Randolph Rallies To Save the Playhouse
Dave Tomaszewski feeds the film Life of Pi into the 1950s projector he and his wife use at the Playhouse Theatre in Randolph last weekend. They have been told movies will no longer be available on film sometime this year, and are fundraising to be able to buy a digital projector for the small movie house. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Rose Dice of Randolph looks at posters of movie stars while waiting for her matinee ticket to Life of Pi at the Playhouse Theatre in Randolph on Sunday. To raise money to buy a digital projector, the owners are forming a cooperative and running a Kickstarter campaign. “I have to join the co-op,” Dice said. “I have to support the life of this theater.” (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
The names of those who are supporting the Playhouse Theatre cooperative are attached to a wall of the movie theater’s lobby. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
The Playhouse Theatre on Randolph’s Main Street was originally called The Strand when it opened in 1919. Current owners Dave and Tammy Tomaszewski purchased the building in 1988, rehabilitating the interior and exterior. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Film leader for the movie Life of Pi is strung from its tray to a 1950s projector at the Playhouse Theatre in Randolph. A film arrives on several reels before Dave Tomaszewski splices it together. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Dave and Tammy Tomaszewski greet moviegoers from the combination ticket booth and concession stand at the Playhouse Theatre in Randolph. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
When Dave and Tammy Tomaszewski first looked at the Playhouse movie theater in downtown Randolph 25 years ago, with an eye to buying it, it was a lonely, abandoned shell of a place. The roof leaked, the interior was in rough shape, and there was no insulation to speak of. The building was not up to fire code, and the old wooden projection booth with its original carbon arc projector system had been left untouched.
Once a glory of Main Street, it was far removed from the main attraction it was when it opened in August 1919 as the Strand Theatre, with a showing of The Border Wireless, a World War I propaganda silent film that starred the wildly popular Western star William S. Hart battling German spies on the Mexican border.
Renamed the Playhouse in 1941, the theater showed movies until the late 1980s and then closed. To turn it into a viable business again would take a mountain of elbow grease, and no one would have been surprised if the Tomaszew-skis threw up their hands and walked away.
Still, “It called to me,” Dave Tomaszewski said. Although he wasn’t a movie buff with a capital B, he saw in the theater both a challenge and an opportunity. “I’m just a builder type of guy and if anything can be made I can make it.”
He wrote the owner a letter, outlining what they could afford to pay. She wrote him back, saying she wanted to buy a horse and that she’d accept his offer. And so — cue thundering chords on the piano — the Playhouse was saved! The Tomaszewskis renovated it and brought movies back to Main Street. It is, said Tomaszewski, the oldest, purpose-built movie theater in Vermont that’s still in use.
But now the Playhouse, rather like the silent movie heroine tied to the railroad tracks while the steam engine chugs relentlessly toward her, is facing a greater existential threat. Like other smaller, independently owned movie theaters, the Playhouse is up against the juggernaut of new technology and the monopolistic practices of Hollywood movie studios. The studios have largely phased out the production of movies shot on film stock in favor of digital cinematography. By April of this year, they will stop shipping film reels and send movies only in the digital format.
So if movie theaters want to show first-run films, they must convert to digital projection and sound if they haven’t already done so. Unless the Tomas-zewskis can raise $100,000 to purchase a new digital projector and sound system, the odds are good that the Playhouse will shut its doors as a movie theater.
The Tomaszewskis have taken steps to raise the money by turning the theater into a consumer cooperative, with $100 shares available for purchase, and they recently started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000. Kickstarter is the online, fundraising mechanism through which people can raise money for a pet project; numerous independent films and arts programs have been partially or wholly funded that way.
The catch is this: for the Tomaszewskis to see any money from Kickstarter, they have to raise the entire $20,000 by March 10. To date, 208 people have pledged nearly $15,000. The Tomaszewskis have also alerted the organization Save Our Screens, an online website that directs people’s attention to movie theaters across the country that are at risk of shutting down. Save Our Screens is currently featuring the Playhouse as its endangered theater du jour.
The forced digital conversion poses a particularly devastating threat to rural or small-town movie theaters, which are often single-screen, small-owner businesses that were already feeling the squeeze from the mall multiplexes, Netflix and online streaming.
The problem with the digital conversion, said Tomaszewski, is that it’s not just a question of buying a projector. He would also have to buy a digital sound system, and insulate the projection booth, which hasn’t really been remodeled since 1919. Because dramatic fluctuations in temperature, from the heat of summer to the cold of winter, affect how electronic equipment functions, the booth needs to maintain a consistent indoor temperature. So, the costs of an upgrade mount quickly.
Going digital would have some advantages, he noted, although the technology is the least of them. “Mechanical systems are much more reliable than digital systems,” he said. But he could also screen big events such as the Superbowl, show live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera or other venues, and do video gaming. He doesn’t underestimate the challenges ahead, however.
While the little-movie-theater-that-could trope appeals to those who favor David over Goliath, the sad fact is, in life, Goliath usually trounces David. And the movie studios, under financial pressures of their own, don’t give any thought to small-town movie theaters struggling to make a go of it.
“They don’t care,” is the blunt assessment of Bruce Posner, the film restorationist who lives in Plainfield and has worked with a number of studios on film preservation projects. “How does someone sitting in Los Angeles or New York, someone in the center of the hubbub, even begin to wrap their mind around a theater in Randolph and what they’re up against?” he said.
Of the conversion to digital, said Posner, “everybody’s had to face the music.” Even a first-rank repertory theater like Film Forum in New York, after much resistance, switched over when it became clear, Posner said, that the studios didn’t want to spend money on keeping film prints in the kind of mint condition required for a run at a revival house. “What’s humorous about the whole thing,” he said, “is they spend as much sending out digital hard-drives as film prints.”
At the Playhouse, Tomaszewski climbs a steep, old wooden staircase to the original projection booth. “All this stuff is just junk at this point,” he said, looking around at an array of old projectors and sound equipment. There’s a huge film platter onto which he’s loaded the theater’s current attraction, Life of Pi, which came in seven reels and which he spliced together.
Once he and his wife bought the theater, they put all their energy into refurbishing it. When it opened in 1919, the theater seated 400, but people were smaller then, Tomaszewski said, so when they reopened it they reduced the seating to 168.
There are still touches from 1919, though. The box office has changed little and some of the seats are original, as is a good part of the hardwood floor. The orchestra pit where a pianist used to accompany silent movies is still there, although now concealed by a stage that the Tomaszewskis built.
And unlike the long, narrow shape of the modern multiplex theater, this one is spacious and wide and also boasts excellent acoustics, said Tomaszewski. Through trial and error, he has learned how to run a movie theater and what it takes to give an audience a good experience in seeing and listening to a film. They recently showed Lincoln, and had to turn people away the first night.
Miriam Herwig, a Randolph Center resident, has been going to the theater with her husband since they were newlyweds in the 1940s. To lose the Playhouse would be unthinkable, she said. “It’s such an integral part of the community it would be almost like eviscerating the town to remove it.”
For information about the Randolph Playhouse, go to http://playhouseflicks.webplus.net.
For information on the Kickstarter project, go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/678892078/playhouse-projector-project.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.