working board, how did you decide what productions to have? Did you just sit around kind of throwing them up in the air or?

Pridemore: We used the same system that we still use today and that is, we appointed a play reading committee. They got their hands on a large number of scripts and so forth and sat around reading them and came up with about 15 titles and then we had a board meeting and we cussed and discussed all of them and picked four or five to do.

Jones: How about your musicals? Where did you get your musicians and your actors? Did you have calls published, you'd come and try out or?

Pridemore: We, very early on, the music was totally amateurs and volunteers, whoever we could get to play it. If they volunteered to play . . .

Jones: They were in.

Pridemore: . . .they were in the orchestra.

Jones: How about the actors?

Pridemore: Oh, the actors were all, of course, local people and volunteers and we did not have the large professional bank of people that you have in Wilmington today in those days. I mean, we had trouble finding singers, we had trouble finding dancers. Musicals were a little hard to cast. Nowadays, you have so many people in Wilmington who are really professionals that you can cast anything. If you go to one of our plays and read the resumes, almost everybody in there either has a tremendous amount of experience or they have a degree in this or a degree in that or a degree in the other. I have seen some of the musicals we've done where something like 80 to 90% of the cast had college degrees and it's just amazing, the--

Jones: I haven't noticed that but I have noticed that many of them have had experience, local at least, experience.

Pridemore: Yes. And a lot of out of town experience, too, in many of the shows. But the Thalian Association has thrived and moved on. In 1972, while I was president of the Thalian Association, Nick Everest, who was managing editor of Star News, called me and said, "We need to form an arts council." I said, "What's an arts council?" He said, "Well, let's have lunch and discuss it." And I said, "Well, let's get Art Vanner from Channel 3." At that point, I was managing WGNI wave radio. I was no longer with channel 3.

Jones: Oh really! So this is before the Dawson family bought it?

Pridemore: Right.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: Right. I managed it for ten years. I managed it right up to the time they bought it. So I said Art Vanner was publishing director of Channel 3 and I said, "Art is a very creative type person. Let's get Art involved in this." So Nick and Art and I had lunch and we decided to form an arts council. So we got a big meeting together at a restaurant and put together an arts council and started. One of the first things we did was to talk the city into turning the old recreational center at Second and Orange into an arts center and to allow us to manage it. So--

Jones: What condition was it in then?

Pridemore: It was in terrible condition. There were holes in the walls, I mean, there--

Jones: And what year was this?

Pridemore: This was '72.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: And so we got an army of volunteers and we patched up all the holes in the walls and we painted the place and we put drapes on it and we cleaned it up and painted it here, there, and everywhere and turned it into an arts center. The arts council ran it for, like, three or four years. During that time, they decided--at the end of that time, the city decided they wanted to run it and took it over. Also during that time, I was now out of that term of presidency of the Thalian Association and became president of the arts council, I think 1974, I believe.

Jones: Now, the arts council at that time was kind of all encompassing for arts collectively?

Pridemore: Yeah, there was definitely a shortage of arts activities in Wilmington at that time so the arts council did alternate plays, they did a summer season at Greenfield Amphitheatre, they did Monday Night at the Park at Greenfield Amphitheatre for years, put on, like, 16 events on 16 Monday nights in a row from spring into the fall. They did plays at the arts center. They filled in the gap that existed at that time because the Thalian Association was still the only theatre group in town, basically. The theatre groups, at one time, about three years ago, there were 14 theatre groups in Wilmington. Now I think there's seven or eight. Some of them just didn't survive but, at that time, we were still the theatre group in Wilmington before Opera House started.

Jones: Right.

Pridemore: And so the arts council filled in all these different gaps in the program and they did a lot of different things. It was a very successful organization for many years. They got into financial trouble and had various problems but, during that time, Bob Davis, who is our executive director, said, "We need some kind of an event to distinguish the arts council." Bob and I sat down and created the Piney Woods Festival, which started while I was president of the arts council and ran for, what, 25 years until they killed it. Now, many times during that time, the arts council . . .

