IT’S DISCONCERTING to see something that was significant in your life at one time appear on an endangered species list.
Technology is said to be placing small-town movie theaters in that category. Now, it’s digital movies, which means a costly upgrade in equipment and a lot of independent theaters, particularly in small towns, will close their doors rather than invest more heavily in an-already risky business.
Once upon a time, in Cleveland, Texas, I tried to lead two business lives, one being my chosen profession — newspapers. The other: operating a small-town theater.
In the late 1960s, my partners and I purchased The Cleveland Advocate, which I was to run, and also bought a burned-out theater building with plans to rebuild and open a movie theater, also under my management.
Cleveland had been without a “walk-in” (regular) movie theater for more than a decade. There was a drive-in theater, but each had a specific crowd of followers and most small towns could support one of each in those days.
NOW, I was already an experienced newspaper editor-publisher, but I’d never done anything in the theater business other than tear tickets and help occasionally in the concession stand as a youngster. That was completely inadequate preparation.
So, here I am publishing a newspaper and overseeing the total reconstruction of a theater. I also didn’t know diddly about construction. For a year I was up to my ears in bolts, nails, concrete and plaster, not to mention movie projectors.
On the night the builder chose to pour the concrete floor for the theater, there was a freezing, drizzling rain. We had special heaters brought into the theater to see that all excess moisture in the air was dispensed so the concrete would set properly.
I was thankful to have a good newspaper staff that made life easier.
ONE OF the first things I learned about running a movie theater is that it’s all the film distribution companies’ way. They pretty-much dictated the rental, their box office percentage and the number of days the movie they chose would show.
You hoped and prayed to sell enough tickets to break even on all of that, so your profitability was in the concession — sell that popcorn!
There were many battles to fight in Cleveland. First, because there’d been no “walk-in” theater for years, most area residents weren’t used to the routine and rules. They’d had more than a decade of choosing between the drive-in theater or TV at home where it’s “your way.”
State law says no smoking in a darkened auditorium. One of the first people I had to caution about smoking in the newly-rebuilt theater was the city fire marshal. Smoking was a regular violation in the theater for the three years I struggled to manage it and the newspaper. Getting a decent picture — clear, in frame, in focus with sound and light adjusted — is totally dependent on your projectionist. Hopefully, you find one that is completely trained and knows how to keep a good picture on the screen.
AFTER A revolving projection booth door, we finally landed an old-timer who not only kept the best picture ever on the screen and the equipment in tip-top shape, but you could eat off the booth floor. This old-timer projectionist had had cataract surgery before lasers and thus wore glasses with lenses so thick they looked like the bottom of a Coke bottle. He remained undaunted and expressed his pride in being one of the best “operators” (a term he said unions applied to his profession) in the Houston/Southeast Texas area.
Automation and technical advances are part of almost any business today. The sad side of that is that we no longer have many operators like the old-timer who devote themselves to bringing pride to their profession. And, worse still, that they are replaced by machines. Most movie-goers are probably totally unaware of these kinds of developments and could care less as long as they see a good movie in a comfortable surrounding. But, those of us who’ve endured some bumpy roads in a business or profession, wince and suffer when difficulties beset that business.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.