Catering to Decatur: Historic Avon Theater attracts a discriminating crowd
Carefully watching his odometer, Skip Huston calculated the distance from the Avon Theater to the two competing chain theatres. He measured 5.1 miles from one and 5.3 from the other. He drove again, and returned with the same numbers. The Decatur, Illinois cinema only opened on weekends to play art-house fare, but that was about to change. The Avon was outside the five-mile clearance zone, and New Line wanted the theatre to open seven days a week to play the second Lord of the Rings.
“We found out we could do first-run pretty much by accident,” Huston, head honcho of the Avon (theavon.com), recalls. “Most of the ma and pa theatres like us are within the clearance perimeters and have to play the art and indie films, the things the big guys are not.”
Once Huston diversified, adding two extra screens in a vacant J.C. Penney’s, he began playing first-run fare, starting with The Grudge in October 2004. He still emphasizes the kind of specialty films that end up at the Oscars. “We have this upscale crowd, kinda snobby,” he says affectionately. “They’re particular, and they don’t like to see the Avon play what they call ‘the mall movies.’”
Huston began operating the Avon Theater in 1999, after spending four years trying to buy the vacant structure. The owner’s daughter finally gave him a hint: Ask for a lease. With a long-term rental agreement in place, Huston began with a weekend-only schedule before his fateful discovery that the theatre could play first-run, which requires continuous operation. The surrounding area, in the heart of Decatur’s old downtown, is far from vibrant. Like so many cities, the commercial core has shifted to nearby malls and shopping centers. The downtown is now undergoing a revival, with businesses and restaurants moving in, but Huston reflects that “I was the lone ranger there for a while.”
Because people don’t go downtown on a daily basis, attending the theatre requires planning. With that in mind, Huston’s motto is “Train your customers, don’t let them train you.” Movies screen no more than three times a day. “We don’t grind,” Huston says adamantly, believing that one of the reasons people come to the movies is to have a shared experience, not be one of three people watching a comedy at three p.m. on a weekday.
The Avon dates back to 1916, and it has ghosts to prove it. Before Huston leased the theatre, he co-founded Haunted Decatur tours in 1994. The theatre employees often complained of creepy feelings and cold sensations. While taking a tour through the cinema, Huston had his first paranormal experience—an entire tour group all saw the same apparition. Years later, while retrieving some marquee letters from a remote upstairs office, he saw a ghost (which he first mistook for a homeless person). The figure disappeared when he turned a corner.
The Avon’s haunted reputation led to a lot of publicity in the early aughts, including a number of magazine profiles and episodes on the Travel and History channels, which can still be seen in reruns today. Huston is matter-of-fact about these encounters, and today he views the theatre’s spooky notoriety mainly as a nuisance. “We get a lot of gawkers. People come and stand in the lobby, saying they ‘want to look around.’ I don’t know what they expect…that some ghost is going to come out of the woodwork and give them a raspberry or something?” The theatre also gets “requests for investigations,” which Huston declines. No staff member wants to stay overnight to supervise a ghost hunt.
The staff at the Avon includes a number of Huston’s relatives and it skews decidedly female. Though he calls his employees his “dirty little secret,” Huston devotes a whole section of his website to identifying and praising his workers. “The whole place is run by women, and that’s one of the secrets to our success,” Huston states. “There’s a core group here that treats the place like their own.”
He describes his team of mainly high-school-age women as “well-spoken, with good manners and enthusiastic. But they can also get mean it they have to be. They’re not shrinking violets. If we find someone on a cell-phone, they can be the wrath of God.” If the projectionist alerts the theatre’s “Mangler” Ashley Petty (that’s code for manager) of an active cell-phone, she will “walk in, point a Maglite right in their face, and say ‘Turn it off or get out.’” While Huston admits their tough stance on cell-phones may scare away the offenders, he’s more than happy to lose those customers. He’s more concerned with saving everyone else from the light and noise of the inconsiderate viewers.
The Avon’s older, discerning audience finds refuge in the theatre’s respectful, clean environment. “People say they feel safe here,” Huston says, citing fights and unruly behavior that occur at the other local theatres, which also attract younger patrons. Huston’s hard-working staff also keeps the place clean and well-maintained. Customers report the competition does not do the same. “We will not let people into a dirty theatre, even if it means we’re holding a show. We won’t do it.”