Jones: Now, the Piney Wood Festival was--yeah, how long did that last?

Pridemore: It lasted about 25 years.

Jones: That's what I thought. Yeah.

Pridemore: The arts council, two or three times during that time, said, "We're going to shut down this festival next year" and we said, "Fine, we'll just set up a separate organization and run it without you." And they changed their mind until the very last moment.

Jones: Okay. I'm going to get this straight now. So this was not under the auspices of the art council, Piney Wood Festival?

Pridemore: It was.

Jones: It was?

Pridemore: Yes, for 25 years.

Jones: Beginning in 1974?

Pridemore: Yeah.

Jones: Okay. Alright.

Pridemore: And, as I say, it was very successful for most of the years, highly attended, made good money.

Jones: That's what I thought.

Pridemore: And a very nice festival. Meanwhile, of course, the city is running the Arts Center and many of us were not too happy with their operation of the Arts Center.

Jones: No, they wanted to sell it, didn't they?

Pridemore: And--they sort of put it on the back burner and didn't really, we didn't feel, make much effort to keep it up or to offer programs and so forth. So the third time I was president of Thalian Association, I started a little push to try to get control of the Arts Center. We managed to talk the city into turning it over to the Thalian Association in '91. We've run it ever since. We immediately went in there with an army of volunteers and painted it and carpeted it and cleaned it up and made it look pretty and started some new programs and kept going. At the same time, I decided that the Arts Center needed a festival and so I started the Orange Street Arts Fest, which is in its 14th year and hopefully will keep going. It's been reasonably successful. I mean, it attracts a very nice crowd of 4,000 or 5,000 people each year, runs for two days, Saturday and Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, and attracts some very nice artists, usually around 50 or 55 artists. Last year, they just sort of came out of the woodwork and we had 70 artists last year. We have managed to make money every year.

Jones: Well, that's good.

Pridemore: The whole 13 years and have, you know, a fairly decent amount of money for the amount of work. You can't do like Airlie Gardens did. They had this big arts festival which was beautiful but they spent more money than it took in. It's pretty hard to keep something going when you do it that way. But they just simply--and they took in a lot of money but they spent it all and it died after either two or three years.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: We have kept the Orange Street Arts Fest alive, we kept the Piney Woods Festival alive for many years by running it conservatively and making money off the project. Every once in awhile, the Arts Council said, "You know, $10,000 profit is just not enough for all the work. We want to get rid of this project." I said, "It's the only money-making project we have. Why would you get rid of it?" And managed to convince the board to change their mind and keep it going but, at this time, as you well know, with the number of theatre groups in Wilmington, the--

Jones: Are they making money, though, Jim?

Pridemore: They're surviving.

Jones: Because some of them seat 25, 30 people, some maybe 50.

Pridemore: They're surviving. I don't think anybody is making any money in the theatre groups right now, no. Many, many years, the Thalian Association made money. We ended up with a profit at the end of the year. There were years when we didn't. I tried to make sure, as a business man, that, when I was president, we ended up with a profit, which I think we did every year I was president. I know we never lost any money while I was president. But we have lost money in some years but Opera House basically has lost money almost every year. They have to make it up in fundraisers. They couldn't survive without their fundraisers and it's partly by the way they operate in that they are a semi-professional. They call themselves a professional theatre; at least they're semi-professional theatre. They pay their staff, they pay their directors, they pay their actors a stipend.

Jones: Oh, they do?

Pridemore: Yeah. They pay everybody something.

Jones: You mean it's not for love?

Pridemore: They have very few volunteers that don't get paid something. So, because of that, they're simply--their overhead is so high that they do have to do a fundraiser just to keep going and they've been in trouble a number of times but they still survived but on some good theatre.

Jones: There's been some wonderful theatre. I think, in the last couple of years, particularly, it's just there's something for everybody.

