What's New at Manteo's Pioneer Theater, Plus Outer Banks Got Talent!

By Molly Harrison | Thursday, January 4, 2024

When the Creef family, former owners of The Pioneer Theater, announced in November 2022 that they would be closing their much-beloved downtown Manteo theater, people in Manteo and across the Outer Banks deeply mourned the news. The decision to close, based on declining attendance and increasing expenses, was just as wrenching for the Creef family, whose predecessors opened the theater in Manteo in 1918. Three generations of Creefs lovingly shared The Pioneer with the town for 104 years, making it the oldest continually operated family-owned theater in the nation.

But good news came a few months later with the announcement that The Pioneer Theater had been bought by two other longtime Manteo families, the Basnights and the Hatchells. Michael Basnight, his sister Jamie Basnight Hatchell, her husband, David Hatchell, and David’s brother and sister-in-law, Derek and Sharon Hatchell, bought the theater in February 2023.

The new owners began restoration efforts with an eye toward ensuring that people still felt a similar feeling when coming to The Pioneer Theater. Basnight says they wanted to update the building and bring in new offerings while at the same time providing the deeply nostalgic experience the theater is known for.

“The most important thing was to keep the historical aspects and bring out beauty of original design,” Basnight says. “But we also wanted to update and enhance the experience.”

Photo: The new facade of The Pioneer Theater

The new owners removed the false Tudor façade from the theater to reveal its original brick structure. They got a new marquee and sign and redesigned the ticket booth. They remodeled the flooring, enhanced the concessions area and updated the décor with the help of local designer Vicki Horning – all to stunning, polished effect. They updated the lighting and sound systems as well. 

As far as new additions, they added a VIP lounge and bar area at the back of the theater for use during certain performances (not family movies). They also added the Pioneer Garden in the old parking lot next to the building. The garden features Astrograss, decorative lighting, tables, a bar area, a small outdoor stage and a parking space for a food truck, and it has been the site of many delightful evenings in Downtown Manteo.

Photo: The Pioneer Garden, a place for outdoor events right in the heart of downtown

Offering more than movies was always a part of the new plan for The Pioneer. Basnight says it was important to them to bring in more offerings, more in the style of a community theater than a just a movie house.

“Over the decades the Pioneer was also home to musicians, plays, community events, fundraisers and more,” he says. “We knew we wanted to offer the full spectrum of offerings and make the theater modular so we could very easily adapt to offer several types of events, whether it’s a movie or a concert or a lecture.”

Over the last eight months, The Pioneer has done just that. The 257-seat theater has hosted not only new and classic movies (with the same perfect popcorn and crushed ice in the drinks), but also comedy shows, live music performances, fundraisers and community events. They ran a live showing of the Manteo High School Women’s Soccer state championship on a Saturday afternoon. They hosted the Braveys sports awards for Manteo Middle School and welcomed 400 students from Manteo Elementary School in December 2023, just for a fun field trip day to the movies.

Photo: Pickin' at the Pioneer, a side event of Bluegrass Island Festival in October, will continue in 2024.

Live music has been a huge hit at The Pioneer. To be more welcoming to performers, the new owners added a green room backstage. Country music star Jake Owen said it is his favorite green room. A surprising discovery about The Pioneer has turned out to be the theater’s sound quality. Performers Rhonda Vincent and Hawthorne Heights, and even the vice president of business development for the Country Music Hall of Fame, have said the sound quality is like a recording studio. Basnight says this is because the thick brick walls are double layered with a false space in between. Also contributing to this are the low ceiling, the rectangular shape of the theatre, the elevated stage, the slope of the seats, the forward folded curtains and more. “The experts and sound engineers say it’s dead in there, meaning there’s no extra noise, and that’s a good thing,” Basnight says. “Rhonda Vincent said it sounds like the Grand Ole Opry in there.”

Photo: Inside The Pioneer Theater

Basnight says he has plentiful ideas for creative and fun ways to keep The Pioneer Theater fresh and exciting in 2024. Luckily he says, Jamie and his team, including Mary Kay Rinaldi, Angie Austin and Vicki Horning, can help him bring all of his many ideas to fruition. 

One of the new things coming up is Outer Banks Got Talent. Local musical talents and singer/songwriters are invited to audition and display their musical skills on stage at The Pioneer Theater. Private tryouts, then three public rounds will be held to determine a winner of the 2024 Outer Banks Got Talent.

Basnight says The Pioneer will continue its partnerships with both Cory Hemilright of Bluegrass Island and VusicOBX Summer Concert Series to bring bonus musical events from those concerts to a smaller setting. He's also envisioning Podcasts from Pioneer with musical acts in town for those events. Basnight is also excited about hosting more corporate meetings and events, similar to the events The Pioneer is hosting for Coastal Studies Institute soon. 

Currently playing at The Pioneer is The Hunger Games Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Upcoming movies include Trolls Band Together, Priscilla, Killers of the Flower Moon and The Jungle Book (1967 version). Live music with Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience is coming in February, as is an Oscar party.

To keep track of the happening The Pioneer Theater, see their website and Facebook page.

Outer Banks Got Talent Details

January 13 and 14: Private tryouts. Registrations accepted up to January 13.

January 27: Round 1 at 7 p.m.

February 24: Round 2 at 7 p.m.

March 30: Final round at 7 p.m.

All of the information needed to enter is available here.

About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks.