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Big screen draws small audiences as theaters, filmgoers await full post-virus reboot

  • Russ Brady, assistant manager of the Nugget movie theater in Hanover, N.H., watches the front door between screenings Friday, July 17, 2020. The theater reopened on July 10 with long list of new safety precautions that include health screenings, regular disinfecting of surfaces and required mask wearing. “There has been no problem maintaining social distance,” said Brady. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • With theaters only able to fill to 50% capacity, patrons are required to choose seats from a chart before the show at the Nugget movie theater in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 17, 2020. When the movie has ended, staff use the chart as a reference to clean the seats that were used. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News Photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Jimmy Watson, of Lebanon, stops on a work break from Dartmouth College to see what films are showing at the Nugget in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 18, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • The Nugget is only showing movies in three of its four theaters with every other row of seats blocked off to provide safe distance for customers, Friday, July 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2020 9:32:53 PM
Modified: 7/18/2020 9:32:51 PM

HANOVER — It’s a longish drive from Rochester, Vt., to the Nugget Theaters, but Wende Case and Robin Fiske are used to traveling a bit to see films on the big screen.

The friends regularly troop to Rutland, Burlington and Montpelier, as well as to Hanover, to see the art-house movies they favor.

So they were excited to get tickets at the Nugget on Saturday afternoon for Sometimes Always Never, a British film featuring actor Bill Nighy and a plot about Scrabble and strained family relations.

“Anything to see,” Case said outside the theater. “We’re film freaks.”

Since movie theaters and other public gathering places were shuttered in mid-March, filmgoers have had to content themselves with the small screen. But that is slowly changing. Drive-in movies have been up and running for weeks, thanks to their outdoor venues. The Nugget reopened a little over a week ago, and Claremont Cinema 6 is open with screenings on Fridays and Saturdays.

New Hampshire allowed theaters to reopen as of June 29. At the Nugget, seating is spaced out, with every other row of seats closed to allow for physical distancing; masks are required, though patrons can take them off when they’re in their seats; and cleaning protocols are in place.

“Everything we choose to do will be some kind of risk,” said Bill Hammond, a longtime teacher and school principal who is now vice president of the Hanover Improvement Society, which operates the Nugget, as well as Storrs Pond and Campion Rink. The Nugget also recently replaced its ventilation system, he noted.

Case and Fiske said they felt safe, or safe enough to attend a screening.

“My take on it is, this is Hanover, N.H., Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital,” Case said. “They wouldn’t open this unless it was safe.”

Fiske was more reserved: “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable,” he said, “but I’m going to risk it.”

So far, few viewers have come back to the theater. Only a handful turned out Saturday for the matinees at 12:30, 1:10 and 1:30.

The theater has reopened with a sense of mission, Hammond said. Last week, it screened Miss Juneteenth, a drama about a single Black mother encouraging her 15-year-old daughter to secure her future. And on Friday, the Nugget opened John Lewis: Good Trouble, a documentary about the congressman and civil rights leader who died Friday. (The scheduling was a coincidence, decided before Lewis’ death.)

The focus on African American stories is by design, and the timing of the Lewis film only gave it more weight.

“We’ve been trying to find ways to make the Nugget meaningful, and to make Storrs Pond meaningful and eventually to make Campion Rink meaningful,” Hammond said. “I think one thing a movie theater can do is show movies that reflect on issues that are coursing through the country.”

There isn’t much incentive for a movie theater to open. Hollywood is holding back movies it had planned to release over the past few months, or releasing them on streaming platforms. Among the films on view in Claremont are Jaws, Ghostbusters and other aging blockbusters.

It’s been a challenge to find digital cinema packs for some of the films the Nugget wants to screen on social and racial justice issues, said M. Kaufman, the theater’s manager.

“I think it’s important, if we’re open, to pay attention to what’s going on in the world,” Kaufman said.

But film studios won’t release movies if the novel coronavirus has shuttered theaters in big swaths of the country, he said.

So far, the people to come back to the theater have been the most devoted cinephiles.

“It’ll be my second time back,” said Nick Barnes, a resident of Quail Hollow, the senior living community just over the Hanover line into West Lebanon. Last Friday he saw Miss Juneteenth, and Saturday he was planning to see Sometimes Always Never. “I’m a big moviegoer,” he said.

Barnes said he felt safe in the theater, with a caveat: “Granted, there was only one other person there with me.”

He said he expected more people would turn out for the John Lewis documentary, adding that he’d already talked to friends who said they planned to go see it. The timing of its opening in Hanover with his death seemed uncanny.

“I think it’s so psychic that they have this John Lewis film and he just passed,” Case said.

For movies to become a mass event again will take time, and data, Kaufman said. People want some proof that an indoor experience is going to be safe.

Mother and daughter Mary Young, of Thetford, and Karen Gainey, of Norwich, stopped for cones at Nugget Scoops, an ice cream pop-up also run by the Improvement Society in the former space of Morano Gelato, and strolled across to look at the movie posters. They wouldn’t feel safe sitting in a theater, they said.

“This is our big outing,” Gainey said.

“We went to the transfer station and got ice cream,” Young said. “Now I’ll go seclude myself on the riverbank.”

On a hot summer afternoon, an air-conditioned theater used to be a refuge, too. People want to return, eventually.

“I would probably go to the movies, if he felt comfortable with it,” said Mary Kehoe, a 1975 Hanover High School graduate now living in Shelburne, Vt., indicating her husband, Jeff Johnson.

“I’m almost there,” he said. He’s over 60, “so it is a risk factor.”

But, “having the movies open is a sign of normalcy,” he said, and people are looking for that — some of them anyway, even if there is some risk involved.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

Valley News

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