Pridemore: Yeah. And the Thalian Association, you know, I'm happy to say, in the last eight or ten years, has greatly improved the quality of their productions.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And are doing some outstanding productions. We also are paying a lot of people these days; where, in 1966, we paid nobody.

Jones: Who are you paying?

Pridemore: We did not even have--well, we pay the directors and we pay--when we started doing musicals, after the first two or three musicals, we had to start paying musicians. We only paid the director and the musicians.

Jones: Are your musicians members of--what am I trying to say?

Pridemore: American--I've forgotten the name of it.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: You're talking about the musician's union?

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: Most of them are not in Wilmington. Wilmington is not a union town.

Jones: I didn't think so. They have daytime jobs and they can play at night.

Pridemore: Right. There are very few union musicians in Wilmington. I'm very familiar with the musicians union. My nephew was one of the officers in the musicians union for years and always supported it highly but not here.

Jones: Are the subscriptions patronage, subscriptions doing well? Is it kind of like you'd like more?

Pridemore: We have had many, many years where our subscription drive was very successful. It did fall off maybe 15% last year and we're concerned about this year.

Jones: Well, I think everybody had fallen off last year and this year is going to be worse.

Pridemore: Yeah. We are definitely concerned about this year and--

Jones: But I've heard that there's an old adage that I've heard that two things happen when times get tough, at least during the Depression, this is when I heard it started. A woman will go to have her hair done and people went to the movies.

Pridemore: Yeah.

Jones: To take their minds off, I guess.

Pridemore: We hope people will keep going to live theatre during these tough times. It is a joy to see a live actor up on stage portraying a part.

Jones: You've had some good ones.

Pridemore: Yeah. We were very lucky to have Pat Hingle involved with us for some time. He was a great mentor and a great teacher. He was a great actor.

Jones: He was a great raconteur.

Pridemore: Oh, yeah.

Jones: We had a reception up here, we had two but we had the original one where all his family came and it was a display, an exhibit and so forth and it was before he was really almost full-time in his wheelchair and he'd talk your ears off.

Pridemore: Oh, yeah. He could.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: We've had a lot of good performers go to the Thalian Association and Opera House in the last ten years, really, outstanding performers. Wilmington's very lucky to have the artistic scene that they do. I know, when we had 14 theatre groups here, it was more than Charlotte had at the time. Charlotte had, like, 12 at that time. Now maybe more of theirs survived than ours did so they may have more than us now but Wilmington has certainly been a historical theatre town. And, of course, you know that this year Wilmington was named the official North Carolina community theatre.

Jones: No, I didn't know that.

Pridemore: Yes. You did not know that?

Jones: No.

Pridemore: Yes, we are the official North Carolina community theatre. Flatrock Playhouse is the official North Carolina professional theatre and Wilmington has the official community theatre.

Jones: Well, that's great.

Pridemore: And there is a road sign at every entrance to the city proclaiming that.

Jones: That's terrific. That's terrific. That should go on the map of places to see and look out for and this is what it means, you know? Another designation for the city.

Pridemore: Of course, Wilmington traces the history of the Thalian Association back to 1788 when it was formed.

Jones: Right.

Pridemore: It had its ups and downs, its bumps in the road and it stopped and started a couple times. We've built Thalian Hall and then turned around and lost it because we couldn't make the payments and turned it over to the city and it disbanded during the Civil War and did other things, reformed and went on and so on. But it's a venerable organization which is very modern at this point.

Jones: Do you think the--why do you suppose Wilmington has become heir to all of this? Do you think that having the movie studios in town have something to do with it? I understand now that a lot of your behind the scenes people you spoke of for the television and movie productions are year-round residents here, the sound mixers, the-- you name it, set designers and so forth, the technical people. And I'm just wondering if not just for theatre arts but all arts, we've seen a huge additions of artists of all kinds come here.

Pridemore: Yes, absolutely and you see it in these resumes. These people obviously were attracted here by different things and have moved- and many of the actors that you'll see on stage have come from somewhere else in the last five or ten years. The movies studio has a tremendous amount to do with the talent that you see on stage these days. It's just--

Jones: How are they making a living?

Pridemore: Well, they're doing all kinds of different things. They are radio announcers, they are newspaper reporters, they are television field reporters and so on.

Jones: And nurses at the hospital.

Pridemore: Yes.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And speaking of television, when I got out of television in 1970 to take over management of WGNI wave radio, I thought I was through with television but, in 1970, a friend of mine called me and he said, "Jim, I'm putting out a new television station up in up in Danville, Virginia, and I need some help." I said, "No, I'm too old for that." And he said, "No, you're not, you got to come up and see me."

Jones: I don't know what I did with your card. I had it here a minute ago.

Pridemore: Well--

Jones: WG, was it RL?

Pridemore: RL television, which is now a loaner of Virginia stations. Started in Danville, Virginia. So I went up and met with him and I started out as a consultant for him because he has a tremendous engineering background, at that time, was working for the Voice of America, and my background, of course, was in production operations and sales and management and so he wanted me to sort of manage the station while he was the chief engineer. And so first--

Jones: But you didn't live up there?

Pridemore: No, but I spent a lot of time up there for two or three years. So I got involved with it as part owner and started commuting to Danville. Two years later, we moved the station to Roanoke and that sort of put a crimp in my travel because Roanoke is six hours away. Danville is four hours away. I could drive to Danville in the morning, be there a lunch time, work all afternoon . . .

Jones: And come home.

Pridemore: . . .work the next day until lunch and come back home. I was gone for two days. Now it takes me all day to get to Roanoke and all day to get back and if I spend a day up there, I'm gone for three days. So I cut down on my travel to Roanoke after we moved it to Roanoke but I'm still involved and, meanwhile, I'm--

Jones: You're not the owner, then?

Pridemore: No, I am--he is the principle owner. Only two of us owned it. I'm the--I'm non-principle owner.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: And meanwhile I'm running a communications company here in Wilmington--

Jones: Let me ask you this. I've got to ask you this about a television station in an area like Roanoke, do they--you get most--you have to buy most of your feeds that come in there or do you have local type programming or--

Pridemore: We were a Warner Bros. network station then we were a UPN network station. When they combined, we lost their network so we are an independent station and we buy all our programming. We do have programming problems and I need to take a short break.

Jones: Okay, fine.

(Tape Skip)

Jones: Why don't we finish with the TV station and end up with what you're doing now but I don't want to miss out on that time in Atlanta.

Pridemore: Well, the TV station is surviving this period of not having a network. We do a lot of--we have remote equipment. We do a lot of local sports. We do, like, 12 high school football games, twelve high school basketball games.

Jones: People love that, don't they? The natives up there, they love it.

Pridemore: We've done games from small universities around there, including Liberty University and some other small schools around there. We sold the station to the famous evangelist at Liberty University and he dropped dead two weeks later. His sons refused to close on it so we didn't sell it. You had mentioned Albany, Georgia, and I had mentioned it earlier about I was stationed there in the air force. Then I went back there for seven years with the TV station in the '60s. I was acting news director, I was operations and production manager there and I was acting news director because Hal Suit, who had been news director, had left and gone with a station in Atlanta. The word came down that Martin Luther King was coming to town to conduct a demonstration. His cousin, a local Dr. King, who was a dentist in Albany, had started these demonstrations to try to get rid of the segregation in the main public library in town which was the primary thing because the little segregated black library was not much of a library. They wanted to use the main library and, of course, Albany, Georgia, in the 1960s, was still very segregated. And so we got the word that Dr. Martin Luther King would be coming to town to help his cousin with these demonstrations. General manager called me into his office and he said, "Jim, Mr. Gray has issued an order that Martin Luther King is to be ignored." I said, "What?" He said, "That's right." The station was owned by the local newspaper, the Albany Journal, which was owned by Jimmy Cray, who was a Bostonian who was an ardent segregationist who had moved to Albany, Georgia, because that's where blacks were kept in their place.

