Box office magic revisits Chatham

In quick turnaround, film club reopens local movie theater

CHATHAM–Tom Hanks is coming to town! Kind of. The Chatham Film Club, the new owner of the Crandell Theatre on Main Street, will play the nation’s current top box office hit, “Toy Story 3”, when the silver screen lights up again this Friday, July 9, at 7 p.m.

The theater, which has screened films of all kinds since shortly after it opened in 1926, went dark following the sudden, unexpected death last January of owner Tony Quirino . Although the Film Club was already in the middle of a fund drive aimed at raising enough money to purchase the theater, it took the involvement of Chatham residents Judy Grunberg and Lael Locke and some local foundations to help the club acquire the building early last month for $550,000.

This week the inside looked a little spiffier after a thorough and loving cleaning–the 534 crimson seats seemed almost new, the grease spots have been removed where generations of heads rested against the partition between the last row of seats and the concession stand, and the restrooms are, well, somewhat improved. But the graffiti remains untouched in the projection booth, capturing hints of the two generations of Quirinos and the one other family that owned the place, and film club leaders deliver preemptive statements to quash any thought that the selection of movies will stray from the mainstream Hollywood titles that have always played here.

“A seamless transition” is how Film Club Treasurer Mary Gail Biebel describes the reopening of the theater, which begins at 6:30 Friday evening with a ceremonial ribbon cutting. She and club President Sandi Knakal led a press tour of the building late last week, as crews dusted behind radiators and cleaned the window panes of the organ pipe box just to the right of the stage (the arrival of “talkies” eliminated any need for an organ), and plumbers and electricians bustled in and out.

The club had a deal with Mr. Quirino to show an independent film one Sunday afternoon each month, and the only break with tradition in terms of movies, is that the club will now screen independent, mostly foreign movies two Sundays each month. The theater will also continue to serve is the main screen for the FilmColumbia festival in October. The popular festival is now in its second decade.

The central role of the Crandell as an anchor of village activity depended not only on the regular movies it showed but also on how little they cost, and Ms. Biebel said that the price would remain at $5 for adults and $4 for children. But she cautioned that the club would have to revisit its price policy next year after “we’re up and running.”

The club was working with Mr. Quirino at the time of his death on a transfer of ownership. But after so many years in one family–Mr. Quirino’s father, now in his 90s, began carrying film canisters up to the projection booth the year the theater opened–the place has more than its share of quirks. Ms. Biebel said the club had a 20-page transition plan by the time the non-profit organization finally took possession of the building, but there was a little problem: “We didn’t know how to turn the lights on,” she said.

The biggest challenge facing the club right now is finding a permanent manager, somebody who not only knows or can learn how to run the old 35mm projectors but who has some mechanical and electrical aptitude so he or she can fix keep all the systems running, everything from the popcorn maker to the plumbing.

Al Schwartz, who helped revive the Mahaiwe theater in Great Barrington, now a performing arts center, has told the club that the successful applicant needs one attribute above all others: he or she will have to like the “night lifestyle,” as Ms. Biebel described it. The Quirinos worked late six evenings a week, with two shows most Friday and Saturday nights.

Mr. Schwartz is helping the club sort through the 45 or so resumes that have come in so far from people who want to run the Crandell.

Besides the tasks required to keep the theater operating, the club faces the need for major upgrades to the building. The place was originally built as a vaudeville theater and still has an orchestra pit and a couple of moldering dressing rooms backstage. Three stories above the backstage area it’s easy to see the sky through holes at the edge of the roof, and the walls are stained from the water that has leaked inside.

So the club remains in full fundraising mode, as new expenses loom in addition to general maintenance. “We’ve always wanted to go digital,” said Ms. Knakal, who spoke while wedged into the tiny projection booth above the seldom-used balcony. But switching over to a 21st century projection system could cost as much a $150,000, an investment that will have to wait for now.

There is one completely new item that will greet movie goers when the doors open this week: the curtain that veils the movie screen until the show starts. It may seem like a frivolous investment, what with all the other challenges facing the Film Club. But it turns out that a curtain is as essential now as it always was in the movie business. It protects the screen… from spitballs.

Details about the fundraising efforts of the Chatham Film Club and its search for a new manager are available at the club’s website, www.thechathamfilmclub.com

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