Lifelong Memory Makers
Local philanthropists Susan and Bob Salvin help bring back historic Carolina Theatre
Bob Salvin was just a kid when he and his friends would ride the bus to uptown Charlotte to watch a movie at the Carolina Theatre. They’d each put down 35 cents and six Coke bottle caps, take a seat in the most magnificent theater this side of Radio City Music Hall, devour a box of Sugar Babies and lose themselves in the magic of the movies.
While Bob’s sweet memories endure, he chose to not just dwell on yesteryear. Alongside his wife, Susan Salvin, they are helping reinvent the movie house as a community gathering space, ensuring future generations get to make their own memories.
The Salvins, longtime supporters of charitable causes in Charlotte, donated $3 million to help renovate the Carolina Theatre. Abandoned since 1978, the theatre at North Tryon and Sixth streets is being transformed by Foundation For The Carolinas into a civic hub.
The 36,365-square-foot theatre will host films, entertainers, speakers, town hall meetings, and more arts and civics-related programming. It will adjoin the Luski-Gorelick Center for Philanthropy – the Foundation’s headquarters – and serve as the centerpiece of what will be called Carolina Theatre at Belk Place, an acknowledgment of the Belk family’s contributions to the community and this project.
For their generosity, artists who visit the theatre will stand on the Susan and Bob Salvin Stage.
“This is our town,” Bob said. “We have a responsibility to give back, to make it a great place, to share our bounty.” And the Carolina Theatre and other causes he has helped bring to life? “Doing anything on this scale is beyond anything I ever imagined.”
Local historian Tom Hanchett agreed with Bob Salvin when it comes to the possibilities of the renovated Carolina Theatre.
“Today when movies are available at the click of your computer, it’s hard to imagine what the Carolina Theatre meant,” Hanchett said. “The new theatre, in a different way, will be a jewel of this city, a coming-together place in a metropolis where we spend a lot of time at home in front of our computers.”
Engaged, Curious, Optimistic
Theirs is the sweetest kind of success story because Bob and Susan Salvin chose to, in their own words, “share our bounty.”
The middle of three children, Bob grew up in Charlotte’s Cotswold neighborhood, attending Landsdowne Elementary School, McClintock Junior High and East Mecklenburg High. He worked summers in textile mills to earn money for college.
After graduating from N.C. State in 1972, he moved to New York and worked in the Empire State Building, selling yarn to the textile industry. Charlotte called him back home in 1981, where his entrepreneurial spirit led him to his life’s calling.
He started selling dental instruments out of the back of what he calls “a really bad used car.” He parked the clunker where clients couldn’t see it. He got dentists’ addresses out of the Yellow Pages. Monday to Thursday, he went door to door. Thursday night, he flew or drove all night to meetings where dentists learned how to treat patients with dental implants.
Selling high-tech surgical instruments to dentists who performed dental implants is why that clunker of a car is long gone. Salvin Dental Specialties Inc. is now a global company doing business in 100 countries. It employs 75 at its headquarters off North Wendover Road. Bob is Founder and CEO.
Among his early customers was Elvis’ dentist in Memphis, Tenn. Small world: Elvis played the Carolina Theatre in 1956.
Persistence and resourcefulness top the list of the secrets to Bob’s success. When he got into sales, he’d marched into dentists’ offices to show off his wares. He had a way of ingratiating himself to prospective clients. Several dentists invited him to watch a procedure, giving him a white coat and introducing him as Dr. Salvin.
Forever looking out for the less fortunate, Susan grew up in Decatur, Ga., volunteering at her church and working to earn her own spending money. Also the middle of three children, she was the nurturer in the family, a trait that led her into nursing, then into pediatric nursing.
She began working at what was then Presbyterian Hospital in 1979, first as a staff nurse on Pediatrics, Pediatric Intensive Care and the Intensive Care Nursery. As her leadership responsibilities increased, she became director of nursing of Presbyterian Hemby Children’s Hospital in 1985.
Susan said her greatest accomplishment over her years at Presbyterian was her dream of building a children’s hospital. In 1994, that dream became a reality with the renovation and building of the current Novant Health Presbyterian Hemby Children’s Hospital, a place dedicated to family centered care and child-right services to assure all children’s needs are meet.
“Susan was a fantastic leader and nurse,” said Pat Campbell, a former colleague and now vice president for Novant’s Women’s and Children’s Institute. “What impressed me was her love and compassion for children. Her connectivity with any and all individuals was remarkable.”
Bob and Susan Salvin were introduced by a mutual friend – their first date was dinner at Hotel Charlotte in the Cotswold area – and married in 1989. Partners in life and work, she retired from nursing and went to work with Bob in 1998.
They have two adult children, two grandsons and a home filled with stunning sculptures, paintings and photographs taken by Bob. That’s one of his passions, along with architecture and vintage cars.
But their most rewarding passion is philanthropy.
Leaving an Impression
A love of the arts inspired them to contribute $2 million to renovate the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts & Civic Engagement, Queens University of Charlotte’s stunning performance space. Bob and Susan recall watching a “zillion” dance recitals there featuring their children. The center’s atrium bears the Salvins’ name.
Bob serves on the Board of Trustees of Queens University in Charlotte and is a past president of the Charlotte World Trade Association and Metrolina Business Council. Bob and Susan together served as trustees of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
Charlotte’s Michael Blair has known the Salvins for 20 years, first meeting Bob on the back of a Jeep during an African safari. As Bob’s friend, adviser and a member of the board of Salvin Dental Specialties, he has seen Bob grow deeper in his generosity.
The Salvins’ story, Blair said, is not unique, which is a wonderful thing. Entrepreneurs spend much of their careers building their business. As the business prospers, entrepreneurs often feel a tug on their hearts to reach out beyond themselves. That’s when philanthropy flourishes.
“Bob and Susan care about this city and want to create places that can bring its citizens together,” Blair said.
Elizabeth Kiser, senior vice president, philanthropic advancement and community programs at Foundation For The Carolinas, has witnessed that same legacy take shape.
“Bob and Susan love each other, and they love the city of Charlotte,” she said. “Bob is an entrepreneur who sees possibility in everything. Susan is a former nurse who cares for people and her community. They are engaged, curious and optimistic. Seeing the Carolina Theatre come to life again for the next generation is their dream.”
The Wonder Of It All
Life is good.
The Salvins have traveled the world for work and pleasure, more than 30 countries including Russia and China. Above the Arctic Circle, Bob took photographs of polar bears. Charlotte, though, remains their favorite place.
Sometimes they’ll go out for “Date Day” in a 1955 Porsche 1600 Speedster convertible, one of the vintage vehicles that Bob owns and works on himself. The headlights aren’t quite bright enough for “Date Night.”
Bob’s love of photography comes in handy. He takes the photographs for his company’s catalog.
During the pandemic, the Salvins had friends over to watch movies. They’d bring their favorite candy. Junior Mints were popular. There in the middle of all this sweetness, enjoying every moment, was Bob Salvin, a kid from Charlotte, who remembers the Carolina Theatre, The Sound of Music and the wonder of it all.
What’s that old show biz phrase? Thanks to the Salvins and many others, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Carolina Theater At A Glance
Opening in 1927 with a showing of the silent movie, A Kiss in a Taxi, during its heyday, the Carolina Theatre hosted such icons as Elvis, Bob Hope, Andy Griffith, Frank Sinatra and Katherine Hepburn.
Time and the rise of suburban multiplexes took its toll. The Carolina Theatre closed on Nov. 27, 1978, with a showing of Fists of Fury. After many unsuccessful efforts to revive the theatre, the City of Charlotte purchased it in 1986 and sold it to Foundation For The Carolinas for $1 in 2013. The newly renovated civic theatre will open in fall 2023.
For the complete history of this historic Charlotte gem, visit the Carolina Theatre’s website.
Charlotte’s Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor who helps Foundation For The Carolinas tell its stories.