Jones: Oh, for gosh's sakes.

Pridemore: And he had said that we will ignore him, we will not cover it and that's it. So I thought about this for a day or two and I went back into see Ray Caruthers, general manager, and I said, "Ray, I've been thinking about this." And he said, "Yeah, what's that?" And I said, "Well, you know how valuable this station is. What would you say it's worth, 10/12 million?" And he said, "Oh, easily." I said, "How would you feel about risking your license on this station by ignoring Martin Luther King?" And he said, "That's a thought." He thought about it for awhile and he said, "I made an appointment for you to go downtown and explain this to Mr. Cray." And so I called my wife and said, "Get ready to move," and she said, "Why?" I said, "I'm going to get fired." (laughter) So I went downtown and I said, "Hello, Mr. Cray." And I said, "Mr. Cray, you're risking your license of your television station by ignoring Martin Luther King. You can ignore him with your newspaper but you can't ignore him with the television station." He glared at me for a couple of minutes and said, "Cover it," which I did.

Jones: Money talks.

Pridemore: And so we covered it day after day after day. We went to the marches. We went to the prayers. We went to the arrests. We went to the speeches, we went to the church services, we went to this, that and everything. Everybody was there, his entire crew came and were there for days after days after days after days.

Jones: Was this peaceful demonstration?

Pridemore: The first interview held by the mayor and the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett, the chief of police, said, "Martin Luther King will not die in Albany, Georgia. I guarantee it." And that was the tone of the city.

Jones: Good.

Pridemore: These people will be protected; we will not allow dissidents in town. They had police stations entrance every highway leading into the city. If a truckload of men came along, they stopped and said, "Where the hell you going?" And, unless you have some business in this town, turn around and leave. And so they kept it quiet . . .

Jones: Good.

Pridemore: . . .throughout the entire time but Martin Luther King was arrested half a dozen times, put in jail. I had access to everything, being the only local newsman, television newsman, the only one station in town.

Jones: He was arrested in Albany?

Pridemore: Yes. Many times.

Jones: For what?

Pridemore: For marching without a license.

Jones: I see.

Pridemore: Praying in the street. Refusing to disperse. They would arrest the whole crew, everybody that marched, 100 people. They had every jail filled in a radius of 50 miles, you know?

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And they'd keep them two or three days then turn them loose.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And arrest the same people all over again.

Jones: Sure.

Pridemore: But the police kept a tight lid on it. There were many out of town policemen brought in, highway patrolmen and so forth and everything went along, day after day, with these demonstrations. There were, at the height of it, 300 out of town newsmen in Albany.

Jones: I'll bet.

Pridemore: Including the Manchester Guardian, the London Times, every news service in the world and so on. Many of the top news men of the time came. John Chancellor spent about a week at our station one time working out of an office that we provided for them up there.

Jones: It certainly was a boon to the local economy.

Pridemore: Yeah, it was very good for the local economy. (laughter) They kept the sheriff out of it because he was a hothead and the city just kept him out of it. Wouldn't let him get near it. There was no violence except for two instances. One day, I was going down the street in the middle of the street with a row of policemen on each side. We were marching down into a black neighborhood for some reason or another, I can't remember what it was, and a brick whizzed by my head and hit one of the policemen in the side of the head. Martin Luther King immediately stopped everything and he spoke in bars and he spoke on street corners and he spoke in churches for three days. And, when he decided that it had calmed down, the demonstrations went on again. I was in the jail--the out of town newsmen, they wouldn't allow them in the jail but I got in the jail quite often when there were a bunch of people arrested and put in there.

Jones: Well, he preached non violence.