The Avon’s particular viewers led Huston to make an unusual decision. He uninstalled 3D after just four films (Clash of the Titans, Despicable Me, Cats & Dogs 2, Legend of the Guardians). “I would tell people, we’re going to have Despicable Me in 3D, and you’d just see this grimace on their face. We just saw that it was not our crowd. They think 3D is dumb. Many of them are older, so they have seen all the previous incarnations of 3D.” He adds that Despicable Me, which did “okay,” “didn’t need the 3D. It was witty and well-done and just didn’t need it.” The “head guy” at Technicolor 3D told him he was “one of the only, if not the only, one taking out the system, but he knew about the Avon. It’s a very discerning bunch.”
One of Huston’s great successes occurred in the summer of 2002, back when he had just a single screen. “I told my buyer, ‘Let’s try this Greek wedding movie.’ He said, ‘I hear it’s just like a sitcom, and really it’s not doing too well, it’s been out for a month.’ I said, “Well, maybe we’ll get a week out of it. Put it in, see what happens.’”
My Big Fat Greek Wedding played for 13 weeks with lines around the block, and earned over $100,000 for the Avon. Because the theatre was only open on weekends, and played just a few shows a day, screenings ranged from 75 to 404 audience members. “The laughter was infectious. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. It was a unique experience, and something people still talk about today, how much fun that was at the Avon.”
When they finally dropped the film, a competing chain theatre picked it up and played it several times a day to mostly empty houses. “People were out there seeing it with three or four people at the theatre and didn’t have the same experience they heard about at the Avon,” he says, an affirmation of the theatre’s no-grind policy.
Last year, the Avon enjoyed record crowds when a movie both set and filmed in Decatur debuted: The Informant!. Decatur happens to be the headquarters of ADM, the agricultural conglomerate that plays the part of the evil corporation in the Steven Soderbergh film. During filming, the cast and crew, including Matt Damon, would catch movies at the Avon. When the film came out, the locals’ curiosity made for good box office. “There were lines around the block.” Huston remembers. “I think at one point we were the second-highest grossing theatre in the entire state on Rentrak, including Chicago.”
Huston admits to being competitive, and a compulsive Rentrak checker. “When all three of us [the Avon and the two competing theatres] have a hot movie, I’ll go upstairs at my office above the theatre every hour or so and check their hourlys,” he reveals. “We only do nighttime gross reports, but I will look at their hourlys to see how we’re doing against them. It’s nice to know that we are competing successfully on a screen-for-screen basis.”
The Avon also prides itself on its concessions. Prices are below average, and quality is above average. Avon buys premium corn, oil, and anhydrous butter fat—which doesn’t need refrigeration and doesn’t burn. But his biggest secret is using sunflower oil (from ADM), not coconut oil, for popping. People “go crazy for our popcorn, and they wonder what we do to it. I just tell them it’s the drugs we put in it.” The Avon also has a caramelizer, and makes its own caramel, cheese and chocolate popcorn, including the popular “Avon style” combination, which is a mix of caramel and cheese popcorn (also known as “Chicago style”).
In addition to showing movies, the Avon also doubles as a college lecture hall on certain weeknights. Over a decade ago, Richland Community College approached Huston about teaching an adult-education film course. “The first class I was ‘Ohgodohgod,’” he recalls, summoning nervousness. “Then I walked up and started talking, and I haven’t stopped.” He teaches four to five classes a year, and has yet to repeat a course. Over the winter he taught “Bogart Films: Part Two,” and this spring he’s teaching the class "Six Great Screen Teams,” which includes such pairings as Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Huston was born and raised in Decatur, and has fond memories of attending the Avon as a mischievous youth. “When I was a kid, I would make up all these concoctions of pop and popcorn and M&Ms, then I would go up in the balcony and pour them on people. The owners just had a fit whenever I came in, but they didn’t bar me from the theatre because they were afraid of my mom,” he explains, noting that she was one of the city’s more powerful and wealthy citizens.
In the Avon’s nearly 100-year history, it has sat vacant for years at a time, falling victim to mismanagement and into disrepair. In the early 1990s, a second-run incarnation of the theatre lasted just a year. That makes Huston’s decade-plus run with the Avon even more impressive. The community feels the same way. Citizens voted him “#1 Best Decaturite” in a 2010 Herald & Review Reader’s Choice poll, a distinction he wears with pride. The theatre itself sits atop polls naming the “Best Theatre.” Under Huston’s management, another generation of Decatur residents gathers in front of Avon’s flickering screen—without the threat of concessions falling from the balcony and onto their heads.