ARLINGTON — The Olympic Theatre once again helped area moviegoers ring in the new year with some affordable family fun, but it remains uncertain whether this year will be the last for the historic movie theater in downtown Arlington.
Norma Pappas, owner and operator of the Olympic Theatre on Olympic Avenue, credited city of Arlington Recreation Manager Sarah Lopez with coming up with the idea for free screenings of family-friendly movies at the start of the year. In the past half-dozen years, she’s seen the free screening attendance increase even as her numbers of paying customers throughout the rest of the year have declined. While last year’s showing drew an estimated 150-160 attendees, Pappas figured the Jan. 2 showing of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” packed 180 parents and kids into her seats.
“The city and I split the overhead,” Pappas said. “I charge for concessions, but my prices are very cheap. I just hope I sell enough popcorn to cover my end. It’s tremendously expensive to heat a big building like this during the winter. Those lobby doors open wide to the outside. They weren’t thinking about insulation as much in the 1930s when this place was built.”
After 36 years of running the Olympic Theatre, Pappas has been facing the pricey prospect of being forced to convert to digital film projectors, which prompted community members to start meeting in the summer of 2012 to try and find a way of saving the Arlington landmark.
“At the last meeting, it was determined that we should probably form a nonprofit, which is very time-intensive,” Pappas said. “My alternatives are to raise my prices, which I’m not going to do because people come to this theater because it’s affordable for families, or to sell shares of my business to investors to raise the money to buy the new equipment, which I’m really not comfortable with.”
In the meantime, the “Save the Olympic Theatre” group will be kicking off an Indiegogo online fundraiser with a window of 60 days to try and raise $30,000, which Pappas believes could cover “a fairly good portion” of the cost to purchase a digital projector, although if the projectors that are available are not compatible with her existing $30,000 sound system, her total expenses could increase even further.
“These projectors are very specific as to the size of the screen and the distance between the projector and the screen,” Pappas said. “Older theater buildings have more distance between the projector and the screen, so they require more light. The theater in Oak Harbor that did a digital conversion had to spend $80,000 to get the biggest projector they could.”
The price of not converting is already apparent. To show “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” Pappas had to block out the front rows of the theater to project it onto the big screen from a DVD player that had been hooked into her theater’s sound system.
“Just in the past year, Disney has had three or four major releases that were totally digital,” Pappas said. “Kodak is bankrupt. Fuji is the only one that’s still making film. The studios say it’s too expensive not to switch, but they get the profits while we bear the costs.”
As Pappas pondered what lies ahead, moviegoers of all ages extolled the virtues of her theater.
Aspen and Sidney Vanderlaan were dropped off at the Olympic Theatre that afternoon by their parents, along with their friend Matthew Kirchberg, and even before the movie had started, the young moviegoers were literally kicking back and relaxing.
“I like that the chairs recline so you don’t have to sit straight up,” Sidney Vanderlaan said. “I’d like to see this place stick around. It makes for a perfect spot in Arlington.”
Jesica Stickles guessed that she’s attended “at least a hundred” different movie screenings at the Olympic Theatre, and the Jan. 2 showing saw her bringing not only three children of her own, but also two kids from a friend’s family.
“They offer newer movies for a really good price,” Stickles said. “It would be tragic if the Olympic Theatre went away. It’s one of those attractions that’s unique to Arlington.”
Shirley and Scott Marson are likewise frequent patrons of the Olympic Theatre, and they came to the Jan. 2 showing with their own three children and one of their kids’ friends.
“It’s nice that the Olympic Theatre gives back to the community like this,” Shirley Marson said. “So many small-town things seem to be drying up. We don’t even have drive-ins like we used to. I hope the Olympic keeps going, because they show great movies, and if it takes buying buckets of popcorn, I’ll try to support them as much as I possibly can.”