Pridemore: Non violence, right.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And so he stopped everything until he was sure that it was not violent. So I was in the jail one of the times he was arrested when Bobby Kennedy called there and they brought him out the payphone there in the jail for him to talk to Bobby Kennedy and I just happened to be standing there when the call came in. So I said I'm not moving so I just stood there and listened to their call and filmed it while he was talking to Bobby Kennedy. The only other incidence of violence that happened was, one day, the other Dr. King was downtown and he ran into the sheriff and the sheriff started lambasting him over something and he spoke back to him and the sheriff was one of these people who I don't think he needed a walkman's cane, carried a cane and he hit this Dr. King over the head with his cane and blood was streaming down, he was wearing a white shirt, blood was streaming his white shirt and I was the only newsman downtown. Everybody else was somewhere else. I don't know where they all were but I was the only one downtown and so I got the footage. Nobody ever saw it.

Jones: Now, let me ask you this. Did you do the--you had somebody with you to do the TV filming, right?

Pridemore: Sometimes I did it myself, sometimes . . .

Jones: Really?

Pridemore: . . .I had somebody with me. There was one KKK demonstration in the area during this time but it was outside of town in a cornfield and so . . .

Jones: They usually were, yeah.

Pridemore: . . .we're out there covering it. My sound man was a guy named Merritt. These big old burly guards in khakis, they came around, "What's your name?" He said, "Merritt." They said, "That's a good Irish name." Moved on. Merritt smiled. He was quite Jewish. (laughter)

Jones: Well, you had an exciting life. Tell us about what you're doing now.

Pridemore: Well, I'm running a small communications company in Wilmington called Sound and Telephone Systems that we do just what it says. We do sound and telephone systems.

Jones: And what does that entail?

Pridemore: We put in all types of sound systems, dual intercom systems, PA systems, auditorium sound systems, that type of thing and we do all kinds of communication, telephone, CATV, closed circuit TV systems. We work at Campus Union, we've worked at Campus Union for 25 years, worked at Fort Bragg for 20, 25 years. I have two jobs going at Campus Union right now, two jobs going at Fort Bragg. We do a lot of school work and it's, you know, it's a nice little business. It's not a big business. It's a small business.

Jones: Do you do the sound for any of the productions in Thalian Association?

Pridemore: No. I don't do that type of sound. I don't do performing type sound. We do sound systems. We put them in, hang them on the wall and put speakers up.

Jones: Okay.

Pridemore: And all of that. We just did the Brunswick Athletic and Aquatic Center down at Brunswick Community College. We put a sound system in the gym and a sound system in the pool. We put an intercom system in the entire building. That's the type of . . .

Jones: I can see why you would do a lot of schools.

Pridemore: Yeah. Schools have been a big part of our business for years and this is something I started when I was managing WGNI and WAAV radio. I started this company in 1970 for that company and I bought it in 1980.

Jones: Now, somewhere along the way, Don Ansell bought WAAV. Did he buy it from you or did he buy it from the Dawsons?

Pridemore: No, I had tried to buy--I was managing WGNI and WAAV and Muzak and Sound and Telephone Systems. We had bought Muzak and brought it into the company in 1970 when we put WAAV FM on the air. So I had, many times, asked Leo Brody, who is the principle owner, who is also part owner of Channel 6, to sell the stations to me. He'd always sort of sloughed it off a little bit and so on. I had a man who was interested in owning them who had agreed to back me in the stations. So, when he did decide to sell them, he came down to see me and he said, "I promised for years to sell these stations to this old friend of mine and if he wants them, I'm going to have to sell them to him because you know me, Jim, I always keep my word but I won't sell him the Muzak and I won't sell him Sound and Telephone Systems. He's going to want the Muzak but he's not going to get it. I'll sell that to you." And so Dawson, Hanna's father, said yes, he did want the stations so he sold them to him and I bought the Muzak and Sound Telephone Systems from him.

Jones: Oh, then I guess Don Ansell bought it from her.

Pridemore: Don bought WAAV from her.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: After she switched. When I was--

Jones: Yeah, I remember.

