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Owner of Arlington's Olympic Theatre does it all, from selling concessions to splicing film

ARLINGTON — Running a 70-year-old movie theater isn’t all popcorn and candy.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes,” said Norma Pappas, owner of the Olympic Theatre in downtown Arlington.

From managing concessions to hand-splicing together reels of film, Pappas doesn’t just spend an occasional weekend at the movies like her audience members — she often spends seven days a week there.

Most modern theaters rely on a number of full-time staff members to run projectors, serve food and beverages, take and sell tickets and clean up after each nightly show.

At Olympic Theatre, it’s all Pappas and a handful of “very part-time” high school students.

“When I’m not here, there’s no movie,” Pappas said while preparing for a recent two-for-one Tuesday showing of “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.”

Showing a movie at Olympic isn’t as easy as pressing the play button on a DVD player — Pappas must drive down to Kent to pick up the movie in film form and bring it back to Arlington.

Theaters have the option of having films shipped, but Pappas said it would cost her $300 per film for that service.

Instead, she just hops in her van and makes the trek herself.

Pappas uses a booking service, which negotiates terms and show dates of each film screened at Olympic.

The terms vary, but Pappas said older movies are generally shown for about a week, while newer films — called first-run movies — may have to be shown for up to three weeks.

Those first-run movies are generally more expensive to show, but attract larger crowds.

“We only have one screen, so sometimes we’re stuck with just one movie,” she said.

Once Pappas has the film in her possession, she must hand-inspect it. Used films can sometimes have fingerprints or damage that can cause problems when they are run through a projector, she said.

“Sometimes they’re damaged when we get them, and we have to send them back,” she said. “You can tell if they’ve been improperly treated in the past.”

An average length movie comes with about six reels, which are hand-spliced together and run through a projector.

Including travel time, each movie takes about seven hours to prepare, Pappas said. That doesn’t include operating the projector during each film.

“I’m the only person trained on the projector,” Pappas said.

On the business side, Pappas single-handedly purchases candy, popcorn and other concessions for sale through local suppliers and wholesalers.

She said she has five part-time teenagers, who help sell snacks, take tickets and clean after each showing. Up to three part-timers work during a movie, she said.

Once movies begin, those teens often go home since state law requires that minors are not allowed to work past 10 p.m.

But not Pappas — the theater owner spends about 75 hours per week working at Olympic, and sometimes stays until midnight during late showings.

“It’s very time-consuming,” Pappas said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Despite the challenges and work that goes into running a locally owned theater, Pappas is optimistic about Olympic’s future. Although the theater did not have a great year financially in 2009 — as was the case with many Arlington businesses — Pappas said the theater has a lot to offer.

In addition to its two-for-one tickets on Tuesdays, the theater offers competitively priced tickets without having to drive across Snohomish County, she said.

“We’re a family oriented business,” Pappas said. “Although times are tough, we just need little Arlington to continue to support us.”

For more information on Olympic Theatre, visit www.olympictheatre.net or call 360-435-3939.

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