Cinema on the Susquehanna: Movie buffs in Smallville, PA, renovate a 70-year-old movie palace


There are few places in the United States where you can catch a 19-inch smallmouth bass in the morning, barter for a Shaker rocking chair in the afternoon, and watch an acclaimed indie film in an art-deco palace at night. You can in Lewisburg, a small but vibrant Victorian town on the banks of the Susquehanna in central Pennsylvania, home to the spectacular Campus Theatre.

“The Campus is one of the nicest historic theatres in the world, and I’m truly lucky to be associated with it,” says Eric Faden, a professor of film studies at Bucknell University who for the past decade devoted much of his spare time, and his own money, to saving the movie house from the ignoble fate that has befallen too many once-glorious cinemas.

Faden bought the Campus on a whim and a prayer after a real-estate agent took him on a tour while he was house-hunting in Lewisburg. “It was a harebrained, crazy idea, because I had no clue about renovation, although I had experience as a film programmer,” he admits. He paid about $215,000 for the Campus in 2000 and sank another $150,000 into immediate repairs, in part to carve out an apartment for himself where the balcony lobby had been. Faden then created a nonprofit organization in order to raise another $300,000 in donations and grants from the state. In 2006, he sold the building to the nonprofit, which in turn sold it to Bucknell, the shuffling necessary to initiate a second wave of fundraising to further the cinema’s restoration.

On Aug. 26, following five months of intensive work on and behind the theatre’s walls, the Campus will celebrate its 70th anniversary with an official reopening at 1941 prices: 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for kids, with a marching band in honor of the evening’s feature presentation, The Music Man, thrown into the bargain. The grime-encrusted, water-damaged, patched-over murals decorating the auditorium, lobby and upstairs lounges have been meticulously brought back to life by noted conservationist John Hartmann (see below). The theatre’s workhorse 35mm SPECO platter system has been augmented with a Christie CP220 2K digital projector and Denon Universal DVD/Blu-ray player, and its sound system updated to Dolby Surround with Bose speakers. The 12-foot-deep stage, with its curtain now fully operational, has been refitted with a retractable screen to accommodate live theatre and musical performances as well as meetings and community events, facilitated by state-of-the-art WiFi capability. All seats have been refurbished or replaced, a lounge area carved out in the rear of the auditorium for receptions, and a retro-style concession stand added to the expanded lobby.

“The theatre is a throwback to the zenith of single-screen movie theatres,” explains Mark O’Brien, president of the Campus Theatre's board of directors. “We’re steeped in nostalgia, but we now have the technology to provide so much more to the community.”

Named as well as designed in homage to the nation’s largest private liberal-arts university located a few blocks from the theatre’s location on Market Street, the Campus owes its longevity in no small part to an endless stream of students who found its pleasures a good excuse for a study break. The original owner, Harold Stiefel, operated the theatre for close to a half-century until his death in 1988, when his wife, Jacquie, took over and kept the house lights burning for another dozen years. But the building had fallen into disrepair, its condition epitomized by its heating and cooling system: a geothermal plant that circulated water from an underground stream—environmentally friendly, perhaps, but antiquated and inadequate.

“In the summer, forget 3D, you lived the movie, if it was a beach film,” recalls O’Brien. “In the winter, patrons came knowing they would need heavy coats that they wouldn’t take off. We would provide blankets. When it rained, there would be a waterfall behind the screen.” But the theatre benefited from a faithful coterie, many of whom volunteered to take tickets, sell candy and shovel snow off the sidewalk, all to keep the projector rolling. “Our community, the people who belonged to the Campus membership program, helped us through the tough times,” says O’Brien.

Lewisburg claims about 6,000 residents, Bucknell about 3,500 students, but the Susquehanna Valley, which encompasses four counties that border the river, boasts a population of 500,000, with a surprising number of universities and a major medical center within an hour’s drive of the theatre. “Coming to central Pennsylvania from Los Angeles, where I worked before Bucknell, was a culture shock,” Faden recalls, “but I was blown away by the fact that audiences showed up for challenging films.” O’Brien, a more recent transplant from Washington, D.C., describes life among the rolling hills and farmland as “country living with city tastes” and sees the Campus’ reincarnation as part of the area’s cultural coming of age.

