Independent movie theaters enrich viewing experience with family touches
Independent cinemas play many roles in Adirondack communities: They are romantic locations for a date night, an exciting venue to laugh, cry and discuss movies with friends, and a center for one of the most powerful and rapidly evolving art forms to date.
Though there is a smaller community of people to comprise an audience than at multiplex theaters, local cinemas fill seats by offering the lowest possible prices, minimal trailers before a feature and popcorn with real butter. Tourists visiting Tupper Lake, AuSable Forks or Lake Placid may never get to see a movie as cheaply at home.
Or course, just because they are cheaper than the direct competition does not mean theaters are safe from the changes new media bring. More viewers use streaming, $3 rentals from grocery stores and larger screens in the average home than ever before, but theater owners say they offer something better.
“I have five-point surround sound and a mounted big-screen TV,” said Heather Clark, who lives above the Palace Theatre in downtown Lake Placid. “I can watch a movie in my apartment, but watching it on the big screen? It’s completely different.”
Independent theater owners provide a unique service. They are the people who brought “Star Wars” to the Adirondacks, screen the movies talked about in towns across the North Country and host birthday parties, video game tournaments and film festivals on the largest screens in town.
It takes a unique type of person to provide that service, and members of the families that run the local theaters have strong opinions — both ways — about such things as superhero movies and the values of film and digital projecting. They also pride themselves on being the only place in town selling Reese’s Big Cups.
How does one come to own a cinema?
Lights, camera, action!
“Barbara, I hope you’ve got money stashed away. I bought the Palace Theater!”
Barara Clark remembers what her husband Reg, then a Lake Placid funeral director, told her in 1960, one year into their marriage, when he purchased the cinema where he had once worked in high school. Since 1961, the couple and their expanding family has operated the Palace and inspired others to enter the cinema business, too.
Cory Hanf had been a projectionist at the Palace for around a decade when he bought the long-defunct Hollywood Theater in AuSable Forks. His story is closely tied to his family, a crucial part of owning an independent theater.
Sally Strasser ran projectors for film’s heavy hitters for years. Getting her start projecting at a Buffalo theater as a night job in college, she quickly found herself engrossed in the industry and became an expert projectionist.
In 2002 she moved to Tupper Lake, and by 2004 she had purchased the State Theater there.
Not everyone can run a film projector for filmmakers, and Strasser pours the same obsessive attention to detail when screening movies in Tupper Lake as she did for the Sundance Film Festival or Martin Scorsese’s private screening room. She is always tinkering with the theater, touching up its image, upgrading equipment or customizing acoustics to optimize the viewing experience. Her goal of providing flawless, finely tuned films has even led her to sneak into the projection booths of other multiplexes mid-film to refocus the lens.
Booking the films herself, Strasser is the DJ for Tupper Lake’s cinema experience, taking requests in person and online while throwing in lesser-known movies she wants to share with others.
It takes a family
Strasser passed the projecting talent on to her sons, and in 2015 the whole family was hired to screen Quentin Tarantino’s 70-millimeter film “The Hateful Eight” in three different locations.
Three generations of Clarks currently work at the Palace, doing everything from taking tickets to decorating the lobby. Evidenced by the film reel tattooed on her arm, Heather inherited her grandparents’ love of cinema. She lives above the lobby, collects and preserves dozens of classic film posters, and screens throwback films on Sunday evenings to fundraise for refurbishing the Palace’s Robert Morton pipe organ, a relic from the silent-movie era. It is one of four theater organs in the state located in its original home and has not been played since silent film organist Jeff Barker died in 2013.
Heather said she hopes to introduce the impressive instrument to new generations with performances before and between movies after the restoration is complete.
While Barbara, Reg and Heather were in the Palace lobby, the couple’s son and grandson showed up and joined the conversation, remembering film facts, telling stories from years of working concession booths and running projectors, and discussing the ghosts who are said to roam the theater.
When the Hanf family was moving from Lake Placid to AuSable Forks, Cory’s wife Sierra — an architectural enthusiast — learned that the empty storefront on Main Street had been a movie theater from the 1920s to the 1980s. They decided to purchase the building and turn the restoration of the theater into an ongoing family project.
Enlisting the help of their now 15- and 18-year-old sons, they set to work repairing the water-damaged roof, uncovering and filling the slanted floor, adding seats and painting the lobby.
Cory, who works at the post office, and Sierra, who drives a bus, are always pushing progress to reconstruct the theater forward. When the project feels tedious and overwhelming, Cory said he remembers why he started it and what it means to the town.
“We have a really loyal following,” Cory said. “We have regulars that show up for every movie. I feel great when I see them. We’re a small-town community; that’s what we’re here for.”
Bringing people together
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, Cory, only 42, said he is troubled by how phones isolate people and that even though it is culturally taboo to talk during a movie, they provide opportunity to get out of the house, do something enjoyable with other people and discuss it with them.
“I really hope that it doesn’t get to a point where everything is homebound,” Cory said. “It’s not good for us as a people.”
Cory believes the two to three hours of escapism a film provides from the troubles of the real world is important, and that it is best to escape with friends, family and neighbors.
“If you like people, it’s a great business,” Barbara said. She remembered holding an infant in the lobby through a movie, and then years later meeting him again when he returned to the Palace as an adult.
Theaters, as one of the most popular forms of entertainment, get residents and tourists alike out on main streets, among the restaurants and businesses. Cory said he and Sierra never intended for the theater to become integral to the community, but that is what happened.
“We all sort of depend on each other,” Strasser said. “I’m just glad to be part of the community and do what I do. If somebody gets sick and they need a fundraiser, the theater is available to them for free.”
Owners at the State, Palace and Hollywood all said they try to use their theaters to benefit their community, opening doors, keeping prices low and, in the Palace’s case, donating extra popcorn to fire departments and hospitals.
“You go through a town that has a marquee, it means something,” Barbara said. “It means it’s vibrant; it’s alive.”