Grandin Theatres an homage to older times
By: Viola Pruss
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 04, 2013 03:15 pm
As a child, long before I set foot into the first digital movie theatre, I entertained old-fashioned fantasies about what’s going on behind the scenes.
At the centre of those images was a room with a small window, looking across the rows of people seated below. The room would smell of dust and old cigarettes, and house one, lonely man sitting beside a projector.
Sometimes, the crowd would complain so he’d fuss with the machine or change the reels. But most of the time he would read magazines or gaze through his little window while listening to the projector’s soothing hum.
That fantasy quietly faded after countless visits to modern cinemas where digital movies are mostly left unattended and smooth images move across the screen. Then, one late summer night, it sprang back to life at a visit to St. Albert’s Grandin Theatres.
“Digital is a very expensive technology. We are able to run the older 35 mm technology and play it at a cost that’s affordable to people,” said Katy Smith, former general manager and daughter of the theatre’s owners. “We are hesitant if we even want to go digital because then we lose affordability.”
Grandin Theatres has operated movie projectors from the 1960s since it first opened its doors in 1999. It is one of the few, independently-owned theatres left in Canada that uses the technology and there are even fewer ones that show new releases, said current general manager Amy Woloszyn.
The difference from digital theatres can’t go unnoticed. Before the movie starts, a soft humming fills the room as the projector warms up. And throughout the movie scratches and dirt on the reel flicker at random across the screen.
“The projectors are old and problems happen,” Woloszyn said. “It’s a struggle with the machines. When something breaks parts are hard to find because everyone else is digital.”
Heading up the stairs to the long corridor a level above the theatres, you first notice the walls, cluttered with a collection of pop cans and posters, with movie stars showing off eccentric drawings of mustaches and make-up. The five projectors in here give off a lot of heat and noise – the same humming sound heard in the theatres, only three times louder.
Two projectionists in their late teens huddle around a desk filled with projector parts. One of them explains that movies come in multiple film reels that have to be linked together with a yellow tape (invisible to the viewer as the projector displays about 64 frames every five seconds) to make it into a full movie.
The movie is then placed on two large platters connected to the projector. The “feed reel” holds the part of the film that has not been shown and feeds it into the projector, while the “take-up reel” winds it back up. Once the movie starts running it is almost impossible to stop it or rewind it, unless you reel it back by hand, said Woloszyn.
“It takes them about 15 minutes to replace the movie (once it’s done),” she said. “It’s not a movie that you can restart. Once it runs, it runs.”
The projectionists are among the last of their trade. Schools in the area have long stopped teaching the profession and the last real projectionist, a former owner of the theatre, left years ago, said Smith.
Today’s knowledge is passed down from one teenage apprentice to the next. It takes them five or six training shifts to learn the basics, and another two or three to know how to fix a ripped movie or broken part.
“This technology is going to be outdated very soon,” Smith said. “But I would hope that the film companies would see that some film theatres are not digital and 35mm has continued to work flawlessly since the ’60s.”
The big movie companies have threatened for years to stop making 35mm films, she said, based on a lack of demand. This year the transition is supposed to be final but the theatre continues to order movies as usual. If the prints are no longer available, Smith said they may consider going digital or turn Grandin Theatres into a dollar-theatre that shows older flicks, like Disney’s Little Mermaid.
“We could never keep up with Cineplex. I mean we are a family run and locally owned and operated business,” said Smith. “But I think our regulars and customers want what we can offer which is local, affordable and the ability to send your kids down safely.”
A place for the kids
In the late 1990s, Grandin Theatre was one of only two movie theatres serving St. Albert and the north of Edmonton. Woloszyn said business quieted down after Empire Theatres (now Cineplex) opened their big cinema on 137 Street in 2003 and the local Village Tree Cineplex Odeon closed down.
Today, the theatre caters to school groups and families, mostly showing movies made for children and young adults. The biggest theatre seats 185 visitors, while the smallest has room for 135.
The floors are sticky, the sound system seems stereo and many of the seats don’t lean back. But for $110, families can still book a party room, popcorn, pop and a movie for eight children and one adult. On Tuesday night, a movie costs $5 (a regular ticket is $8). Children and seniors pay $4.50 all week.
Woloszyn said the busiest times are weekends, early afternoons or seven o’clock shows. The theatre doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on restorations, so employees pitch in when it comes to painting the walls or decorating, she said.
“We actually had the Arden Theatre donate their old chairs … and I got in touch with Dean who runs (the former Village Tree theatre) and we made a deal and we got all the old projector equipment and he donated all the old chairs,” she said.
She added that the theatre is one of the few places in town that offers jobs to teenagers without requiring any previous work experience. The 13- to 20-year-olds do everything from working the cash register, making cotton candy, cleaning, and working the projectors.
One day the theatre may be replaced by a newer one, said Smith, depending on the plans of their landlord Amacon. The company has said for years that it would sell the theatre and adjacent Grandin Mall and build a condominium tower – but nothing’s happened yet.
“We will take that obstacle on as it actually comes to us,” said Smith. “For now we carry on and do the best we can.”
At nine-thirty on a Tuesday night, a couple walks out the front door, arms wrapped around each other and laughing under yellow, fluorescent light. Minutes later, a group of teenagers parks their cars and heads inside to buy homemade popcorn and cotton candy hung from bags above the cashier.
On most days, it’s not hard to find a seat in the theatre and line-ups are short. Yes, Grandin Theatres, with its smaller screens and limited selection in movies, cannot compare with its larger competitors. But when that humming starts up in the back of the room, a feeling of olden times returns that may one day be wholly forgotten.