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Cinemas in the dark

If you want to see a movie on the big screen, go to Vermont — but even there, Hollywood isn’t releasing many new films

The State Theater in Tupper Lake has been closed since March. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

If you spent the summer dreaming of buttered popcorn and waiting for Christopher Nolan’s latest movie to open, you’re going to have longer to wait, at least in the North Country.

Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York will continue to hold off reopening plans for movie theaters. Up to 10,000 theater employees have been laid off or furloughed across the state since theaters were forced to close in mid-March, according to the Albany Business Review. Cinemas are now open in 45 other states.

This puts the small, family-owned theaters in the Tri-Lakes area in a bind — one that’s already lasted for six months.

“We’re not happy with our governor,” said Barbara Clark, whose family owns Palace Theatre in Lake Placid. “He’s opened gyms and churches and casinos. Hollywood’s not treating us right because our governor’s not treating us right,” Clark said. “We’re a nothing up here.”

The Palace opened in 1926, and Clark’s granddaughter Heather Clark is planning a 95th-anniversary celebration for the four-screen theater in 2021 — assuming it will be open by then.

Sally Strasser owns the State Theater in Tupper Lake. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“We’re waiting,” said Heather, whose grandparents bought the theater in 1961. “That’s all we can do.”

“Poor old thing,” said Sally Strasser of the Tupper Lake movie house she bought in 2004. The State Theater opened in 1914 doing vaudeville and showing 10-minute movies without sound.

“Even if Cuomo says yes, the best I could do is a few historic shows,” said Strasser, as she looked around her closed theater. “Yesterday a whole bunch more movies got pushed back.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, studios have been pushing back the release dates of upcoming movies. The widely anticipated movie “Tenet,” a noir thriller by Christopher Nolan, was delayed three times due to COVID-19. It was the first Hollywood film to open after the shutdown and opened to disappointing numbers on Sept. 3. (“That broke my heart,” said Heather, a big Nolan fan.)

“Most of my salespeople from Warner and Disney were laid off,” said Strasser. “There’s nothing.”

Barbara Clark and her family own the Palace Theatre in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“Even if we do get the authorization to open up,” said Cory Hanf, who owns the Hollywood Theatre in AuSable Forks, “Hollywood’s not playing anything. How many times can we play a 30-year-old movie?”

Hanf is selling his theater to Jerod and Chris Heidrick, owners of Thwaits-Zaumetzer Funeral Home in AuSable Forks, a process Hanf began before the pandemic. It’s not a new business model; the Clark family also owns the funeral home in Lake Placid. (And yes, they’ve all heard plenty of “Six Feet Under” jokes.)

Strasser would open up the State if she could, although at this point it will take her some time to get the old place in working order again. A lover of independent films, the former projectionist said she’d experiment showing lesser-known films and could easily space out filmgoers in the big theater.

“I can deal with 10 people at a show and still stay alive,” said Strasser. “I own the building.”

At a press conference in Plattsburgh on Monday, local politicians called for Cuomo, the state and its Department of Health to issue guidance to theaters on exactly how to open safely. So far there have not been any guidelines offered.

Cory Hanf is selling the Hollywood Theatre in AuSable Forks to the owners of a local funeral home. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“We had a plan,” said Barbara about reopening the Palace. “But you can only put it on paper.” The Palace has been refurbished some during the summer, which was easy to do because it was closed.

“We’re keeping our marquee on, because it lights up the street,” she said. “Our electric (bill) this summer was out of this world.”

Barbara says that she’s heard of smaller theaters that have opened in other states — Vermont and Massachusetts allowed theaters to open with a smaller capacity in July — that couldn’t make payroll.

“There’s no product,” she said.

“It’s illogical,” said Hanf about letting restaurants open but not movie theaters. “It’s not a concert where there’s 80,000 people.” The Hollywood has two screens with 136 seats between them, and Hanf said he could easily space out folks and provide masks and sanitizer.

When the State Theater in Tupper Lake closed in March, “Tenet” was the summer’s most anticipated film. You’ll have to go to Vermont to see it. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

“The draw with theaters is seeing something new,” said Hanf. He noted that it would be one thing if he could show the new Wonder Woman movie — “Wonder Woman 1984” was originally scheduled to be released in June but has been pushed back to Christmas — but as it is now, he’d have to show previously released movies that people can watch or stream at home.

“It’s a chicken-or-egg thing,” he said, noting that Hollywood keeps pushing back releases because theaters aren’t open, but theaters aren’t open because there aren’t new movies to screen.

“This hurts the whole industry,” said Heather of Cuomo’s holding out. “Without New York and L.A., (studios) don’t want to open their movies.”

Another conundrum is that the independent movies that Strasser loves and would show if she could open are the sorts of movies that appeal to an older crowd who are more at risk.

“I’ve got a squadron of old ladies,” said Strasser of some of her regulars. “They would be staying home.”

The State Theater in Tupper Lake has been closed since March. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

Strasser looked up at her own dark marquee. The last movies she screened before she closed were Pixar’s “Onward” and the remake of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” starring Harrison Ford and a CGI dog.

“This is a small town. What are you going to do in the dead of winter? You can go bowling,” said Strasser. New York bowling alleys were allowed to reopen in mid-August.

“Or you can go to the movies.”

On May 19, the Palace Theatre marquee in downtown Lake Placid offers a hopeful message foreseeing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The Palace Theatre marquee in Lake Placid (Enterprise photo — Tom Salitsky)

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