“What better way to assure the vitality of the community than to make sure its art scene is vibrant?” says O’Brien. “Bringing in manufacturing was once the way to go, but today seeding the arts is the preferred method of economic development. My dream is that within five years, partnering with the university, which has a gorgeous performing-arts center and another smaller theatre, Lewisburg will have an arts festival that will be an annual event. The city will become a destination, and the cinema will act as an economic engine.

“We plan to offer two shows nightly on weekends, but businesses on Main Street generally aren’t open Sundays,” he explains. “If people come in town for a movie, they’ll want to eat, shop… We want to reach out and partner with local merchants, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts.” As part of the Campus’ commitment to all things local, the concession stand will offer Pardoe’s Perky Peanuts, Purity Candy and other treats made in the Susquehanna Valley.

Campus programmer Ellen Flacker-Darer is confident she’ll screen to full houses on weekends, and hopes to draw 60 to 80 people on Wednesdays and Thursdays. “I won’t book anything if I can’t get it for 35 percent or less,” says Flacker-Darer. “I won’t book films without an end-run date. With one screen, there’s no way I am going to keep a movie for three weeks.” The theatre will show only contemporary indie, art-house and sub-run films, and decided against 3D projection. “We show films that will never play at the multiplexes but are getting national buzz, that people in New York City are talking about but people here can’t see on the big screen.” For August, during the walk-up to the reopening, Flacker-Darer has booked Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (sub-run), Beginners (indie) and The Tree of Life (art-house), to cite three examples of her booking strategy.

Mondays at the Campus are reserved for Bucknell students to watch films assigned for university courses, although the public is invited to attend all such screenings. Two-dollar Tuesdays will focus on a film series curated by Faden (featuring $2 popcorn, soda and candy), the movies followed by Q&A sessions and talks by guest filmmakers.

“Over the years, Bucknell has been a wonderful Big Brother to the Campus,” notes O’Brien, mentioning that the school came to the rescue several years earlier when a fire caused smoke damage throughout the building. “None of this restoration would have been possible with the intervention of the university. They have taken a leadership role and given this facility back to the community as a gift.”

Faden, whose formal title is associate professor of English and film/media studies, will have the honor of presenting the theatre’s birthday present to the valley, a 10-day film festival in mid-October comprising seven decades of movies chosen from the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

“When people come in and see the theatre, they are going to be amazed,” says O’Brien, looking forward to the Campus coming-out party. “And after they experience the space, things are going to happen that we never even planned.”

See You ’Round the Campus
“We restored 9,000 square feet of wall and ceiling surfaces, plus 2,000 linear feet of gilded molding, in twelve-and-a-half weeks,” enthuses John Hartmann, of Hartmann Fine Art Conservation Services, the Carlisle, Pa.-based company that reanimated the auditorium, lobby and lounges of the Campus Theatre. “All our work was done while construction was going on, jack-hammering of the floors and electrical work that caused the lights to go out.”

Removing seven decades of soot and grime was the easy part, says Hartmann, who formerly worked as chief of conservation for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some of the murals in the building had been covered with up to eight coats of paint, others obliterated by repeated applications of skim coats. The water-damaged plaster had “a glowing efflorescence” in some spots, and “calcium build-up, like that in a tub,” in others.

Despite the tight work schedule and modest budget—Hartmann brought the job in for under $350,000—he managed to save almost all of the art-deco mural work, a great deal of it painted onto acoustical tiles glued to the auditorium walls that required him to invent special solvents on the spot. “I cleaned some of the wall art like I would clean an easel painting,” he says.

His team of restorers had no color photos or close-ups to work from, so they extrapolated from existing designs to repair badly damaged areas. The work necessitated a wide range of techniques: bronze leafing, tone washes, sponge painting, the process sometimes proceeding at the pace of a Q-tip.

“History doesn’t reveal itself all at once,” he says, summing up his approach to preservation. “You’ve got to live with the project for a while before you understand it.” He had one advantage: A 1979 graduate of Bucknell, he remembers going to the Campus as a student.