Pridemore: When I was the manager, WGNI was AM and WAAV was FM. So she switched it.

Jones: Right. That's right.

Pridemore: Which I thought at the time was crazy but she made a lot more money.

Jones: She made a lot of money. She made a lot of money. Look at her now.

Pridemore: She did. She knew what she was doing.

Jones: Yes, she did. She's still a bright, bright businesswoman. Well, Jim, what would you personally say was the highlight of your career? In theatre arts, in broadcasting, whatever. Then tell me what you think of the future of the arts here in Wilmington with all of the downturn. They're building that new theatre, there's talk about a new concert hall. People seem to need an outlet somehow, even in bad times.

Pridemore: Oh, yeah. Oh, people need expression. I mean, everybody, I think, has a drive to express themselves artistically to some extent. I think the 44 years I've lived in Wilmington has been the highlight of my career. I've done more different things in the years I've lived here.

Jones: That's good.

Pridemore: I've had more satisfaction in the years that I've lived here than the other places where I've lived. Covering Martin Luther King for six months was a high point. I did a lot of broadcasting on the networks at that time, particularly radio networks. I used to do, like, a two-minute radio feed to NBC every day practically. A lot of my film footage ended up on the networks at that time. Wilmington, I think, is where I put a lot of the experience that I gained before to work and got much more active in the arts and had a lot more fulfillment because Wilmington has a wonderful arts scene. This is a city where you can develop any interest you have in the arts, more so than many, many, many other places.

Jones: Do you think it's because of the class of little more sophisticated people who moved down here, retired, at an earlier age?

Pridemore: It's because of the people who live here. It's because of the atmosphere. But it is particularly because of the wide diversity and tremendous experience and abilities of the people who live in Wilmington. This is a rich community when it comes to the arts.

Jones: It is. And you add to it.

Pridemore: Yeah. And I was in Albany, Georgia, for seven years. There was one small theatre group. Albany, at that time, was almost as big as Wilmington. There was one small theatre group. There was one small college, which I didn't know was there for the first six months I was there because it was a black college and the newspaper never mentioned it. I finally found out about it one day when the television station gave them an hour of television free in the spring and an hour in the fall. I found out there was a black college there but, one day, they said, "Next month, you're going to have to do an hour with Albany College" and I said, "Albany College? Where's that?" He says, "Across the river." So this city is different for its size, I think, than most cities in this country. I just think that Wilmington is a unique city, particularly when it comes to the arts.

Jones: I have one last question for you and that is about the Hannah Block USO Community Arts Center, Second Stage theatre, whatever you want to call it. How do you feel about the transformations that have been coming along for the past ten years and probably are not finished?

Pridemore: I'm thrilled of what's been done with the building, really. You know what a fight we put up to keep it from being torn down.

Jones: Oh, yeah. I do, indeed.

Pridemore: I was certainly in the middle of that. I was president of the association when they decided to give it to St. John's and . . .

Jones: Well, originally they were going to just level it.

Pridemore: Yeah, they were going to tear it down and we put up a resistance and we won the battle and preserved it and the city then saw the wisdom of spending money on it and they did. I think they did an excellent job.

Jones: I think the city saw the wisdom after being pelted by certain people over and over and over again.

Pridemore: Yes.

Jones: All with some good sense.

Pridemore: There was a lot of lobbying on our part, on the part of many people, to get the Arts Center redone and certainly the historic Wilmington World War II group had a lot to do with it.

Jones: Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah. I live with that.

Pridemore: Yeah, right.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: They were very influential and . . .

Jones: It's a great place to take the kids. The kids have an outlet there.

Pridemore: The building itself works very well as an arts center. I remember the first time I ever met Linda Lavin was in the lobby of the Arts Center and there were people crossing from this space over here to this space to this space to this space and people crossing the lobby and she said, "Boy, this lobby is a melting pot of the arts center of Wilmington, isn't it?"

