The Nickelodeon was started in 1979 by two USC media arts students, Linda O’Connor and Carl Davis, who wanted to present more classic film in Columbia. They created a nonprofit organization, rented a storefront near the University of South Carolina campus, cranked up a 16 mm projector, and started showing films. The format in the early days was three films a week: a classic film on Monday and Tuesday, an older repertory film on Wednesday and Thursday, and a new independent or foreign film on the weekend.
O’Connor and Davis left in 1980, and Dale Campbell started his long and esteemed time as the Theatre Manager and the face of the Nickelodeon. By 1988, however, the repertory programming model was disrupted by the advent of the VCR, the first of many technological challenges for the organization. One day that summer patrons found a sign on the door saying that the theatre would reopen “soon.” Loyal members waited several months for that to happen but finally banded together to reenergize the theatre and make it a real grassroots arts organization.
After an extensive campaign in the fall of 1988 to raise the funds required address its significant debt, the Nickelodeon reopened several months later with a renewed commitment to function as a member-based, nonprofit organization. The new Board of Directors was full of hard-working volunteers who assisted the one paid staff person to begin a path to solvency.
Over the next two decades, the Nickelodeon gradually came to be recognized as an important component of the arts community. Membership and ticket revenue began to be supplemented by grant funding from the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties, and the City of Columbia. More and more community partners recognized the value of collaborating with the Nickelodeon on programming. By 2000, Nickelodeon finances allowed it to hire its first full-time Executive Director, Anne Raman.
By this time the Nickelodeon began to feel constrained by its one-screen facility and its sometimes-perilous rental arrangement. One intriguing possibility for growth was the former Fox Theater, the last surviving theater on Main Street, which had operated as the Fox Theater from 1962 to 1987 and before that as The State Theater from 1936 to 1961. Since the 1950s, the building had been owned by the Lourie family, and they wanted the building to be in the hands of an arts organization. The City of Columbia pledged to give $300,000 to buy the building, and the Lourie family made an in-kind contribution to allow us to buy the building at that price. It was an offer the Nickelodeon couldn’t refuse, and, after resolving a public challenge to the legitimacy of the Board, the organization closed on the property in June 2005.
In late 2005, the Nickelodeon hired Larry Hembree as the Executive Director, and he became the driving force behind a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to renovate the new theatre. Under Hembree’s leadership, the Nickelodeon launched the $4.8 million “Move the Nick” capital campaign that began a few months before the economy wilted in 2008. The campaign was the product of elaborate planning, with consultants helping the Nickelodeon put together strategic and business plans, a feasibility study, and a capital campaign.
During this period the Nickelodeon was also establishing a national profile. The Nick was one of 15 arts organizations nationwide selected to participate in the DeVos Institute’s two-year training program, which led to numerous national contacts and grants totaling $300,000 from The Nord Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Andy Smith, hired in 2007 to build the Indie Grits Film Festival, became Executive Director in July 2011. Hembree stayed on to work on the capital campaign before leaving in 2012.
After a very long $3 million capital campaign and renovation process, the Nickelodeon finally moved to Main Street in April 2012, opening one of the two planned theatres. The original Fox Theater had more than 600 seats altogether, but in the late 1970s the balcony was walled off to create a two-screen movie house, one upstairs and one downstairs. The downstairs theatre opened first, with 99 seats, and the upstairs theatre, with 119 seats, opened in April 2015, after an additional $2 million renovation.
The Nickelodeon continued to develop its local and national presence during this time, gaining support from the Ford Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith was elected to the national Boards of the Art House Convergence and the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. At its peak, the Nickelodeon had over 3,500 members and an annual budget of $1.7 million. In November 2016, the Nickelodeon promoted Smith to CEO and designated its rapidly expanding media literacy programming as “Indie Grits Labs.”
Smith left in January 2018, and, after a prolonged search process, the Nickelodeon hired Anita Floyd in May 2019, with the goal of helping the Nickelodeon regain its momentum. Less than a year later, the pandemic struck, all theatrical and educational programming stopped for 14 months, and most employees were laid off. Public criticism from former employees led to a reevaluation of personnel practices and a renewed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of the organization. Before leaving in 2021, Floyd secured significant grants from the federal government to ensure the organization’s survival as it recovered from the effects of the pandemic.
After a period of reset and renewal, The Nick emerged in 2022 with a reconstituted Board and a strong commitment to its revised mission of “building a stronger, more inclusive, and more equitable community through film presentations that both entertain and provoke critical dialogue.” The Board developed a “Living Statement of Values” to guide both programming and internal operations. In June 2022, Sumner Bender joined The Nick as the new Executive Director, with the goal of rebuilding past relationships and guiding the organization back to its central position in the Midlands arts community.
As South Carolina’s only nonprofit arthouse cinema, the Nickelodeon has for over forty years played a critical role in the development and growth of the arts space in the region. From its beginnings as a one-screen theatre in a converted bank building, The Nick has emerged as a major cultural anchor on Columbia’s blossoming Main Street, drawing over 70,000 attendees into the heart of the city annually.