WHITEHALL — The marquee on the Star Theatre shows its age. Chipped gold paint on it reflects the struggle past owners have had in keeping alive a business that in many other small towns has long been relegated to history.
Small-town movie theaters are the exception these days in Montana, say those who care about this theater. Multi-screened cinemas in larger cities have lured away the crowds that once sustained these hometown iconic businesses.
But even if a passing glance at the marquee suggests a time-worn quality, that is not the case.
The star atop the marquee illuminates this portion of Legion Avenue — the town’s main street — in front of the theater on movie nights. It beckons to those who call Whitehall home as well as people who live in neighboring small towns. Movie nights are a chance to sit with friends and neighbors in front of a genuine silver screen.
“You know everybody in line when you’re getting popcorn,” said Glenn Marx, the former owner of the town’s weekly newspaper, the Whitehall Ledger.
Today, the future of the theater is again in jeopardy. Blame progress. Blame technology.
Digital technology will be replacing film, and that means projectors in theaters must be updated. The cost for a digital projector is about $70,000 — money that Kerry and Karen Sacry, who own the theater, don’t have. This is a break-even business at best, they say.
“Without the digital technology, we won’t have movies,” said Peter Bogy, who has lived in Whitehall since 2001 and is the former president of the Helena Symphony.
“That’s the big concern for us,” Bogy explained.
“Probably within a year, none of the first-run movies will be coming reel-to-reel,” he added.
In response to the pending change, the community is trying to raise something in the neighborhood of $90,000 to pay for a projector that the town will own and rent to the theater for $1 a year. Some of what’s left over will pay incidental expenses with the fundraising and maybe even sprucing up the theater a little.
Just a few weeks ago, between $13,000 and $15,000 had been raised. Then a person who wished to remain anonymous chipped in $5,000. Recently, a family foundation in Montana that also shuns the limelight agreed to provide $30,000 toward Save the Star, the 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization created to handle the fundraising.
The theater’s future is beginning to look brighter with roughly half of the money raised.
Influence of change
Autumn dresses the town in gold and yellow and crimson on a Saturday before winter’s arrival. The pride that those who live in this town of about 1,100 take in their community is reflected by tidy lawns and homes.
The morning’s traffic on Legion Avenue is steady but sparse and would seem to be mostly local residents. This is the way it’s been for small towns all across America since President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Heralded as the greatest public works project in the nation’s history, it signaled the coming decline for small towns. Traffic that formerly passed through these towns sped by on the new interstates.
That, too, is the story for Whitehall. Tourists and travelers came to town only when they needed fuel. The business district is less robust now than before the interstate was built, said a town native who is a business owner.
It’s hard to keep the little mom-and-pop stores on Main Street alive, said Tim Mulligan, who owns the Corner Store.
Fire, too, has had a hand in reshaping the community. The legacy of a March 2009 fire that destroyed perhaps six businesses is an empty lot next to the brown brick building that houses the Star Theatre.
“That was a huge loss,” said Mike Wharton, a Jefferson County deputy sheriff who works nights. He’s not in uniform on this Saturday morning and sits back in one of the more comfortable chairs at Mike Arterbury’s coffee shop, Gone to the Dogs, which is a sideline to his picture framing business next door.
Arterbury agrees on how the fire affected the town.
“I think people were kind of devastated,” he said.
“It will probably sit there for a long time as a lot,” Wharton predicted.
“It’s still hard to have that big hole right there in the middle of downtown,” he added.
The vacant land is a poignant reminder of loss and is mentioned when the talk over morning coffee turns to keeping intact the Star Theatre.
Wally Madsen, the owner of Madsen Cabinets, said he has gone to several movies at the theater in the 27 years he’s lived in Whitehall.
Concern for the theater flashes across his face when talking about what it means to his town. “Don’t ever lose that,” he warns Wharton has seen change in the six years he’s lived here since moving from Vermont. People are pulling together more, he said, adding “It may be a sign of the times. They’re afraid to lose the few things we do have in the community.”
Residents have banded together and created the tax-exempt organization, Save the Star, to try and keep the movie theater from being a casualty of change.
Save the Star
Holly Harper, a Whitehall resident for 11 years, describes herself as the project manager for the fundraising effort. She is also the English teacher at Whitehall High School and the school’s librarian.
Someone needed to fill out the paperwork for the federal 501(c)3 paperwork, and she agreed to handle it — a task she’s performed previously, she said, for other projects.
The organization’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/savethestartheatre, serves as a diary for the effort to raise the money. The organization has grant applications with other organizations and plans for fundraisers. A February dinner at an area ranch is seen as the single largest event to raise money for the Star.
“I think it’s important to get everybody involved as everybody benefits from the theater,” Harper said. “If it were closed or turned into something else, it would be a blow.”
The Star is more than just an evening’s entertainment for the community.
“People have nostalgic feelings about it,” she said, explaining that it has been a first job for some, a first date for others.
‘Talk About a Dream’
“It’s up to me, it appears, to tell the tale. And to be honest, I’m the perfect one, since I was there. I not only lived through it, I wrote about it every week,” begins Glenn Marx’s book, “Talk About a Dream.”
Glenn and his wife, Teri, owned the Whitehall Ledger from 1997 to 2006. When they arrived, the theater was shuttered. The building appeared as though it hadn’t shown a movie for a very long time.