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: And it is. You go down there in the evening and you see dancers and singers and actors and--

Jones: Mm-hmm. Well, isn't that where they do their so-called cattle calls for a lot of them to audition?

Pridemore: Most theatre groups in town except Opera House audition at the Arts Center, yes.

Jones: Yeah.

Pridemore: Even those who don't rehearse there quite often will audition there. A good many, of course, rehearse there.

Jones: And you're still heavily involved?

Pridemore: I'm still heavily involved.

Jones: You know, say that.

Pridemore: Long time healthy.

Jones: You know, that's terrific.

Pridemore: As I said to the girl who offered to carry my groceries out of the store the other day, I said, "You must think I'm old. I'm only 85." (laughter)

Jones: (laughter) Well, you know, old is a state of mind.

Pridemore: Yes. But it's also how healthy you are.

Jones: Well, that's very true but I've seen young people, I mean, you can see them on the streets, out of shape, wheezing, you know? And also some people just decide--they used to--I've reached a certain age and then they go downhill.

Pridemore: Yeah. Well, people ask me when I'm going to retire and actually I have absolutely no plans to retire.

Jones: No, of course not. (laughter)

Pridemore: I love what I'm doing.

Jones: Yeah. Penny works with you all the time?

Pridemore: Yes.

Jones: Well, you're probably both fortunate there. (laughter)

Pridemore: Yes, I'm very fortunate. Two of my children work with me and my son, Rick, runs our telephone part of our business while I run the bid part and construction part and the sound part and so on.

Jones: Well that's good.

Pridemore: And Penny runs the office.

Jones: Yes, she does.

Pridemore: Tries to run both of us.

Jones: Well, you got to have somebody do that. (laughter) You don't all live together, do you?

Pridemore: No, no.

Jones: That would be too much.

Pridemore: That would be too much, yes.

Jones: That would be too much.

Pridemore: We probably couldn't make it doing that but--

Jones: This has been fun. Anything else that we should know? Can you think of something?

Pridemore: That's all I can think of that I've done or I'm doing.

Jones: What's coming up that's exciting?

Pridemore: Orange Street Arts Fest coming up this Memorial Day weekend, which I think is going to be good again. I'm happy it's survived all these years. The Thalian Association is looking at this coming year being a very in some ways difficult year because of the closing of Thalian Hall so there will be more productions at the Arts Center. The Arts Center is already heavily booked through 2010. We and Opera House will be using Kenan Auditorium for our big plays and we will be using the Arts Center for our smaller plays. I don't know where Opera House is going to do their smaller plays because they have not asked us for any space. Big Dog has booked all their shows in our space next year and other groups have, too, so the Arts Center is going to have a very, very busy 2010, I can tell you now.

Jones: Well, I look forward to it.

Pridemore: Something will be going on there. I mean, something goes on there every night now but there's going to be a production every weekend in there, I think, in 2010.

Jones: Well, that's great. That's terrific.

Pridemore: We're happy that it is such an attractive place. We need to double the size now. It is bulging at the seams. We had a board meeting there last night and our manager reminded us we had to be through by seven because the space is booked and everything was full and we couldn't stay one minute after seven.

Jones: Oh, my gosh. Let's see. Catherine (inaudible) and Troy on the board?

Pridemore: Yes.

Jones: I guess they can do about anything.

Pridemore: They can do almost anything you can think of. They can do it and they do it a lot.

Jones: I know they do. I know they do.

Pridemore: They're very fine board members.

Jones: Catherine's expecting again.

Pridemore: We have--yes, in September. We have an excellent board of directors. We have a number of business people. We have a number of theatre people and some of us we think are from both sides. We have a very active board, very good board and it's an organization that is looking forward to the coming year and the next year and the next year. We want it to be around, you know, three or 400 years from now and look back and say, my god, this thing was started in 1788 and we're 400 years old.

Jones: Thanks a lot, Jim.

Pridemore: Thank you very much for having me.

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