What Tony Quirino did

IT TAKES ALL KINDS of ingredients to make a community, starting with people and their institutions. But after the basics like government and schools, the things that distinguish one place from another come from quirky, unexpected features–what you might call character. Put the Crandell Theatre on Main Street in Chatham under the heading of character.

Since 1926 the theater has been the central source of year-round public entertainment in the village. It started as a vaudeville stage but soon switched to movies. For the last quarter century it has been run by Anthony “Tony” Quirino and his wife, Sandy. Before that, it was owned by Mr. Quirino’s father. The younger Mr. Quirino died unexpectedly this week at 62.

The Crandell is a throwback, a time warp. It has only one screen, a balcony and 534 seats. Nobody would build a theater like that anymore, because only big corporations build theaters, and they treat the movies like so much supermarket produce. By design they herd the public in and out of endless showings on tiny screens of as many films as possible; when there’s a big hit, outrageous ticket prices yield a bonanza. At the Crandell you only see the one movie that’s playing… for a week. But a ticket costs about half what you pay elsewhere.

You have to wait for most blockbusters to come to the Crandell, and sometimes the popular ones simply aren’t available. We can’t recall how many times we asked Tony: “When are you gonna show….?” followed by the name of some box office smash. Tony would shake his head and say he didn’t know but he was trying.

Over the course of a few weeks, there has always been a movie worth seeing on that big screen while munching tasty popcorn sold in amounts that don’t worsen the obesity epidemic. Meanwhile Tony kept the projectors running, changed the marquee every Thursday night, cleaned up the place and sold tickets, always with a quick, if somewhat wary smile. In an industry that idolizes big bucks, nobody who met Tony ever suspected he was in it for the money.

These days it’s hard to imagine many places where adults and kids can congregate voluntarily to share an experience. But if you want to go to a movie around Chatham, you don’t have a choice of which movie to see. For the last 25 years, you saw the one Tony Quirino chose for you. He did an amazingly good job striking a balance between family and adult fare. On the worst nights of the year–howling winds, ice, snow, lightning–there were cars parked on Main Street to see the show.

Any adult who has been to a movie with kids under 18 in the audience knows that as rude as adults have become these days, kids can be even more annoying to those who want to watch the film. At the malls kids’ peers run the theater, so who’s to stop the ruckus? But not at the Crandell. When kids got too boisterous before the show, Tony strode down the aisle and stood in the row of seats between the ringleaders and the screen. Making a sweeping gesture, he’d point at each of them. “I know all of you,” he said in a stern, gravelly voice, “and if there’s any trouble, you are out of here.” You could have heard a pin drop. Then, as he walked back up the aisle, adults applauded. The kids stayed for the movie and behaved remarkably well. Tony was a hero to many older movie goers.

Tony and Sandy would take time off around Christmas and go someplace warm. The effect at night during their absence was profound. The lights were out on the marquee and Main Street felt desolate, abandoned. The sensation had less to do with cold winter evenings. It was more specific. The center of the community was missing. We had a palpable feeling of relief each time the lights came on again.

The Chatham Film Club, which worked with Tony for years on the annual FilmColumbia festival, had an agreement to purchase the theater and continue to show movies on a regular schedule. Film club members say he was planning to help them even after the sale. We hope the sale happens as Tony intended and that the Crandell remains in operation.

Tony Quirino entertained us there–a good thing all by itself–and in the process he fostered a sense of community, of reminding us we’re part of a place worth caring about. That’s a powerful gift to leave behind, and we’re grateful to him for it.

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