After their second child graduated high school, they sold the newspaper to have more flexibility in their lives. In this new free time that they had, Glenn began to write a story for their two children. For three years during the winter months, he worked on the story. It grew far beyond anything he had initially imagined.
He started writing it, he explained, to tell his children something about life. He said he wanted them to know that they will get only one go-round and they should make it count.
“You don’t live life for yourself. You can, but that would be sort of an empty existence,” he said.
He wanted their children to understand the importance of connections in a family and within a community. He also wanted them to understand it’s OK to respond passionately to art and to go out of their ways to find things they are passionate about.
The book, Glenn added, “it’s an ode to Montana, it’s an ode to community, it’s an ode to family.”
And when he heard about the community effort to save the theater, he gave the book to the fundraising effort. Friends of the theater paid to have 2,500 copies printed.
“The book costs $19.99 and $19.99 goes to Save the Star,” Glenn said.
“It’s important to me personally and it’s important to Whitehall,” he said of what the theater means.
The deadline to raise the money for the theater is July of next year although the Sacrys don’t know for sure the date when first-run movies are only in digital format.
‘Wouldn’t it be neat …’
For a few years, the theater was closed. Its marquee was dark.
The lifeless brown brick building with its two empty spaces could have been a harbinger of further decline for the town’s economy had someone not resurrected it.
Kerry and Karen Sacry used to go to moves there with friends when they were children. As a married couple, they lived out of state for 15 years before returning to Whitehall. Kerry is now a math teacher at Whitehall High School. Karen teaches preschool. His family’s roots go back a long time in the area. Karen’s family moved there when she was 10 years old.
They used to walk past the darkened building, and they talked about the theater.
“It was kind of sad to see it closed and a broken sign on the front,” Kerry said.
He remembers telling Karen, who enjoys movies, too, that “it’d be neat if that was open again.”
Karen remembers coming to the Star for movies with her parents when she was a little girl.
“Young Frankenstein” is the first movie she recalls seeing with her junior high friends — the first movie she went to without her parents.
She and Kerry went to the Star on a date in 1982. They saw “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
The possibility of reopening the Star became more real as the family talked about it, although not everybody in the family was as excited about giving new life to the empty building as Kerry was. But finally they all agreed. The lights came on again on the marquee.
They managed the theater for about six months to assess the situation before buying it.
The theater’s worn wooden floor groans as you walk up to where the popcorn machine and candy counter are located. On the floor at the top of the stairs leading to the room where parents with crying children can watch the film without disturbing others is a pair of cardboard glasses with red and blue lenses for 3D movies.
There was a second projector when the Sacrys purchased the theater, but they replaced it with a platter that’s used to assemble the six to 10 reels of film into a single reel for showing a movie.
The projector that remains is from 1935, when Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby were leading the box office lineup. It’s actually parts from three projectors that have been assembled to make the one now in use. A sheet-metal chimney remains from where carbon-arc rods once burned to create the illumination for the projector until the technology advanced to using a light bulb.
“I had no idea what I was doing the first time I showed a movie,” Kerry said.
Tickets that used to be $3 for adults and $2 for children remained at that price for a while until going to $4 for everybody.
Studios may take 90 percent of the theater’s revenue during the first week of movie’s release, Karen said. The studio’s revenue is used to help gauge a film’s success for that opening.
Typically, the theater pays a studio between 35 percent and 50 percent of what it makes from a film that’s been out for maybe a month before it reaches the Star, the family said.
Whitehall is a community that loves horses.
“Horse movies do really well here and R-rated movies don’t do really well,” Karen said.
A home football game will win every time no matter what the movie is. But after basketball season, business picks up at the theater as there’s little else to do in town until summer arrives.
“The reason they started Save the Star is we don’t make a profit. We pretty much break even,” Karen said.
When Kerry mentioned to people in town that the theater was in jeopardy because of the expense to purchase digital technology, they told him he can’t let that happen.
The fundraiser is giving the town a feeling of ownership in the theater, which Karen said, is great.
“When it first opened, we would be almost full on nights,” Kerry said.
“I think the town has an identity that they’re proud of the fact that they have a movie theater,” he said.
The theater, say many in town, also gives the children a place to go, and people will go out to dinner before catching a movie.
Maybe it’s the shared experience, Kerry said of what sustains interest in the theater.
“I think there’s enough people in town that recognize the importance of having the business,” said Mulligan.
“We’ve got a lot of community leaders that are willing to put out the effort to keep the community viable,” he continued.
Schools and churches sustain many small towns, but Whitehall is fortunate that it also has a theater, he added.
“I have very fond memories of growing up here and of going to the movies on weekends,” he said. “It’s what you did with your buddies.
“In junior high and high school, it’s what you did for a date.”
Small towns are unique in that everyone really knows everyone else, Mulligan said, explaining “It’s not avoiding eye contact, it’s looking for eye contact.”
Not saying hello to someone is considered rude.
This close-knit fabric of the community is one reason he expects the money will be raised, and the Star will continue to shine on movie nights.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll get it done,” he said.
Key people in town will see that the money is raised or they will donate it themselves, he said.
Harper, too, shares the optimism and said she has no doubts.
“We’ll get it done,” she said.
Once the fundraising effort gets close to reaching its goal, the rest of the donations will come, Kerry said.
Kerry and Karen are already thinking of how it will be with the new technology.
“It will be an exciting change with the new equipment,” Karen said.
“One way or another, we will be digital at some point,” Kerry said.
“The goal is to have this here forever.”