The Day Our Star Went Digital
It was a shock when we received the first letter. Twentieth Century Fox announced they would offer no more movies on 35mm film by the end of 2013. My husband, Jack Soronen, and I had to make a decision—a very expensive decision.
The Star Theatre is a nearly 100-year-old movie house that is the main nightlife in the small historic spa town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. It is both the shining light of weekend nights with its 1949 marquee, and an important economic factor in a town where tourism is a major industry. We had to go digital or close. We knew we couldn’t abandon our town to no movies and an economic hole, so we made the only decision possible.
The Star is a true mom-and-pop operation. Jack and I are the sole employees along with various volunteers and family who fill in occasional gaps. It’s our year-round weekend job. Jack takes tickets, runs the projectors and keeps everything functioning. I book movies and make the best popcorn in four states. We both sweep, mop and vacuum. We’ve owned and operated the Star since 1977 and are only the third owners since movies were first shown there in 1928.
The abstract decision was easy to make: Digital or die. It was the high cost of the equipment that gave us pause. We calculated it would cost virtually every dime in profit we’d made since we opened, and about twice what we paid for the business and building originally. The movie industry offered no financial assistance and we interpreted the VPF systems as something akin to serfdom. The Star is our private business, so we did not think public fundraising was appropriate. In the end, we figured we were committing to work until we were 90 to earn it all back.
Jack set off in May 2012 to the Mid-Atlantic NATO conference in northern Virginia to see what he could learn about the digital world. Arriving early, he met up with the folks from Ballantyne-Strong in Omaha, Nebraska. It was love at first sight and they provided us with the newest used system we’ve ever seen: an NEC NC2000C projector using a GDC SX-2001A server.
Once we decided to go digital, we made other upgrades as well. Jack wanted to be sure that people would see changes beyond what a digital image brings to the screen. We bought an MDI screen and the Star got a new coat of paint inside and out. There was no way around it. We would have to raise prices.
Even with new, higher prices, the Star remains a bargain. Adult tickets increased from $3.75 to $4.50. Not one person has ever mentioned the higher ticket price. The only reaction comes from our city friends who laugh and claim that we’re now approaching 1995 level.
Going digital was a challenging learning experience for Jack, who has been the projectionist since we opened. Originally he used the two carbon-rod Brenkert projectors installed by the Alpine chain which leased the theatre in 1949. In 2002, when the last American manufacturer of the carbon rods stopped production, we decided to upgrade to a xenon bulb and platter system. It was a major quality-of-life improvement for Jack. No more Cinema Paradiso. But also, no more sweating in the projection booth through the whole movie waiting to switch from one projector to another, every 20 minutes or so, to replace the rods which burned to provide the light.
Jack gathered a posse of four friends to help empty the existing projection booth of the 2002 system and move in the new equipment. He contracted with our technical advisers and suppliers at Cardinal Sound in Elkridge, Maryland. A pair of Cardinal technicians came to Berkeley Springs and spent several hours hooking up the digital equipment, setting image and sound. Jack was on the phone with them all the next day as they worked to adjust software. Then came the digital opening night and we held our collective breaths as Jack flipped the switch on the server.
It reminded us of our original opening on October 1, 1977. We turned on the projectors for the first time the previous day. The show was sold out. Television crews were out front and we were waiting for the friend of a friend who was coming to show the film, and teach Jack. He arrived about 10 minutes before start time.
Jack had it easier in 2013. With the digital system, the movie could be shown from Cardinal’s remote connection. Fortunately, the fail-safe wasn’t necessary. It would have felt like cheating.
Our first digital movie was The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn--Part 2. We figured that audience would be forgiving should there be a crisis. There was none until the following weekend with Lincoln. We had booked the movie for an additional day to accommodate a group of seniors who wanted a daytime showing. Unfortunately, the digital key was set to expire Sunday night and we did not know enough to recognize that. There we were with a hundred-plus old folks patiently waiting nearly an hour for this newfangled technology to work. While Jack spent the time frantically on the phone with Deluxe and Cardinal techs, I did the obvious: I went on stage and blamed it all on Disney.
With our calendar system where a single movie shows for a weekend, we have not noticed any big change in how quickly we can show a particular title. One improvement for us is that trailers are now easily available in bulk. The digital system is another step up in easing the job of the projectionist. No more hauling heavy reels of films up and down narrow steps, splicing and breaking down reels for the platters. No more breathing xenon fumes. Once mastered, the loading and showing of movies is much easier, which makes it possible to train back-up projectionists.
We’re excited about the possibilities of digital. The acoustics of the Star’s 325-seat auditorium are exceptional and have delighted performing musicians and those who used it as a recording studio. Someday we hope to be streaming live opera from Lincoln Center—or maybe World Wide Wrestling.
For our audiences, it is the crisp image and almost 3D quality even on our 2D system that impresses them the most. Local patron Ken Troy says, “The image is great and the prices are still the best around. But the most important part is they didn’t change the popcorn machine.”
Located in a brick building on a main corner in town, the Star Theatre is on the West Virginia Historic Theater Trail. Check starwv.com or call 304-258-1404 for what’s playing.